Update on Big East Tournament Seeding
With two games left in conference play, Georgetown still has a long way to go to lock up a double bye. The Hoyas sit in a tie for fourth with surging South Florida, while Cincy and Louisville are only a game behind. Georgetown can finish no higher than second and no lower than sixth. Two wins this week (against ND and Marquette) would give the Hoyas the 2 seed or the 3 seed (depending on whether Marquette loses at Cincy).
Marquette (13-3) - at Cincy, v. Georgetown
Notre Dame (12-4) - at Georgetown, v. Providence
Georgetown (11-5) - Notre Dame, at Marquette
South Florida (11-5) - at Louisville, v. West Virginia
Louisville (10-6) - v. South Florida, at Syracuse
Cincinnati - v. Marquette, at Villanova
Preview of Tonight's Game:
It's been a bit of a roller coaster season for the Irish thus far. Projected to finish in the middle of the pack, a season-ending injury to Tim Abromaitis dampened their hopes of another solid year. Losses to Georgia, Maryland and Gonzaga, in addition to a 29-point thumping against Missouri, seemed to indicate that this season would be a rebuilding year. And then, out of nowhere, Notre Dame won at Louisville, gained some momentum, and then reeled off nine wins in a row, including surprising victories over Syracuse, Marquette and West Virginia (twice). Now, with an NCAA berth wrapped up, the Irish are seeking a double bye and an improved seed. And Mike Brey is writing his acceptance speech for a fourth Big East Coach of the Year award.
Quick Aside - The Race for Big East Coach of the Year
In the JTIII era, here's a list of recipients of the Big East Coach of the Year award:
2004 - Jamie Dixon
2005 - Al Skinner
2006 - Jay Wright
2007 - Mike Brey
2008 - Mike Brey
2009 - Jay Wright
2010 - Jim Boeheim
2011 - Mike Brey
Right now, I think it's fair to say that we have a three dog race this season - Brey, Boeheim and JTIII. (Although Stan Heath is making a late charge down the stretch.) The favorite is probably Brey, and maybe deservedly so. But how is it possible that Brey is on the verge of winning his fourth award in six years? That seems outrageous. Some people think he's an excellent coach. I think he's overrated. A Hoyas win tonight could tip the scales in JTIII's favor. Over the last few seasons, Georgetown has finished worse than expected in conference play. This season, we're clearly exceeding expectations. It's time to give some love to JTIII. Beating Brey will certainly help his case.
Quick Overview of the Irish
Notre Dame has one of the shortest benches in the conference and typically uses only seven players per game. But the guys who play are smart with the basketball, rarely commit turnovers, and aren't afraid to shoot from the perimeter. Brey gets a lot of credit for his "slow burn" offense, but it's not like he pioneered a revolutionary strategy or anything. Notre Dame still uses a lot of pick and rolls and loves going inside-out, usually with Cooley or Martin. The Irish don't jack up threes in the first five seconds of the shot clock (which they used to do); instead, they are more patient and methodical, and use a nice combination of Cooley in the paint and anyone else on the perimeter.
The Irish are third in the country in turnovers per game (9.8) and sixth in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.495). And while they take a lot of threes (20+ per game; five players have attempted over 100 three-pointers on the season), they're not a particularly good three-point shooting team (33.2%, good for 220th in the country).
Notre Dame stumbled in its last outing, a three-point loss to St. John's. The Irish only connected on 4 of 31 three-point attempts (Connaughton only made 1 of 9). It's unlikely that they will shoot that poorly for a second straight game.
Who to Watch on Notre Dame
The beauty of this year's Notre Dame team is that they don't have a single best player. Much like Georgetown, the Irish almost always have four or five guys on the floor who are a threat to score. Let's start with the guards: 6'5'' sophomore Jerian Grant (12.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.9 apg) and 6'1'' sophomore Eric Atkins (12.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.0 apg). Both guys are ball handlers who are good passers and aren't afraid to penetrate. Both guys, when left open, can knock down shots. Both guys are good at drawing contact and getting to the foul line. Grant is a slightly better defender. Atkins is a better perimeter shooter. Notre Dame is so tough because, with Grant and Atkins, the Irish always have two point guards on the floor.
Anchoring the paint for Notre Dame are two veterans: 6'8'' senior Scott Martin (9.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and 6'9'' junior Jack Cooley (12.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg). Martin is a savvy player who defends and rebounds very well. He still shoots too many perimeter shots, though, and he often struggles from long range (24.8%).
Cooley is a banger. A poor man's Gody, Cooley has developed a reliable back-to-the-basket game, and he's very dangerous on the offensive glass (4 per game -- #7 in the country). He also shoots a ridiculous 62.8% from the field. The key to his success this season? He went cold turkey on video games: http://espn.go.com/blog/collegebasketballnation/post/_/id/49451/jack-cooleys-secret-no-more-video-games. Despite these numbers, and the increasing likelihood that he will be a first team All-Big East player, Cooley always looks like he is going to cry.
The guy we will hate for the next few years is 6'5'' freshman Pat Connaughton (7.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg). He's the next Chris Quinn or Colin Falls in waiting. He's a pimple-faced white guy who shoots threes. He might score 20 against us tonight.
Notre Dame's best role player is 6'7'' sophomore Alex Dragicevich (7.0 ppg). Dragicevich plays solid defense and rebounds fairly well. Against Georgetown, he'll probably play 20+ minutes.
Keys to the Game:
1. Perimeter Defense: We all know Notre Dame likes to shoot threes. It's their modus operandi. The Hoyas' perimeter defense has been solid all season, but tonight's game will be a real test. With the exception of Cooley, every Irish player on the court won't hesitate to shoot an open three. Our guys need to communicate and close out on shooters. We can't let ND beat us from deep.
2. The Rule of 64: When limiting opponents to under 64 points, the Hoyas are undefeated. Georgetown and Notre Dame would both prefer a slower, more methodical game, so I'd be surprised if either team scores more than 55+ points. Doesn't necessarily mean that we will win, but just something to consider.
3. Get the Ball Inside: Notre Dame doesn't have a lot of interior depth, which means that Atkins, Grant and Connaughton often have to help out on the glass. With Henry and Otto down low, we should try to exploit our size advantage in the paint, rather than settling for perimeter shots. If Cooley or Martin gets into foul trouble early, we'll have a huge advantage in this game.
4. Defensive Rebounding: Cooley's field goal percentage is so high because he pulls down a ton of offensive boards. Henry, Nate and Otto need to keep him in check and limit second chance points. Keep Cooley away from the basket and Georgetown should have a leg up.
5. Jason and Henry: Hard to believe, but this is the last time we'll get a chance to see Jason and Henry play at the Verizon Center. Henry started his career as a skinny kid whose reputation coming out of high school was as a rebounder and shot blocker. He will leave Georgetown as one of the best passing big men in the country and will likely have a chance to play professionally. He's a shining example of hard work paying off. Jason came to the Hilltop as a key contributor from Day One. As a freshman, he struggled to bring the ball up the court and frequently got rattled by tough Big East competition. Two days ago, he was our starting point guard and finished with a season-low one turnover, never getting fazed against a team known for its pressure defense. With the examples set by Jason and Henry, it's not surprising why our freshmen are performing so well this season. When the young guys look at the seniors, they see two guys who work hard, always come ready to play and compete at the highest levels. Jason and Henry are the leaders of a team that wasn't supposed to finish in the top ten of the Big East, let alone the top ten in the country. On Monday night, here's hoping they go out on top.
Why This Game Matters
For some of us, the Notre Dame game means just as much as the Syracuse game each year. We hate the Irish. We sat through four overtimes of pain in 2002; we saw Matt Carroll go off for 36 points in a double overtime loss in 2003 and then watched Chris Thomas score 29 points in the BET that same year; we yelled when Chris Quinn hit four threes against us in 2005; we scowled as Colin Falls' leg kick led to a game-tying four-point play in 2006; we threw our hands up when Kyle McAlarney hit five threes in 2009; we cringed when Harangody killed us in 2010; and we screamed when Hansbrough and Abromaitis beat us in 2011. If that's not bad enough, don't forget that Doug Gottlieb started his career at Notre Dame. And also, Mike Brey. [Insert obligatory comment about his attire, his Duke connection, his Cheshire cat grin, or his undeserved awards here.] Bottom line: we hate this team.
Rivalry aside, this is a huge game. A loss tonight would mean that Georgetown cannot finish higher than fourth in the conference. A loss tonight would also move us farther away from that much-coveted 3 seed in the NCAA Tourney. And finally, a loss tonight would likely give Mike Brey his fourth award in six years.
This game matters for lots of reasons. But the most important reason? Our seniors. Let's go out there and win one for Jason and Henry. They deserve it, we deserve it, and America deserves it. Let's go and get it.
Let's go Hoyas. Beat Notre Dame.