Preview & Prediction: By Raphielle Johnson
One of two Big East matinees on the schedule for Saturday, Notre Dame (12-7, 3-5 Big East) visits #3 Pittsburgh (18-2, 6-2) in a game that could have a long-lasting effect on the visitors. The Fighting Irish have lost four consecutive games, the last two (Connecticut and Marquette) coming within the confines of the Joyce Center. Now they head to Pittsburgh to take on a Panther squad that was a victim of foul trouble in their loss to Villanova on Wednesday night. The individual matchup between big men Luke Harangody and DeJuan Blair will be an entertaining one to say the least, as will the point guards (Tory Jackson and Levance Fields). But if the Irish are to end their four-game skid they’re going to need improved play from Kyle McAlarney and the remaining members of Coach Brey’s “supporting cast”, something that’s been lacking in recent weeks.
McAlarney is still averaging just over sixteen points per game on the season and shooting 46.4% from behind the arc. But unlike games against Louisville and Syracuse that saw the senior from Staten Island shoot well from the field, he struggled against the Huskies and Golden Eagles. McAlarney shot a combined 6-27 (22.2%) from the field and was just 4-14 (28.6%) from behind the arc in those two games. And with a team as solid on the defensive end of the floor as Pittsburgh (2nd in the Big East in scoring defense, 3rd in field goal percentage defense) it could be tough sledding for Kyle.
However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Notre Dame’s three-point attack: the Panthers are ranked tenth in the Big East in three-point percentage defense. While they’ll be in McAlarney’s shirt throughout, this could be good news for a supporting cast that hasn’t produced during the recent slump.
In their last two games Ryan Ayers posted a grand total of two points, Zach Hillesland two points and Luke Zeller thirteen points (Zeller had eight points and eight rebounds against Marquette in a solid performance). The averages for Luke Harangody (26.5 ppg, 16.0 rpg) during that stretch shows that while the reigning Big East Player of the Year is strong enough to carry the Irish he needs consistent help from the other guys for Notre Dame to be successful. When McAlarney and friends are producing it forces opponents to guard Harangody without the luxury of a help defender, and that’s nearly impossible to do.
As for the Panthers, their loss at Villanova can be blamed mostly on the foul issues that hit DeJuan Blair and Tyrell Biggs at the Spectrum. Both picked up their third fouls early in the second half, relegating them to the role of spectator in a game that saw the Panthers, second in the Big East in rebounding margin (+9.1), finish with just four more rebounds than the smaller Wildcats. Blair and Biggs combined for thirty-seven minutes and just seven points on Wednesday night, which will not get it done on Saturday for Jamie Dixon’s team.
Sam Young and Levance Fields are known commodities for the Panthers, but the guy to watch against Notre Dame may be junior guard Jermaine Dixon. Most likely Juan’s younger brother will be given the task of guarding McAlarney, and with six steals on Wednesday Dixon provided more evidence that he’s one of the better perimeter defenders in the Big East. Pittsburgh, who ranks behind only Notre Dame in assist-to-turnover ratio, also finished the night with seventeen turnovers. But they’ll be going up against a defense that isn’t as likely to pressure them so that should not be an issue.
You may be asking yourself the following question: why did he spend so much more time on Notre Dame in this preview? Well, while you don’t want to use the word “crisis” when discussing a sporting event, the season for Notre Dame may be hanging by a thread right now. Outside of Harangody this team has not shown the level of toughness needed to navigate the Big East and emerge with an NCAA Tournament berth, making this game that much more important for the Fighting Irish. Like their nickname they will fight, but it won’t be enough to win in front of the “Oakland Zoo”.
Winner: Pittsburgh Margin: 5-9 pts.