Man, this is the second to last preview I'll have to do. The season is winding down (sniff), but there's still a lot of Pirate action to be described. Tomorrow, they face Notre Dame.
2010-11 record: 22-5 (11-4 Big East)
2009-10 record: 23-12 (10-8 Big East)
First, let me preface this by stating that Mike Brey should be the Big East Co-Coach of the Year along with Rick Pitino. That's how good of a job he's done with a roster that lost its leading scorer, starting point guard, and a valuable bench player from last season.
The reason Brey is in this position? His name is Ben Hansbrough. Before the season, I argued that the biggest subtraction from the Irish would be Jackson because it left Notre Dame without a proven point guard.
Well, Hansbrough has stepped up in a huge way and become that point guard, augmented by freshman Eric Atkins. Hansbrough has been so good that he's on the short list for Big East Player of the Year, averaging about 18 PTS, 4 REB and 4 AST on great shooting percentages. Eniel Polynice will most likely be the primary defender on Hansbrough because he outsizes Jordan Theodore and can definitely use that to his advantage if put in that position.
Last year's emerging force, Tim Abromaitis, isn't scoring as much as he was last year, but is still a dangerous threat with the ball in his hands behind the arc, as he can either stroke it with the best of them, or drive past you if you play him too tight.
Down low, the Irish have mainstays Carleton Scott and Tyrone Nash, both of whom are more athletic-type bigs who can do multiple things on the court. Scott in particular is playing very well this year, and when he was out with an injury, Notre Dame was a decidedly different team. He is leading the Irish in rebounding and blocked shots, although the Irish don't block a ton of shots anyway.
Rounding out the rotation are Scott Martin and Atkins. Martin was a transfer from Purdue that was supposed to play last year, but he tore his ACL. Martin is that glue guy for the Irish, as he doesn't shoot it overly well, but does a little of everything and is a pretty good defender. Atkins is averaging almost as many assists as Hansbrough playing about 27 minutes per game. Atkins is a quick point guard who really knows how to play the game.
The thing that strikes you about Notre Dame immediately when you either watch them play live or just glance at the stats is the fact that they play very well as a team (like Marquette, but this year, even more so). Four players average 5 or more rebounds. SIX players have 46 or more assists this year, with three players totaling 73 or more. They look for each other on offense and rebound well as a team. That could pose problems for the Pirates, as it did last weekend in Milwaukee. Not to mention the Irish are nearly unbeatable at home.
PIRATES WILL WIN IF:
- They hold their own on the boards. We saw how much trouble a team that rebounds as a team can give Seton Hall as the Pirates were waxed on the boards by Marquette. The Pirates actually match up pretty well with Notre Dame, so you could see more man-to-man than usual tonight because it will make rebounding easier and defending the perimeter easier, where the Irish shoot it so well.
- Herb Pope stays out of foul trouble. I mentioned that the Pirates match up pretty well with the Irish? Well, that's with Pope on the floor. He has the mobility to stay with the ND bigs on defense. Patrik Auda does not. Herb has to stay on the court. Period. The Pirates become a markedly different team without him, and not in the good sense.
- They defend the perimeter. Notre Dame shoots it great from deep, with Hansbrough and Abromaitis making threes at over 40%. Scott, Martin, and Atkins are no slouches either.
IRISH WILL WIN IF:
- They bottle up Hazell. Notre Dame has had trouble with Hazell in the past, and after getting torched for a Big East-record 52 points by Marshon Brooks in their last game, you can bet Hazell will be on their minds.
- Scott Martin makes shots. Martin is the worst shooter among the Irish regulars, so much like Davante Gardner and Chris Otule in the Marquette game, if he steps up his production, it will make it easier for the Irish.
- They ride the home crowd. Notre Dame is an excellent home team. Likewise, they are not the best road team because a lot of their offense relies on making jump shots. This is easier at home. Momentum is a powerful thing, and if the Irish can make shots early, it could be curtains for the Pirates.
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