UPDATING THE IRISH
Notre Dame has won three off five since losing 79-69 in Morgantown on Feb. 18. But the Irish haven't beaten anybody of note, as losses to Connecticut and Villanova were topped by a defeat by St. John's. The wins were against Providence and Rutgers – which still gives the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee little to embrace. Simply put, the Irish must have a run in the Big East postseason continuing tonight with a win over WVU. Forward Luke Harangody (6-8, 225 lbs.) continues to pace his team, but made just three of 17 shots against Rutgers and never appeared settled. He scored seven points and had two turnovers in 24 minutes, but did manage 11 rebounds. He will still key the attack, though don't look for head coach Mike Brey to fall into continually feeding him as he did in the middle portions of the first game at West Virginia, which greatly helped the Mountaineers. Instead of having to spread the floor and cover all five foes, WVU could simply clamp down and force the ball away from the paint when Harangody caught it. Fellow starting forward Zach Hillesland (6-9, 228 lbs.) hit for six points in the opening round win over the Knights. He isn't a major threat from the outside, and he fouled out after tallying just two points in Morgantown, but his size could create problems.
Guard Kyle McAlarney (6-0, 195 lbs.) did manage to hurt the Mountaineers in the first game despite an off shooting night from deep (two for eight). The senior scored 12 points with five assists (and four turnovers). He wasn't a factor on the boards, though, and though he went for 11 points in the Garden yesterday, his overall play hasn't been there lately, though the potential breakout still is; He's a must-guard from anywhere. Tory Jackson (5-11, 193 lbs.) appears to be on pace, and his 12 points and four assists made for the best line of the game against RU. He's steady and heady, and he won't make costly mistakes. Look for a better game from him this time out than last time against Truck Bryant. The junior should be able to handle the pressure, where Bryant could struggle in what is another homecoming. Brey's third guard in the lineup, Ryan Ayers (6-7, 210 lbs.), went for 10 points and seven rebounds in a workmanlike effort in the postseason opener. He'll log significant minutes tonight, and is an underrated player who must be guarded all over by WVU. He can get hot, and his height allows him to shoot over foes as needed. This is an opponent who won't burn you, but can create a slow smolder that allows others to get hot.
Brey continued to shorten the bench, as he knows he must play his best at this point to advance anywhere. Combo player Tyrone Nash (6-8, 228 lbs.) was the lone sub to play any more than 14 minutes (he logged 21), and he had nine points and four rebounds. The Queens native is having a homecoming of sorts, and though he is a sophomore, this is his first major time in a significant tourney there since signing with the Irish. With one game played already, though, he'll likely handle it well. Guard Jonathan Peoples (6-3, 215 lbs.) and center Luke Zeller (6-11, 245 lbs.) combined for six points and three rebounds versus Rutgers. Ironically, the six points were by Zeller and the three rebounds went to Peoples. Zeller is a match-up issue, though he played only five minutes against the Mountaineers in the first tilt. Peoples, though, scored eight points and had a pair of rebounds in a very efficient 13 minutes. He could see added time this round. This might be the least intimidating Notre Dame bench in awhile, though, and it won't be able to run waves of players at West Virginia. The focus should be on Harangody and McAlarney.
This could be a huge game in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding for the Mountaineers. Notre Dame, too, is looking to slip past WVU and get a shot at an upset win over second-seeded Pitt that could place them back on the bubble with building momentum. West Virginia needs to keep Harangody off the boards and away from the basket. He prefers to catch the ball outside the paint as well as in, and his ability to body up from there or pass – as he did in the first few minutes of the initial meeting as the Irish opened a sizeable lead – enables teammates top get involved. Collapsing on him immediately is paramount, as is guarding the three-point line and cutting off some lanes. Easier written than done, obviously.
|Wed. March. 11
7 p.m. EST
Madison Square Garden
WVU 21-10, 10-8
Notre Dame 17-13, 8-10
Notre Dame 24-9
WVU - 26
Notre Dame - 73
A second problem, too, is that it's unlikely the Irish will be as frazzled by West Virginia's 1-3-1 defense as they were the last time. It won't be a surprise, and head coach Mike Brey will certainly spend some time breaking it down in a more thorough manner. This one could come down to which team can exert its will upon the other. As was noted in other postseason play, a defense travels. Shooting might abandon a team, but hustle, defensive intensity, physical play and effort and rebounding should be night-in and –out abilities because they're based only upon desire. Therein likes the key. Shut down the perimeter and play solid defense all over and this should be a Mountaineer win. WVU need not shoot excellently, nor even rely upon Da'Sean Butler or Alex Ruoff. Younger players have proven the ability to carry the team for stretches. But it will need Devin Ebanks inside, as well as some others to rebound and play tough. There's no way Notre Dame gets in if it loses – which means it will put everything into this game. There might not be any way WVU earns better than an eight or nine seed without a victory (as it is likely to fall to Pitt simply because it's the worst second-round match-up available), so this is for more than mere advancement at this point. It could set the stage for another solid run, or a one or two and done.
WVU: Joe Mazzulla, out (shoulder – will miss rest of season).
Notre Dame: None.
West Virginia defeated Notre Dame for just the second time in 14 meetings earlier this season. The Mountaineers will look to win two in a row in the series for the first time since 1996-97.
* * *
WVU is 25-40 all-time at Madison Square Garden. It has won 10 of its last 15 in the ‘World's Most Famous Arena.' It has won six of its last 10 Big East Tournament games. Two recent wins came in the Mountaineers' NIT title two years ago.
* * *
Head coach Bob Huggins is 33-11 in conference tournaments, including nine titles in three leagues. Huggins is tied for 25th place on the NCAA Division I men's basketball wins list.
* * *
Alex Ruoff remains tied with Kevin Pittsnogle on the all-time WVU three-point list with 253. He was tied entering the home finale' but was held scoreless. Ruoff was named a First Team Academic All-American.
* * *
Devin Ebanks will try for his 10th consecutive game in double figures.
* * *
The Mountaineers are trying for their first conference postseason championship since 1983-84. They have advanced to the Big East Tournament semifinals twice, including last season. WVU played against Syracuse in the 2005 final.