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February 12, 2009

Basketball Preview: No. 5 Louisville @ Notre Dame

Digging back into the record book just isn't as much fun when you're looking for records in futility.

Back in 1965-66, the Fighting Irish lost eight consecutive games on their way to a 5-21 campaign.

The 2008-09 Irish won't finish 16 games below .500 like that squad did. But they will match that eight-game losing streak if they can't contain high-flying, No. 5-ranked Louisville (18-4, 9-1) Thursday night at the Joyce Center.

The game tips off at 7 p.m. ET with Brent Musberger calling the game for ESPN, alongside college basketball luminaries Bob Knight and Digger Phelps.

This is another tall task for the Irish. The Cardinals, coached by Rick Pitino and winners of 10 of their last 11, lead the Big East in scoring defense (60.1), blocked shots (7.5/game) and steals (8.7/game). They are second in field goal percentage defense, thanks in great part to the athleticism and length of players such at 6-foot-6 senior Terrence Williams, 6-foot-8 junior Earl Clark and 6-foot-8 freshman Samardo Samuels.

That front line has played a significant role in squashing opposing offenses en route to a top five ranking and a 5-0 mark in Big East games on the road. This is a nightmarish match-up for the Irish, particularly since they have fallen to 11th in the Big East in shooting percentage at just 41.5 percent.

Irish head coach Mike Brey recently referred to the Williams-Clark-Samuels triumvirate as future NBA first-round draft choices. Williams (13.0 ppg., 9.0 rpg.) is a stat sheet stuffer who also averages five assists and two steals per game.

He is long and lethal, which the Irish witnessed first hand in an 87-73 overtime loss to the Cardinals on Jan. 12. Williams scored 24 points on 10-of-20 shooting while snagging 16 rebounds, handing out eight assists and making three steals.

"Scary...scary talent," summarized Brey of Williams. "He plays 40 minutes, he's a coach on the court, he has a great demeanor, he sets the tone...Certainly he's a strong (Big East) player of the year candidate in my mind. He plays like such a senior veteran who sets the tone."

Clark, though just a junior, is expected to enter his name in the NBA draft with Williams this year. His numbers mirror Williams' with a 13.0 scoring average and 8.5 rebounds per game. He also is a shot-blocking presence with a team-leading 37.

Samuels is the baby of the bunch. But he's made a mark in his freshman season with a 12.3 scoring average and a 56.9 shooting percentage from the field while grabbing 5.2 rebounds per game.

None of the big three Cardinals is a shot-blocker per se in the mold of Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet. But collectively, they make life difficult for opposing shooters, who are connecting on just 38.4 percent of their shots. Clark (37 blocked shots), Samuels (32), Williams (20) and 6-foot-10 freshman Terrence Jennings (31) give the Cardinals four players with an offense-altering presence in the paint.

The Cardinal backcourt can be a bit erratic at times, particularly 6-foot-1 junior Edgar Sosa, who is shooting just 36.4 percent from the field and a frigid 27.5 percent from three-point range. But both Sosa and 6-foot-1 junior Jerry Smith toss in 7.5 points per game.

Smith is shooting 86.7 percent from the free-throw line in Big East play while converting 40.8 percent of his three-point shots. Smith exploded for 21 points in a victory over St. John's earlier this week.

A freshman, sophomore and senior come off the bench to assist the Louisville cause: Jennings (3.4 ppg.), 6-foot-1 Preston Knowles (5.5 ppg.) and 5-foot-10 Andre McGee (4.7). Jennings' playing time has been increasing as his field-goal percentage (57.8) and shot-blocking prowess (1.7 per game) continue to rise.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame has lost its magic at home after reeling off 45 straight victories. Connecticut and Marquette defeated the Irish in back-to-back games at the Joyce in late January, and the Irish haven't won a game since Jan. 10 at home against Seton Hall.

Louisville is Notre Dame's 10th game against a ranked opponent this season. The Irish are just 2-7 with a Nov. 25 victory over Texas in Maui and a Jan. 5 win over Georgetown at the Joyce Center marking the only two conquests in the bunch.

The Irish are clinging to faint NCAA tournament hopes, although a string of victories in upcoming weeks, coupled with high strength-of-schedule quotient, would thrust Notre Dame back into NCAA tournament talk.

The Irish remain strong at the free-throw line (81.3 percent, 1st in the Big East) and in the assist-to-turnover ratio (1st in the conference), two important statistics that could serve them well during this critical phase of the season.

Luke Harangody will try to bounce back from an uncharacteristic performance at UCLA where he scored just five points and grabbed one rebound. It was the lowest output in either category by Harangody since the final game of his freshman season against Winthrop in the first round of the NCAA tournament when he scored four points and grabbed one rebound.

Harangody's streak of 50 straight games scoring in double figures came to a halt against the Bruins. Another snapped streak was Tory Jackson's 74 straight starting assignments. He is expected back in the starting lineup tonight against the Cardinals.

Despite the month-long struggle to notch a victory, it's difficult to envision this veteran-laden Irish squad simply throwing in the towel. This group still has some magic in it, and with an ESPN broadcast featuring the Musberger-Knight-Phelps team, the suspicion here is that the Irish will rise to the occasion, led by the familiar Harangody-Kyle McAlarney inside-outside punch.

Brey said recently that the Irish might need some help to end this streak. Maybe the Cardinals will falter at the free-throw line where they rank just 10th in the Big East at 67.1 percent.

Notre Dame could use a break...or three.

Pointspread: Louisville by 3
Prister's Prediction: Notre Dame 75, Louisville 72
Season record: 15-7 overall; 5-10 vs. points



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