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Men’s Basketball: Playing for a day off

Joe Meixell | Friday, March 2, 2007

No. 17/21 Notre Dame can clinch a bye in the first round of the Big East tournament with a win in its final regular season game at Rutgers Saturday.

The Irish (22-6, 10-5 Big East) own the tiebreaker over Syracuse (21-8, 10-5) thanks to their 103-91 victory over the Orange Jan. 30. A Notre Dame win or a Syracuse loss to Villanova Saturday ensures the Irish a Thursday tip-off at Madison Square Garden.

For the Scarlet Knights (10-18, 3-12), who will miss the 12-team cutoff for the Big East tournament regardless of Saturday’s outcome, the game represents their final shot at a big victory.

“Their fans always support them whether they’re up or down,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “I’m surprised that their record is their record given their personnel. They can guard you – they’ve just had trouble scoring.

“This is their Big East tournament, NCAA Tournament all in one. It’s a [nationally televised] game, senior day. We’re certainly going to get a great effort out of them.”

Brey said he will not shield his players from the score of the Syracuse game, which begins two hours before Notre Dame’s.

“I think I’d let them know. They’re going to announce it probably at the arena anyway,” he said. “But for us, it’s going to be: Continue to play well and show some Big East tournament habits before it starts.”

Rutgers dropped its last three games to St. John’s, Connecticut and Villanova. The Irish own a four-game winning streak and have held their opponents to 67.3 points per game during the stretch.

“We’ve changed up and played a little bit of man, little bit of zone. We’ve been really good in our half-court man-to-man, especially at keeping people out the lane the last couple of games and I think that’s important against Rutgers,” Brey said. “They are a driving, slashing, get to the offensive board team. They’re not the best shooting team. So if we can make them take jump shots over us that would be good.”

Offensively, Notre Dame is clicking on all cylinders. The Irish shot a combined 58 percent from three-point range in their wins over Cincinnati (Feb. 18) and DePaul (Feb. 20), respectively, while freshman big man Luke Harangody netted 22 points against Marquette last Saturday.

“Certainly always want to involve Luke Harangody and get him low-post touches, that’s good for us,” Brey said. “We want to run and just have that attack frame of mind we’ve had the last four games.”

Despite its recent performances, Notre Dame still wears the albatross of a 2-5 road conference record.

“You can’t sleep on them. … We’re going to treat them like they’re the No. 1 team in the conference. It’s a road game. We’re going to go at them hard. It’s a big game for them, so it’s going to be tough,” Irish guard Tory Jackson said. “They call [the Louis Brown Rutgers Athletic Center] ‘The RAC.’ A lot of upperclassmen talk about it being a tough place to play.”

Forward J.R. Inman leads Rutgers with 12.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Guard Marquis Webb (10 points per game) is the only other Scarlet Knight averaging double figures.

Tip-off is scheduled for 4. ESPN will televise the game.