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Men’s Basketball Analysis: Overlooking Rutgers could cost ND

Chris Khorey | Wednesday, February 28, 2007

On the surface, No. 17/22 Notre Dame’s matchup against Rutgers Saturday means little. The Irish (22-6, 10-5 Big East) can wrap up a bye in the Big East tournament even with a loss and are a fair bet to make the NCAA Tournament. For the Scarlet Knights (10-18, 3-12 Big East), the game will be their last this season regardless of the outcome.

In reality, Saturday’s matchup can have tremendous impact. For Rutgers, a win over Notre Dame would give a positive ending to an otherwise dreadful season. The Scarlet Knights have nothing to play for except an upset over a top-25 team. They will be motivated to play with reckless abandon, because they have nothing to lose.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, has a lot riding on this game. A bye in the Big East tournament would be wrapped up with a win Saturday or a loss by Syracuse to Villanova the same day. Even if the Irish are likely to make the NCAA tournament no matter how the next two weeks play out, it is important for Notre Dame to dispatch of the Knights in a manner befitting a top-25 team.

The Big East tourney

To say Notre Dame has struggled in the Big East tournament would be an understatement. The Irish are just 3-11 all-time at the tournament and seniors Colin Falls and Russell Carter are just 1-3 in their careers. To overcome history like that, Notre Dame will need to be on a roll going to New York. Losing to one of the Big East’s worst teams just days before the tournament could be devastating.

In addition, a bye is not assured if the Irish lose. The Orange are on the bubble for an NCAA berth and should beat a Wildcats team that has been inconsistent for most of this season. If that happens, Notre Dame will need to beat Rutgers to take the tiebreaker from 11-5 Syracuse.

A bye will be important for the Irish not only because just one team has ever won the Big East tournament without earning a bye, but also because having a bye gives Notre Dame positive publicity in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Although the difference is only one place in the Big East standings, a fourth-place Irish squad with a bye would likely earn a higher seed than a fifth-place team forced to play in the first round in New York.

The Big Dance

The Rutgers game will also have a direct effect on Notre Dame’s seeding for the NCAA tournament. The Scarlet Knights are currently ranked 205 in the RPI, according to collegerpi.com. A loss to them would be devastating to Notre Dame’s own RPI, which is currently 32. Most experts, including ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, are projecting the Irish as high as a five or six seed based on other factors, like Notre Dame’s 6-3 record against the RPI top-50 and position near the top of the Big East standings.

On the other side of the coin, the Irish can help themselves in the seeding quite a bit with a win Saturday. The win will be on the road, and will therefore count as 1.4 wins in the RPI’s formula. This will boost Notre Dame into the higher 20s in RPI and probably put the Irish at least one seed higher in the NCAA Tournament. than they would be if they lost.

While the compelling matchups that await the Irish in New York (such as a possible rematch with Marquette) will also play a big role in Notre Dame’s seeding for the Big Dance, no game is more important than the next one.

With a conference tournament bye and seeding in the NCAAs on the line, the Rutgers game suddenly means a whole lot.