By Sean Fernandez
Like many other teams in the Big East, it has been a disappointing year for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Folks in South Bend saw their high hopes for the season vanish when their superstar Tim Abromaitis was diagnosed with a torn ACL in late November. The Irish (11-8, 3-3) have kept fighting without Abromaitis, but just lost back-to-back games and see themselves in 10th place in the Big East. Much of Notre Dame’s struggles have come away from home (1-7 on the road and at neutral sites). On the other hand, losses at home don't come often for ND. The Irish had their 29 game winning streak at Purcell Pavilion snapped on January 14th against UConn.
Getting a win at one of the loudest venues in the Big East won’t be easy for the #1 Syracuse Orange, who are off to a 20-0 start for the first time in school history. The Orange are led by senior Kris Joseph and sophomore Dion Waiters, both of whom average above 13 points per game.
Syracuse has shown that they can beat you in a variety of ways, but turning the ball over against the active 2-3 zone has been the kiss of death for ‘Cuse opponents. Luckily for the Irish, they give it away fewer than any other team in the Big East. Allowing the Orange to get easy buckets in transition is something that Notre Dame can’t afford to do.
The Irish are fueled by their backcourt, which is one of the best in the conference. The sophomore tandem of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant (brother of 2012 Syracuse commit Jerami Grant) has been great so far this year. Atkins leads ND in scoring with 13.3 points per game and Grant adds another 12.8 ppg. In addition to their scoring ability, both guards average over 3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1 steals per game. Limiting their production will be important for the Orange.
With the loss of Abromaitis, Notre Dame lost a lot of experience and now has only one senior on their roster. The young Irish have looked promising in some games (2 OT win over L’ville), but have struggled scoring points and grabbing rebounds. They score 68.9ppg and haul in only 34.3 rebounds per game. Syracuse on the other hand scores 80 points per game and gets 36.6 rebounds per game. In that sense, the Orange have a clear advantage.
Notre Dame’s two leading rebounders are 6’9” junior Jack Cooley and senior 6’8” Scott Martin. Despite being undersized, both have proven that they can rebound against bigger opponents. They will have their hands full against the ridiculous size and length of Syracuse, who has also had some issues rebounding consistently. The Orange were out-rebounded 38-24 against Pittsburgh on Monday night, and almost saw a 14 point second half lead slip away because of it.
To make matters a tad more interesting and potentially disastrous, Syracuse University just released a statement saying that Fab Melo and Mookie Jones did not make the trip with the team. Melo is expected to miss the next two games because of an academic issue, and Mook has left the team due to personal reasons. Uh oh.
The last three meetings between these two foes have been won by the Orange. Notre Dame’s last win over SU came on February 24, 2008 at Purcell Pavilion. This game will be televised on ESPN with tip-off scheduled for 6:00pm EST. Keys to to an Orange victory:
1. Limit penetration:
Notre Dame’s backcourt is very good at getting into the lane, and creating open looks for their shooters. Keeping them on the perimeter and forcing them to make contested jumpers will give the Orange a great chance to win. The Irish struggle from three point range, shooting only 32.2%.
2. Control the boards:
Both teams have struggled grabbing rebounds this year, but Notre Dame has been flat out terrible in that category. The Syracuse big men (minus Fab) need to improve on the glass, and Saturday’s game is a good place to start.
3. Force turnovers:
Notre Dame is one of the best in the country at limiting turnovers, and Syracuse is one of the best in the country at forcing them. Syracuse must trap, stay disciplined in their zone, and create turnovers which lead to easy baskets. Whoever wins the battle of the turnovers should win the game.
4. Take advantage of depth:
The Orange are 20-0 for a reason. They consistently wear down opponents with an unheard of combination of length and depth, and they use the 2-3 zone to create turnovers get out into transition. Doing both will give the Orange a great shot at becoming 21-0.