Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Preview of Wildcats @ Notre Dame, Saturday, January 27, 4 PM, ESPN2

by Craig Dimitri

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Series History

The series dates back to 1970, and Saturday's game marks the 29th meeting between the schools. Notre Dame is one of just three Big East teams that the Wildcats will face twice this season, under the new format. Villanova triumphed on January 17 at the Pavilion, only the second time Notre Dame had ever visited the on-campus venue (all but one of its previous appearances had been at the Palestra or the Wachovia Center). The other Pavilion meeting came on January 2, 1996, with Villanova winning easily, 76-57.

The Wildcats lead all-time, 16-12, and have also dominated the series since the Fighting Irish joined the Big East at the start of the 1995-96 season - the Wildcats have won 10 of the last 12 clashes.

The First Game - Wednesday, January 17 - Villanova 102, Notre Dame 87

Here are some noteworthy facts from that game. It is rare to play teams twice in one season nowadays, so it's worth examining in some detail.

Villanova had tremendous shooting accuracy in the first half, racking up 50 points and shooting a torrid 58% from the floor - the first time the Wildcats had shot over 50% in the first half, since doing it against Temple back in December. This permitted them to build a 50-40 halftime lead, which they did not relinquish.

Sophomore Dante Cunningham had a career-high 19 points, on 7-11 shooting and 5-7 from the foul line. Obviously, ND did not view him as a significant offensive threat, and will not make the same mistake. In addition, with Sumpter injured and his minutes reduced accordingly, Cunningham will receive even more attention from the ND defense.

The 102 points represented a VU record for a Big East game at the Pavilion, surpassing the previous high of 98, which the Kerry Kittles/Jason Lawson/Alvin Williams era team scored against Seton Hall in December 1994. The offensive explosion was even more surprising given that in the first four Big East games this year (three of them losses), the Wildcats had not scored more than 65 points in any of them, averaging just 60.3 pts/game. And they got 50 against Notre Dame (a ranked team, no less, and one that was red-hot coming into the game) in one half.

It was a veritable offensive explosion by the Wildcats: Scottie Reynolds had 27 points, Curtis Sumpter 21, Mike Nardi 18, in addition to Cunninghams' 19 points. However, Notre Dame had some fine offensive performances as well: Russell Carter had 26 points (including half a dozen triples), Colin Falls had 17 points, including five three-pointers, and freshman star Luke Harangody added 13.

2006-2007 season: 4-3 Big East, 16-4 overall.

Notre Dame sprinted to an outstanding start this season, winning 13 of its first 14 contests and leaping into the national rankings. The dozen-game winning streak was the first time ND had won 12 in a row, since the 1973-74 team did it twice. On December 11, the Irish reached the AP poll at #21, after being unranked throughout the 2005-06 season.

However, they have struggled somewhat since Big East play began. Of the 13-1 start, only the 13th win, vs. Louisville, was in conference play. After defeating the Cardinals, they have lost all three BE road games (@ Georgetown, @ Villanova, @ St. John's), while beating West Virginia and Seton Hall in South Bend.

Notre Dame Rotation

Tory Jackson
Russell Carter
Rob Kurz
Colin Falls
Luke Zeller
Luke Harangody

The Viewpoint From Behind Enemy Lines

Thanks to Matt L., the publisher of Black and Green Irish Men's Basketball Report (Notre Dame) for the following insights, from someone who blogs Notre Dame and really knows the team - his report is in italics:

1. How will the Irish start out?
In our three road losses, Notre Dame has fallen behind early and been unable to bounce back. At home, the start is usually the same, but it has been easier for them to recover. If ND can avoid falling behind big early, we have a good chance at winning.

2. Will Colin Falls make his first shot?
Senior shooting guard Colin Falls is the streakiest shooter I have ever seen. If he makes his first shot, he should go 6-7 or 7-8 from three point range. If he misses, he probably won't score more than 4 or 5 points. Notre Dame needs him to step up and be a consistent threat next to Russell Carter.

3. How will ND's bigs play?
Rob Kurz is a very reliable post player. He should be good for eight or nine rebounds and ten points. If he can open up the inside, our perimeter guys will be able to score more. Luke Harangody is a very talented freshman post. If he stays out of foul trouble and plays to his tremendous potential, the Irish have one of the best one-two punches in the Big East.

4. How will Tory Jackson handle the pressure?
Freshman point Jackson, McAlarney's replacement, is very, very talented, but has been known to make a lot of mistakes. If he can handle the ball well and make smart passes, the offense shouldn't miss a beat.
Notre Dame This Season

The biggest story has been the meteoric rise and demise of sophomore point guard Kyle McAlarney. He was a key starter during ND's nonconference success, playing superbly while starting in the first dozen contests - but he has subsequently been expelled from Notre Dame, never playing a minute in BE play this season. His ND career came to an abrupt end - the reason being, according to the Associated Press report on December 30, that McAlarney had been suspended, after being arrested on charges of possessing marijuana (ironically, immediately after scoring a career-high 21 points, in ND's 50-point blowout victory over Rider). On January 23, the AP reported that he had been told by Notre Dame, that he would not play during this semester. Finally, on Monday, January 22, prior to the team's departure to New York City to face St. John's, it was announced that McAlarney's days in blue and gold were over.

ND was 11-1 with McAlarney, and now 5-3 without him, although their struggles are probably due to the higher caliber of opponents in the conference, than the absence of McAlarney from the rotation. McAlarney's backup, Tory Jackson, has played well, since taking over the point guard duties.

ND has a deep bench, with eight players (excluding McAlarney) averaging at least 10 minutes a contest - and no player averaging more than 32.2 minutes/game. Moreover, five players are averaging double figures in points/game, a sign of unselfish play.

The biggest gun is Carter, an outstanding multidimensional player. He leads the team in scoring (18.7 points per game), three-point field goals (59), and steals (40), while also collecting 4.6 rebounds/contest. He is accurate from both beyond the arc and at the foul line, averaging 45% and 74%, respectively.

On the inside, ND's strength is junior Rob Kurz, who leads the squad with 8.8 rebounds/game and 35 blocked shots. He is also a threat from three-point range, averaging 42%. Kurz is from the Philadelphia region; he is from Lower Gwynedd Township, Montgomery County, and attended Penn Charter.

Harangody, a freshman, has been outstanding, garnering Big East rookie-of-the-week honors three times already, including two of the last three weeks. In ND's two home wins against Seton Hall and West Virignia last week, he averaged 11.5 points and 5 rebounds, thus warranting the recognition.

This season, Notre Dame has been invincible at the Joyce Center, having defeated all 13 opponents who have travelled there.

Villanova Update

The Wildcats fly into South Bend with a lot of momentum, having won three straight. After initially struggling in Big East play, losing three of their first four contests, they have now evened their conference mark at 3-3. Overall, the Wildcats are now 14-5, and well-positioned for another trip to the NCAA tournament.

The key question will be the availability of Curtis Sumpter, who did not play at all against Texas on Saturday, and played just sparingly against Providence on Tuesday night. The fifth-year senior is suffering from a deep bone bruise in his left tibia, and his availability is still questionable. But freshman point guard Scottie Reynolds has been awesome of late, and his emergence as an additional offensive weapon has compensated for Sumpter's injury.

I'll have a full recap after the game.

Questions? Comments? Information? You can contact Craig Dimitri at

No comments: