When teams enter the season with high expectations, as both UK and Notre Dame did, it is difficult to accept the realization at the end of the year that your team did not live up to it’s potential and are therefore relegated to playing in the NIT.
But, that is the case for both Billy Gillispie’s Wildcats and Mike Brey’s Irish. Both teams had horrible stretches during the season that got them here.
The Irish were 12-3 entering their contest with Louisville on January 12th. They appeared to have the game won in regulation but let it slip from their hands. Following the loss, they lost seven straight and did not win again until February 12th, where they demolished the Cardinals at the Edmund P. Joyce Center, 90-57.
Likewise, Kentucky started out the season hot, with a 16-4 record, but then lost eight of their last 11 regular season conference games, en route to the NIT.
So while the NIT wasn’t the goal for either Notre Dame or Kentucky, Wednesday’s game gives both teams a chance to rectify their season. It also gives Kentucky fans a chance to relive the Notre Dame-Kentucky rivalry. The Irish and the Wildcats have met 58 times in their history, with the ‘Cats winnings 41 times.
A victory will also give one team the opportunity to play at the hallowed Madison Square Gardens in New York City.
The Fighting Irish are led by Luke Harangody, the 2007-2008 Big East Player of the Year. Despite appearing to be highly unathletic, Harangody is averaging over 23 points and 12 rebounds per game. He has scored in double-digits in all but two games this year and has recorded 24 double-doubles.
Despite Harangody’s success down low, you really can’t afford to double down on him because Mike Brey has surrounded him with such great perimeter shooters. Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers are both shooting around 43-percent from beyond the arc and Luke Zeller is shooting 34-percent. As a team they have knocked 298 threes on the season and are shooting 40-percent.
In a loss to UNC in the Maui Championship, McAlarney set a school record by knocking down 10 of 18 three point attempts. Two games later Ayers knocked down nine of 14 against South Dakota. So these kids can shoot and if they catch fire they are extremely difficult to beat.
Brey also has the floor general in Tory Jackson that every coach loves. The three-year starter has the ability to penetrate defenses, get to the rim, find Harangody or kick to an open shooter on the wing. He does a little bit of everything for the Irish, as he averages 10.6 points, 4.9 assists, and 4.5 rebounds-per-game.
Play off on him and he can knock down the open three as well. He is shooting 36-percent from deep, he just doesn’t pull as often as McAlarney, Zeller or Ayers. Not many do.
The much publicized weakness of this Irish squad is their defense. They are allowing 71 points-a-game on the season and in their seven-game losing streak they allowed an astonishing 85 points.
As good as their offense is they often find themselves playing catch-up because they can’t get stops on the other end.
Another thing that has been called into question regarding Mike Brey’s Irish squad is their propensity to wear down in games. Very seldom do Harangody, McAlarney, Jackson or Ayers get a chance to rest and you will often see them grabbing their knees and gasping for air late in games.
Despite their struggles this season, the Irish are still tough to beat at the Joyce Center. They entered the season with the nation’s longest home-court winning streak with 37 consecutive wins. They extended that streak to 45 before falling to UConn on January 24th, 69-61. Notre Dame is 14-3 at home this year.
The Irish are tough to defend because they throw so many weapons at you. With Harangody inside, so many shooters on the wing and Jackson creating, opposing defenses are really forced to focus on one aspect of the ND offensive attack.
Expect Patterson to man up Harangody underneath with Perry Stevenson providing weak side help. However, Stevenson’s man will often be a shooter and when he leaves it will allow wide open attempts from the perimeter.
The Wildcats have struggled defending the three and at keeping penetrating guards out of the lane all year long. If Notre Dame is knocking down shots it is going to be difficult for the ‘Cats to get out of South Bend with a win.
On the other hand, Notre Dame’s lackadaisical defense should give Kentucky opportunities to stay in the game, even if they struggle to stop the Irish’s offensive attack. Also, expect Jodie Meeks to get plenty of opportunities from the perimeter to re-find his stroke.
This is an interesting match-up and should be fun for the players, coaches and fans, alike. Sure, at the beginning of the season if you would have told someone that UK and Notre Dame would square off in the postseason, most would assume that you were talking about a showdown in the Sweet 16.
This is not the Sweet 16, but there is still something on the line with a trip to Madison Square Gardens. While, the NIT is never a team’s goal to start the year, once you get there, it always provides a little bit of vindication to end your season at the Gardens.
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