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Men’s Basketball: Squad seeks revenge over Rutgers

Matthew DeFranks | Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Nineteen games into the season, then-unranked Notre Dame was struggling at 11-8, including 3-3 in the Big East. Connecticut had just snapped the long Joyce Center winning streak, and a loss at Rutgers extended the skid.

But on Jan. 21, Notre Dame (17-8, 9-3 Big East) upset then-No. 1 Syracuse 67-58, kicking off a six-game winning streak that includes three victories over ranked opponents.

Now, nationally ranked and closing in on an NCAA tournament berth, the No. 23/25 Irish will host Rutgers (12-13, 4-8 Big East) tonight as a different squad than the last time the teams faced.

“I do [feel like we’re a different team],” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “I think we’ve come a long way. I was disappointed in how young we played there, hung our heads. It’s amazing how far we’ve come just watching the film this morning.”

The Irish entered the national rankings for the first time this season Monday, appearing at No. 23 in the AP poll and at No. 25 in the USA Today poll. Notre Dame (17-8, 9-3) currently sits in third place in the Big East standings.

“Our team is still improving but we can still get better because there’s still young guys here figuring it out,” Brey said. “That’s one of the things you don’t want to lose track of in the midst of bracketology and rankings and all of that stuff.”

Junior forward and Big East player of the week Jack Cooley has been at his most effective in the last two games, scoring 43 points and grabbing 26 rebounds combined in the last two contests. He accumulated four double-doubles in the last six games.

In the loss to Rutgers on Jan. 16, the Irish converted on just five of 13 free throw attempts and allowed the Scarlet Knights to shoot 47 percent from the three-point line. Cooley was held to just nine points.

“They’re a tough matchup for us,” Brey said. “One of the reasons they beat us [was] their speed and their quickness gave us problems. We’ve got to do a better job defensively than we did there. We couldn’t guard them.”

To counter the Scarlet Knights’ speed and quickness, Brey said Notre Dame might play some zone defense.

“We’ll mix it,” Brey said. “[If] we go to zone and it’s working, we’ll ride it for a long time. I think for us, changing defenses is a key.”

Changing defenses may also help the Irish force Rutgers to turn the ball over. The Scarlet Knights rank last in the Big East in turnovers, coughing the ball up nearly 15 times per game. The Irish, meanwhile, average less than 11 turnovers a game, tops in the conference.

In Saturday’s victory over DePaul, the Irish scored 84 points — a season high during Big East play. It was the first time since December Notre Dame topped the 80-point plateau.

“I think we’ve shown here we’re comfortable in the second half putting up 40, 50 [points], we’ve done it a couple times now,” Brey said. “I think offensively, we’re improving.”

Notre Dame looks to extend their six-game winning streak tonight when they face Rutgers. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. in Purcell Pavilion.


Contact Matthew DeFranks at [email protected]