Is this the year Notre Dame and Mike Brey finally get over the hump? Despite enjoying consistent regular season success over the majority of Brey’s 15 years in South Bend, the Fighting Irish haven’t even made it to the Sweet 16 since Brey’s third year–2003, to be exact. There is precedence–just last year another sweet-shooting, slow-paced team broke an eight-year Elite Eight drought–have you heard of the Wisconsin Badgers? When the No. 12 Irish (24-5, 12-4 ACC) travel to Louisville (23-6, 11-5 ACC) Wednesday to take on Rick Pitino’s No. 16 Cardinals, they’ll do so with the goal of making an extended tournament run a little easier on themselves. Notre Dame has already secured a double-bye in the ACC tournament, but a road win over a formidable Louisville team would certainly add to the narrative that this is an Irish team to be reckoned with come March–whereas a loss to a team many perceive to be weak following the dismissal of starting point guard Chris Jones could potentially cost the Irish a seed line.
If this game follows suit with its predecessors, be prepared for bonus basketball in the KFC Yum! Center Wednesday night. Of the thirteen times these two teams have played as conference foes (from 2006–2013 in the Big East), seven have gone to overtime–including 2013’s epic five overtime battle. Louisville certainly hopes the script continues against Notre Dame, as the Cards are 5-1 at home against the Irish since 2006. Louisville will need a win to create some breathing room for the final double-bye in the ACC tournament, with 11-6 North Carolina right on their heels. Louisville is coming off perhaps its best performance of the season, an 81-59 pasting of Florida State on the road. Louisville’s defense bothered the Seminoles into 21 turnovers, and Anton Gill’s surprise shooting performance propelled the Cards to 44% shooting from beyond the arc. Gill, who had 15 points in all of 2015 heading into the game, went 4-4 from three and didn’t miss a shot from the field to finish with 14 points in 12 minutes. If his shooting is truly improved what he’s done the rest of the season (he was shooting about 17% from three before the game), it could be a big boost to a Cardinal squad starved for scoring.
For Notre Dame, the offensive attack will rely heavily on star guard Jerian Grant. The 6’5″ senior is first among Power 5 conference players in assists at 6.6 per game. Without Jones, Louisville lacks a defender who can harass Grant for 94 feet, and the senior’s scoring could be just as important as his passing. Alongside Grant, versatile forward Pat Connaughton (8.0 rebounds per game, 45% from three on 6.0 attempts per game) will look to stretch the Louisville defense to create lanes for Grant to drive. Louisville is the best team in the ACC at defending the three, so that is a stat to watch in this one. Defensively, the Irish will need to be able to stop forward Montrezl Harrell, who doesn’t appear to have an athletic counterpart in this matchup.
*Section Photo credit to Andy Lyons, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Timothy Easley, AP Photo.