Fresh of their cardiac arrhythmia-inducing squeaker over DePaul, Seton Hall takes on their first ranked team of the season (and a better pace) in Notre Dame.
Here's what you need to know about the Fighting Irish.
#21/19 Notre Dame (12-1)
2011-12 record: 22-12 (13-5 Big East, 3rd Place)
Key loss: Alex Dragicevich
Perhaps no team in the Big East was as dramatically surprising last season as Notre Dame.
They lost leading scorer Tim Abromaitis after just two games due to a knee injury after losing point guard Ben Hansbrough from a season ago, and everyone basically penciled them in for a let-down season.
Not only did that never come, but the Irish were actually BETTER. The knock on Notre Dame for years has been that they are excellent offensively and poor defensively. Well, last season they improved their 'D' in scores (no pun intended), and ended up being the surprise team of the regular season (they fell to Xavier in the first round of the Big Dance). Part of that was that Big East teams just couldn't make a three at all against them (26% in league play), but another part of that was that the Irish rarely put teams on the free throw line.
This season, basically everyone is back. Reserve forward Alex Dragicevich transferred to Boston College, but that hasn't fazed the Irish one bit, nor should it have. In addition to their upset over Kentucky earlier this season, they have been perfect on their home court (10-0).
Returning to once again anchor both ends of the floor is preseason All-Big East first teamer Jack Cooley. Cooley, the Harangody look-alike, is a tank. Aside from Gene Teague, there is no one in the entire conference who can boast his kind of breadth, and he has built on the fantastic year that he had last season. He's averaging 16 PTS and 11 REB per game on 64% shooting from the field and a respectable 66% from the stripe, and the Pirates, who will be very thin in the frontcourt for this game, will have to slow him down to win.
Backing him up this season is Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman, and he's been a capable backup, shooting over 60% himself with a better free throw percentage as a reward despite the lesser overall numbers.
Also contributing in the frontcourt is Scott Martin, who was granted a SIXTH year of eligibility (why can't the Pirates ever have that kind of luck with the NCAA??). Martin does two things well- rebound on defense (6.9 total boards per game, second on the team), and knock down threes (45% this season). Granted those are the only things that stand out, but he is really good at both those things.
The starting backcourt consists of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, both of which might be considered point guards. Both are averaging double figures on very good shooting numbers (over 38% from three as well). Both almost never turn the ball over, and both are playmakers. Grant is averaging more points, while Atkins has more assists, but the only category they really differ in is free throw percentage- Grant's at 70%, while Atkins is struggling a little at 65%. Their dual playmaking skills make things difficult on opposing defenses, especially with the shot clock winding down and a Cooley screen coming behind them.
Backing up the wing positions are Pat Connaughton, who had a decent freshman season last year, and Cam Biedscheid, a 6'7" wing who's having a very solid season so far. Both are good shooters, with Connaughton making 34% of his threes, and Biedscheid clipping along at nearly 40%.
As far as pace goes, Notre Dame slows things to a crawl. USF got all the pub for playing drag-you-through-the-mud ball last year, but it was the Irish who had the conference's slowest pace. The Pirates will appreciate the slower pace as opposed to the breakneck pace of DePaul, but the playmaking of Atkins and Grant, plus Cooley and all the shooters around him, make this a tough matchup anyway.
Seton Hall will win if:
- They chase the Irish off the arc. Notre Dame has always made threes in spades, and this season is no different. As far as wings go, you can't leave anyone outside of Cooley and Sherman alone out there. Normally, if the Pirates had depth, they would be ok, but with more zone in the diet at the moment, it is imperative that out of the matchup zone, Seton Hall gets contests on all the three-point shooters. With a dearth of bigs to deal with Cooley, if the Pirates can't defend the three point line, they'll lose.
- Big Gene plays Cooley to a draw. Remember way back in the day when the Pirates played UConn at the Rock when the Huskies featured Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien to go up against the likes of John Garcia and Robert Mitchell? Well, Garcia came out and had his best game in a Pirate uniform to keep that game close, despite the negative result.
That's how it needs to be today. I have no doubt whatsoever that Cooley will end up getting his. What concerns me is whether Teague will get his. All season long, no one has had the personnel to defend Teague except for Washington with Aziz N'Diaye, a true 7-footer. Notre Dame has someone who can play Teague one-on-one. It will be tougher, since Cooley can also block shots, but they need Teague to fight through and produce inside.
As an aside note, this matchup pits two of the best offensive rebounders in the nation, let alone the Big East, against each other, with Cooley owning the top offensive rebounding percentage, and Teague clocking in at #30. Which brings me to.....
- They clean up the defensive boards. Cooley is a TREMENDOUS offensive rebounder. The best in the country, and the best that Seton Hall will see all year. The last part of successful defense is rebounding, and the Pirates have been doing a good job lately of getting on the glass. They can matchup zone the Irish to death, contest the threes, too. But they cannot let Cooley get them second-shot opportunities all game long. It won't end well.
Notre Dame will win if:
- They have no Christmas Hangover. The Irish haven't played a game since December 21st. Not only that, but it's BCS week, and the football team plays their biggest game in 20 years for the National Championship on Monday. I don't think Mike Brey will let this happen, but if it does, the Pirates have the spurtability to jump out quick.
The Irish rarely ever lose at home, and their team is playing very, very well. The long layoff helps the Pirates' cause, but if they can control the three-point line on defense, clean the glass, and make some shots no matter where they are taken (Teague in the paint, the guards from the arc), they have a shot.