Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Irish Don't Expect a "Pitt"fall Tonight at the JACC

Tonight's matchup against the Pittsburgh Panthers will be the first of three important contests for the Irish's hope of winning the Big East regular season. The Irish have won 17 of their last 20 games and are off to a 19-5 start through 24 contests of the season which also matches the best start by an Irish team under head coach Mike Brey. So there is a lot on the line tonight, both individually and team-wise.

Besides extending the current school record and third longest home court winning streak, Mike Brey is nearing a milestone as well. A victory against the Panthers this evening would give him his fifth 20-win season in eight campaigns along the Irish sidelines as he would become only the second coach in school history to register five 20-win campaigns in his first eight seasons. Digger Phelps was the only other coach to post five 20-win campaigns in the first eight years of his 20-year tenure at Notre Dame.

Pittsburgh head Coach Jamie Dixon is also one win away from another 20-win season. A win vs. Notre Dame would give Pitt its school record seventh consecutive 20-win season. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they'll have to wait another game.

The friendly confines of the JACC will energize the Irish out of their shooting funk, as will the near sellout crowd. Look for Tory Jackson to pick up where he has left off the past couple of games against the Panthers. Currently Jackson owns a season-best, three-game double-figure scoring streak and has netted double figures in eight contests. Over the last seven games, he is averaging 12.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 2.1 steals. His numbers will be vital to help neutralize the three-headed guard lineup of Ronald Ramon (8.0 ppg), Keith Benjamin (9.1 ppg), and Gilbert Brown (6.1 ppg). If Jackson gets hot, the Irish will be able to get easy looks down low to their big men.

Pittsburgh's lack of height will be at a huge disadvantage, as their freshman center, DeJuan Blair (11.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg) is only 6-7. They are 1-5 on the season when they have been outrebounded. That does not bode well for the Panthers whatsoever, even though they have one of the best rebounding margins in the nation. Pitt has not faced a scrappy bunch like the Irish this season!

Watch for Luke Harangody to score at will, while senior Rob Kurz will have back-to-back strong performances. The X-factor for the Irish will be the all around game of Zach Hillesland and the outside shooting of Ryan Ayers. If either one or both score in double figures, the Irish could be positioning itself for a great seed next month in the NCAA Tournament.

Kyle McAlarney could have one of those nights again where anything he shoots goes through the hoop. If Pitt uses a 2-3 zone against the Irish, it could be lights out from behind the arc. But in this series, expect the unexpected. Notre Dame has not really faired well since joining the league against Pittsburgh. But the Panthers really haven't faced a lethal inside-outside combo that the Irish will throw at them.

Prediction: Notre Dame 81 Pitt 74

Baseline Bits

~ For the first time in his career, sophomore guard Tory Jackson was named to the BIG EAST Weekly Honor Roll after averaging 15.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 2-0 steals in Notre Dame’s two contests. In Notre Dame’s loss at Connecticut, he finished with 13 points and matched his career-high in addition to dishing off four assists and making two steals. In the win over Rutgers, he led all scorers with 17 points (a season-high) and dished off 10 assists for his second career double double. He also grabbed eight rebounds and made two steals.

~ The Irish are 2-3 versus ranked opponents this season.

~ Pitt enters the game without a national ranking for the first time in over two years and 43 consecutive polls. Prior to this week, Pitt was ranked in 109 of the last 118 national polls. The Panthers are currently listed in the “Also Receiving Votes” category in both polls.

~ Notre Dame’s 9-3 start in BIG EAST play matches the best start ever by an Irish team in league play. The 2000-01 Irish squad went 9-3 through the first 12 contests en route to winning the BIG EAST West Division title (with an 11-5 record) and were 11-3 (after 14 games) before suffering their fourth loss of the season in the 15th conference game.

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