To the Wildcat faithful-
Note: If you're looking for yesterday's game story, covering Saturday's 81-71 victory over St. John's, just click on the preceding link in this sentence.
Here's a comprehensive preview of the #4 Wildcats' upcoming contest, with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, on Wednesday, January 27, at 7 PM, on ESPN...
Naturally, the first place to look, is to examine what happened in last year's game at the Joyce Center, which I titled, "23 Points From Reynolds Power #11 Villanova Past Host Notre Dame, in Second Half, 77-60"... here are two quotes from it, the full link is in the preceding sentence...
On Monday, March 2, #11 Villanova rebounded from its disappointing home loss to Georgetown by winning a significant game on the road at Notre Dame. The Wildcats entered the locker room at halftime, deadlocked with the Fighting Irish at 32 apiece, but took control in the second half to win by a surprisingly resounding margin, 77-60...
Six of the eight Wildcats in the rotation had above-average performances. Scottie Reynolds broke out of his recent skid in a major way, with one of his best games of the season. Reynolds dropped 23 points, on an outstanding 6-7 from beyond the arc- and 8-12 shooting overall. And he wasn't just shooting the lights out. He augmented his box score line with half a dozen rebounds, two steals, and five assists - while committing just one turnover and playing all but one minute. The fantastic overall game from Reynolds bodes well for the Wildcats' fortunes later this month, in the NCAA tournament.
Notre Dame: School, Coach, and Program
It's hard to believe, that it's been 10 years (!) since Mike Brey took over the reins, after Matt Doherty's single season. (After Doherty's disastrous reign in Chapel Hill, Notre Dame fans must be even more grateful that he wasn't in South Bend, any longer.) There is the further irony, as well, that Notre Dame went from having a Carolina product as coach one year, to having a Duke product the next, which is likely unprecedented in the annals of college basketball.
Very much unlike Notre Dame football, the Golden Domers on the hardwood are in the midst of a renaissance. Brey was named Big East Coach of the Year in both 2007 and 2008 (our man Jay Wright brought it to the Main Line, last season).
Over his decade in South Bend, Brey has gotten the Irish to five NCAA tournaments - 2001, 2002, 2003, a three-year post-season hiatus, and then back in both 2007 and 2008. He also has had enormous success in his pair of NIT bids, reaching Madison Square Garden on both occasions. In 2000, Notre Dame went all the way to the final; in 2009, to the tournament semifinals. (Interestingly, those two appearances were only the fourth and fifth NIT appearances in school history. Prior to 2000, they hadn't gone since 1992.) So Brey has, in ten seasons:
- Five NCAA bids, and a 5-5 record in NCAA play
- A Sweet 16 in 2003, and first-round victories in every appearance but 2007
- Two NIT bids, both involving deep runs...
- Seven postseason appearances in 10 years, despite playing in football's long shadow.
Although the sundry fiascoes of the later Charlie Weis era, have meant that basketball received more attention than it otherwise would have, among the Notre Dame faithful, it is axiomatic that basketball will always be subordinated to football and the lingering memories of Knute Rockne and his sideline successors (which have been a wildly divergent lot, both in results and reputation, as Weis has demonstrated.) And despite that eternal shadow of the Four Horsemen, from nearly a century ago, Brey has done reasonably well, during his decade in South Bend.
That having been said, the 2008-09 Golden Domers fell well short of expectations, last season. Notre Dame found itself in the unaccustomed position, of being in the Top 10 in both preseason polls - #9 in both the USA Today/ESPN poll (its highest ever pre-season slot) and in the AP poll (its highest pre-season ranking in nearly 30 years, since the 1980-81, when Digger Phelps was at the helm).
Other Big East coaches feared Notre Dame, as well - in the most arduous conference in the nation, Notre Dame finished fourth in the coaches' preseason poll. Luke Harangody, the reigning Big East Player of the Year, opted to return, and although he was not the sole reason for the lofty poll rankings, he was the most important piece, certainly.
So at minimum, Notre Dame was expected to reach the NCAA tournament, for the third straight year. And it would be even better if it could return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003, and perhaps further. But unfortunately for Brey, Harangody, and the Irish, it didn't work out that way.
Moreover, the basketball gods tantalized the Irish and their fans with that high NCAA seeding and deep tournament run. Up until January 12, 2009, Notre Dame's trajectory was going pretty much as expected. How so?
In nonconference play, Notre Dame racked up a 9-2 record. Granted, several victories were over cupcake, non-Division I opponents, but not all of them. At Thanksgiving 2008, #8 Notre Dame (with tons of alumni in tow, no doubt) traveled to the Maui Invitational, where they crushed Indiana, edged #6 Texas by a single point, and lost in the title game to #1 North Carolina (the eventual national champions, as we Villanovans know all too painfully).
The only other loss, heading into the Big East trenches, was a neutral court loss to Ohio State. It dropped the Notre Dame ranking from #7 to #12, but there was no cause for alarm, certainly.
And so the Irish entered Big East play on New Year's Eve, 2008-09, sporting a 9-2 record and a #7 ranking nationally. Everything continued as normal, for the first 11 days. Notre Dame won three of its first four games (a victory @ DePaul, a loss @ St. John's, and home victories over #10 Georgetown and Seton Hall). Their record as of January 10, 2009 - 12-3 overall, 3-1 Big East, ranked #13 nationally.
However, they had now arrived at the most harrowing part of the schedule - five consecutive games against ranked Big East opponents. Of course, they could expect some losses, especially on the road. But it wasn't like they hadn't beaten ranked opponents yet (they already had Texas and Georgetown as victories). However, the Irish went into complete free fall.
Over the next three weeks, they lost all five of those games - @ #20 Louisville, @ #8 Syracuse, #3 Connecticut and #8 Marquette at home, and @ #3 Pittsburgh. They had gone from 12-3 overall, 3-1 Big East, #9 nationally, to 12-8, 3-6 Big East, and unranked.
More problems ensued - they lost @ unranked Cincinnati, and traveled to LA to face #15 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion - and lost. Seven consecutive defeats left them 12-10 overall, 3-7 Big East, and now in serious jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament completely, as of February 7, 2009.
To their inestimable credit, Brey and Notre Dame managed to right the ship. The Top 10 team from the first half of the season returned to the court at the Joyce Center, on February 12, for a rematch with #5 Louisville. The Irish avenged their earlier defeat by leveling Louisville, 90-57, in what must have been a huge morale boost. Notre Dame then won three of the next four, with the only loss coming @ West Virginia - a notoriously difficult place to play - on February 18, by the respectable score of 79-68. (Our Wildcats had been humbled by the Mountaineers five days earlier, on Friday the 13th, giving up 93 points in an embarrassing 21-point loss. That night, it certainly didn't seem like we'd be heading to the Final Four, after giving up 43 points to Da'Shaun Butler.)
So, as March approached, Notre Dame's record stood at 16-11 overall, 7-8 Big East, with @ #2 Connecticut, and home games against #11 Villanova and St. John's remaining. In other words, the Irish were squarely on the bubble. It would vitally help with the Selection Committee, if the Irish could beat either of those ranked teams, not only for another good win, but to make it to at least 9-9 in conference play (a major factor for a bubble team).
Notre Dame played well in Storrs on CBS, but couldn't pull off the upset, falling 72-65. They then faced our Wildcats on March 2 - and Villanova crushed them, 77-60. The Irish had no trouble with St. John's in the finale, but at 17-13 overall, 8-10 Big East, Notre Dame was going to need a major run in the Big East tournament to get a NCAA bid. And they didn't make one. They got past Rutgers in the opening round, but lost once more to West Virginia in the quarterfinals, and that loss torpedoed any hope of an at-large bid.
Notre Dame put together a nice run in the NIT, winning three home games against UAB, New Mexico, and Kentucky. The run ended against Penn State (the eventual champion) in the national semifinals.
Notre Dame - 2009-10 Season
Unlike last season, Notre Dame did not have to carry similar expectations into this season. In the conference poll, the Irish were 8th, as opposed to 4th, and were not ranked in the pre-season national polls.
Notre Dame racked up a lot of wins against weak opponents to start the year, as they won nine of their first ten contests. After their four initial victories, they reached the AP poll at #23; they reached the final of the Chicago Invitational Challenge, but were upset by host Northwestern in the final, their first loss. After starting 9-1, they were upset by Loyola Marymount, at home, but rebounded to defeat UCLA.
They finished nonconference play with a win over Jay Wright's alma mater, Bucknell, in which they cleared the century mark, 101-69, on December 22. Their record - 11-2 overall, heading into Big East play.
Since Big East play started, it's been a mixed bag for the Irish. They opened with a home win over Providence, but fell @ #10 Connecticut. They won by a single point @ South Florida, but lost narrowly @ Cincinnati (the Bearcats perhaps being motivated to avenge the loss of its football coach, Brian Kelly, who has succeeded the fired Weis at Notre Dame). (Note: An anonymous Notre Dame accurately noted in a comment below, that in the original post, I had somehow omitted Notre Dame's signature win this season - their impressive triumph over then-#8 West Virginia, 70-68, on January 9 at the Joyce Center. I regret the omission.) Finally, the Irish had no luck against #5 Syracuse at home, falling by 13.
So the Irish enter the game against Villanova with a record of 15-5, 4-3, after they beat pitiful DePaul on Saturday. Their RPI is only 67, despite that strong record, because of the high-calorie cupcake victories in calendar 2009. Nine of their victories were over North Florida, the Red Flash of St. Francis (PA), Long Beach State, Liberty, Kennesaw State, Idaho State, Central Florida, IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis), and Loyola Marymount. They also have a road win @ St. Louis.
Notre Dame does not have a deep bench; Brey generally uses only seven players in his rotation.
Of course, Harangody more than makes up for that. Averaging 24 points and 10 rebounds a game, he is arguably the finest player in the game today, and Villanova will need to contain him.
Ben Hansbrough (11.6 pts, 3.4 rebs, 5.2 assts) and Tory Jackson (7.9 pts, 2.8 rebs, 5.8 assts) are the starting backcourt; Hansbrough is deadly from three-point range, at 44%; Jackson, less so, at 32%.
Forward Tim Abromaitis moved into the starting lineup for the first time on December 6, against Central Florida; he has now started 12 consecutive games. He averages 16.7 points, 4.4 rebounds per contest, and is an incredibly accurate shooter: 49.6% from three-point range and 86.4% from the line.
Tyrone Nash rounds out the starting lineup, with 7.6 points, 5.4 rebounds per contest.
Off the bench, we'll see Jonathan Peoples and Carleton Scott. Peoples had started the first eight contests before being replaced by Abromaitis - he averages 4.7 points, 2.2 rebounds; Scott 3.6 points, 3.8 rebounds. Scott took a brief leave of absence, by mutual consent with Brey, to evaluate whether he wanted to fully commit himself to the program; Scott apparently decided that he did, and so he's back.
The Wildcats are poised to jump up to #3 in the polls after top-ranked Texas lost @ #21 Connecticut in double-digits on Saturday. They are now 18-1 - which matches the best start in school history - and have a lofty RPI of 4, nationally. The 7-0 Big East start is the best in school history, besting the 6-0 marks set by the 1982 and 1983 teams under Rollie Massimino - just before the magical national championship in 1985.
Comments, reactions, feedback, is always welcome, particularly from Notre Dame fans, as I learn a great deal from the fans of our opponents.