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Notre Dame-Rutgers Preview

NOTRE DAME VS. RUTGERS
Where: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), South Bend
Rankings & Records: No. 20/20 Notre Dame (14-3, 2-2 Big East); Rutgers (12-4, 3-2)
Time/TV: Saturday at 8 p.m. EST on BEN/ESPN3
Last Meeting: The two programs last met on Feb. 15, 2012, in South Bend, with Notre Dame claiming a 71-53 victory. The Fighting Irish are 18-13 in the all-time series that dates back to 1984.

Irish head coach Mike Brey's team is coming off back-to-back losses for the first time this season

Notre Dame Notes
The Fighting Irish are looking to gain traction in the Big East Conference after dropping back-to-back games at home against Connecticut (65-58) and at St. John’s (67-64). Head coach Mike Brey had his team practice twice Thursday after irritating performances from key players in both games, notably senior forward Jack Cooley and sixth-year senior guard Scott Martin.

With Louisville, Syracuse and Marquette at 4-0 in league play, Notre Dame is dangerously close to losing touch of the lead pack with some of its more difficult games still to come. With the league’s top 3-point shooting percentage heading into the St. John’s game, the Irish were a miserable 1-for-9 (11.1 percent). The Red Storm outrebounded Notre Dame 15-8 on the offensive glass and outscored the Irish 13-2 in second-chance opportunities.

Notre Dame leads the conference in field goal percentage (.506), three-point shooting (.408) and assists (18.6 per game).

Probable starters:

Jack Cooley The senior forward looks to shake off consecutive unimpressive outings, including only 18 minutes of activity at St. John’s after getting in foul trouble in the first half and being rendered ineffective in the second. He’s averaging 14.8 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. Cooley is the Big East’s leading rebounder (10.7 rpg) and is the only player in the league to average a double-double.

Eric Atkins The junior point guard kept Notre Dame in the contest vs. the Red Storm, pouring in a season-high 21 points. He’s averaging 12.2 points and 6.9 assists per game.

Jerian Grant Returning to form, the junior guard (12.6 points and 5.1 assists) seems to have climbed out of a mental funk that held him back at the end of nonconference play.

Pat Connaughton The sophomore guard is averaging 8.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. His confidence handling the ball compared to last year is noticeable, and he’s added another dimension to his game by attacking the basket.

Scott Martin The sixth-year senior only attempted two shots against St. John’s and did not score. The Irish need his 8.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game every time out if they want to snag a top seed in the Big East Tournament.

Off The Bench
Senior forward Tom Knight gave the Irish a spark against St. John’s when senior center Garrick Sherman couldn’t. Knight hustled his way to six points, four blocks and three rebounds in 17 minutes of action. Freshman forward Cameron Biedscheid is averaging 7.7 points per game.

Rutgers Overview
The Scarlet Knights escaped with a 70-67 home victory over South Florida Thursday night, speeding the Bulls up and out of their comfort zone. A win at Notre Dame would be Rutgers’ best start in Big East play since joining the league in 1995-96. Saturday’s trip to South Bend, however, makes for the quickest turnaround (47 hours) of the season for head coach Mike Rice’s program.

Rutgers has lost eight straight on the road against the Irish. Redshirt junior forward Wally Judge made 7 of 8 field-goal attempts vs. South Florida to lead the squad with 14 points. Myles Mack (3-for-5 from 3-point land) and Eli Carter both chipped in 13 points.

Mack leads the Big East in 3-point field goal percentage (.500) and is ninth in field goal percentage (.530), while ranking first among guards in the category. Carter is ninth in scoring (15.9). As a team, the Scarlet Knights lead the conference in free throw percentage (.743).

Outlook
Rutgers will look to employ a similar strategy against Notre Dame as it did against South Florida. If the Fighting Irish struggle shooting the ball, the Scarlet Knights are going to try and capitalize on quick buckets in transition. They don’t want to get caught in a half-court grind for 40 minutes, which Notre Dame has used for years under Brey. Even after their last two performances, however, the Irish are much better than South Florida (winless in conference play), and are typically hard to beat at Purcell Pavilion. Brey’s squad should come out pretty fired up to get back on track.

Morgan’s prediction: Notre Dame 75, Rutgers 64.

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