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Men’s Basketball: Irish take on Marquette at Joyce Center

Bobby Griffin | Friday, February 24, 2006

All that separated Notre Dame from a road win in Marquette on Jan. 20 was a Steve Novak corner jump shot with less than two seconds remaining. But when the Irish host the Golden Eagles this Saturday, they will have more on their minds than getting even.

Notre Dame (13-10, and 4-9 in the Big East) has three games left to secure a spot in the conference tournament and it can’t afford to lose any games given the current logjam at the bottom of the league standings.

“Marquette would just be a great win, because Marquette is a top-30 RPI team, too,” head coach Mike Brey said. “And a Marquette win, as they go ahead and win [more this season], that could come back to being a tiebreaker.”

At 4-9, the Irish remain one win behind Louisville (5-8), Providence (5-8), St. John’s (5-9) and Rutgers (5-9). And Notre Dame knows in order to reach the Big East tournament, it has to play each remaining game with the intensity of a postseason contest.

“We’ve talked about [how] it’s a huge week for us, and really in a lot of ways, our tournament starts Saturday with Marquette,” Brey said.

Marquette (18-8, 8-5 in the Big East) offers a unique challenge for Notre Dame because it plays a very similar style of basketball to the Irish. Both teams like to shoot 3s and both are among the leaders in the conference in points scored.

Marquette and Notre Dame are tied for first in the conference in 3-point shooting, each shooting 40-percent from 3-point range. The Golden Eagles enter Saturday averaging 75.1 points per game (fourth in the league). The Irish rank second with 76.9 points per game.

“They’re shooting the 3-point shot as good or better than us,” Brey said. “They use it like we use it.”

Both teams have also struggled defensively this season and are among the Big East’s worst in points allowed. Notre Dame gives up 70.1 points per game (14th in the league out of 16 teams) and Marquette allows 68.5 points per game (12th in the league).

But what separates the two teams is simple. Notre Dame is struggling to earn a post season berth with four league wins while Marquette is sixth in the conference with an 8-5 record. The Golden Eagles also have a very good chance at making the NCAA tournament if they remain in the top part of the conference.

Novak is a major reason why. The 6-foot-11 senior is a candidate for Big East player of the year and is averaging 17.1 points per game (sixth in the league) on 47.1 percent shooting from the field. What’s more impressive is Novak’s free throw percentage. The forward has missed only one free throw all season (66-of-67).

His 45-percent shooting from 3-point range trails only Irish guard Chris Quinn for the best in the league.

“Novak gives them certainly an amazing weapon as a second big guy who’s out on the floor all the time,” Brey said. “So it’s a tough matchup.”

Novak is not the only Marquette player who concerns Brey. Freshman point guard Dominic James is one of the most talented first-year players in the league, averaging 15.5 points per game and 5.4 assists per game. James’ assist average is third in the conference behind Quinn and Syracuse guard Gerry McNamara.

“He is a tough kid physically and mentally,” Brey said. “It’s certainly shown in how he’s played this year – he’s had a great year.”

Notre Dame did a good job shutting down Connecticut’s perimeter offense during its huge second half run Tuesday. Brey said for Notre Dame to win it has to continue its strong perimeter defense against a team that likes to shoot 3-pointers.

Notre Dame and Marquette tip off at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Joyce Center.