by Kevin O'Neill
The Big East Race
The Big East regular season race eliminated some pretenders over the weekend. Realistically, only Georgetown (13-3), Louisville (13-4), and Marquette (12-4) have a shot at first place. No team has an easy path in its final games.
Georgetown is in the driver’s seat given its one game lead, but the Hoyas have to play Villanova in Philadelphia before hosting Syracuse at home.
Louisville’s victory over Cincinnati Monday night kept the Cardinals in position to catch Georgetown should it falter, but UL needs GU to lose twice while it defeats Notre Dame (in some number of overtimes) because the Hoyas won the two teams’ lone match-up in late January.
Marquette’s remaining games are against the easiest opponents of the three contenders – Rutgers and St. John’s, but both games are on the road. MU and Georgetown split a pair of games this season; so assuming there isn’t a three way tie with Louisville, the team with stronger two-fer opponents will win. Marquette has USF and Pittsburgh (13-20 combined). Georgetown has Rutgers and St. John’s (12-20). They will be the only people in the world who care about USF and Rutgers basketball this week.
It will be interesting to see how Marquette plans its travel for the two games in the metropolitan New York area. The games are four days apart which would normally dictate a return to Milwaukee, but eliminating a round trip to have a rested team for its shot at the conference championship makes a lot of sense. Classes this week? Probably not.
Three six loss teams – Pitt (11-6), Syracuse (10-6), and Notre Dame (10-6) – have a shot at the fourth Big East Tournament double bye. Pittsburgh is in the best shape with one game at DePaul left on its schedule. Syracuse also has the pleasure of playing DePaul before visiting Georgetown for the regular season finale. Notre Dame has to play St. John’s on Tuesday and Louisville on Saturday. The Irish must win both games and hope Syracuse takes a loss to get the fourth place finish by virtue of its win at Pittsburgh in February. Thinking about a three way tie makes my head hurt.
It will be an interesting week.
Notre Dame vs. Marquette
Jack Cooley’s illness contributed to Saturday’s loss in Milwaukee, but it is not near my list of reasons why the Irish lost.
- 9 of Notre Dame’s 13 turnovers, most of them unforced errors, came in the first half. Not coincidentally, Marquette took a 41-27 lead to the break. The Irish never quite got out of that hole.
- Zach Auguste replaced Cooley’s points by scoring 15, but ND’s interior defense was often soft. Chris Otule, who entered the game with a 4.7 points per game scoring average, made all 8 of his shots from the field and finished with 16 points. He scored 10 as the Warriors built their first half lead.
- Notre Dame made only 4 of its 16 three point attempts.
If any two of those three issues hadn’t existed, Notre Dame would have been in the game for 40 minutes. The Irish hurt themselves at least as much as the Warriors hurt them.
Last Saturday’s loss and next Saturday’s difficult road challenge make Tuesday’s game against St. John’s important. ND will be in the NCAA Tournament, but they need to beat SJU and win at least one Big East Tournament game to stay in the range of a six seed. I can’t think of a year when seeding mattered as much as it does this time around because there are so few outstanding teams. The eventual #1 seeds might not be super teams, but the #2 and #3 seeds will not be nearly as good as teams in those slots usually are. It’s important to stay on a seed line that will avoid the #1 to get to the second weekend of the tournament.
It looks like a game Notre Dame (22-7/10-6) should win, but the Red Storm (16-12/8-8) has won the last three contests between the two teams. All three of those games were at Madison Square Garden. This time the game will be in South Bend.
SJU’s offense has struggled – 13th in the Big East shooting percentage rankings, last in three point shooting, 9th in assist/turnover ratio, and 13th in offensive rebound percentage. If the Irish defend St. John’s like they did Cincinnati, they will win by a comfortable margin.
Sophomore guard D’Angelo Harrison, the Johnnies’ leading scorer with a 15.3 point average, was suspended last week and is done for the season. Freshman forward JaKarr Sampson (15.2 points) and sophomore guard Phil Greene (8.7) have been SJU’s next most potent scoring threats. Nobody else has averaged more than 7 shot attempts per game.
This is a game the Irish can win with defense even if they aren’t at the top of their game offensively. St. John’s has some excellent athletes, but it has not established core competencies over the course of the season. The Red Storm competes well, but execution is another matter. Take care of the ball, challenge the shooters, own the boards, win the game. Executing well on offense would be gravy.
Another Best Game of the Season
The best game of the men’s basketball season was Notre Dame’s five overtime victory over Louisville. The best game of the women’s basketball season was #2 Notre Dame’s three overtime victory over #3 Connecticut. The 96-87 win gave the Fighting Irish the final regular season championship of the Big East as we have known it for years.
The Irish had to claw their way into each of the overtime sessions before taking command of the final stanza by a 15-6 margin. Skylar Diggins scored 29 points and snagged 11 rebounds. She didn’t shoot well (11-31) and had an uncharacteristic 8 turnovers;but she was a star in the clutch forcing key turnovers, assisting teammates’ baskets, and making free throws that iced the victory.
Kayla McBride had a career high 26 points including ND’s only three point basket of the night to force the second overtime. Natalie Achonwa added 17 points after a scoreless first half thanks to early foul trouble that limited her playing time to 7 minutes before the break. Jewel Loyd scored only 6 points, but her second half defense against Kaleena Mosquedo-Lewis (16 first half points) is a key to the victory that should not be overlooked.
“That was just a war,” said Notre Dame Head Coach Muffet McGraw. “Just what we expected, but to gut it out for 55 minutes, both teams with 55 or 54 minutes, it was unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”
This team’s will to win gives it a chance to beat any opponent in the postseason, even Baylor. If the Irish are going to beat Brittany Griner and company, there won’t be room for the 30% percent shooting in the first half or the 21 turnovers we saw Monday evening. Given ND’s mental toughness, I wouldn’t bet against it being ready to take its best shot if there is a rematch of last season’s championship game.