March 6, 2009

Basketball Preview: St. Johnís @ Notre Dame

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Notre Dame’s Class of 2009— Ryan Ayers, Zach Hillesland, Kyle McAlarney and Luke Zeller.

Their introduction into the Big East as freshmen was rather rocky, and they’ll leave Notre Dame after Friday’s last regular-season home game against St. John’s (15-15, 6-11) less than thrilled with the way the 2008-09 season transpired.

But in between, Notre Dame’s Class of 2009—Kyle McAlarney, Zach Hillesland, Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller—helped guide the Irish to their most successful back-to-back seasons of basketball since the late 1980s under Digger Phelps.

“Aside from the basketball stuff, I’m proud of them,” said Brey of the seniors, who were instrumental in Notre Dame’s 25 Big East victories in 2006-07 and 2007-08. “I think they represent our University well. I sure would like to get on a bit of a run with them, and I’m sure the younger guys would too.”

The Irish must put the hurt of Monday’s 17-point loss at home to Villanova aside, a setback that likely ended hopes of an NCAA tournament berth—barring an unprecedented run in the Big East tournament.

Since joining the conference in 1995-96, the Irish have never won more than one Big East tournament game. They likely would need at least four to have any chance of entering into the conversation of an NCAA tournament bid.

First things first, however, as the Irish try to send the seniors out on a positive note against St. John’s, who played a big role in the predicament Notre Dame finds itself in. The Irish lost to St. John’s 71-65 at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 3, a setback that they quickly put behind them by defeating Georgetown and Seton Hall at home.

But the Red Storm exposed some of Notre Dame’s weaknesses, and before they knew what hit them, the Irish were spiraling into a seven-game losing streak. The Red Storm held the Irish to just 2-of-11 shooting from three-point range, as well as a mere 36.4 percent shooting in the second half.

St. John’s also out-rebounded the Irish that afternoon, 41-30, as D.J. Kennedy scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds and Justin Burrell, who would go on to average 9.0 points per game, tossed in 18.

After knocking off Notre Dame, St. John’s lost 10 of their next 12 conference games.

St. John’s enters the Joyce Center on a roll—at least by Red Storm standards. They have won three of their last five, including Tuesday night’s 59-56 overtime victory over Georgetown at the Garden. St. John’s also defeated Seton Hall, 70-65, on Feb. 22 with a road victory over DePaul (84-63) included in the mini-run.

The Red Storm is 5-4 at home, but just 1-7 on the road. They lost by just seven to Duke when they shot 54.0 percent from the field. In the victories over Seton Hall and Georgetown, St. John’s shot just 36.4 percent and 36.5 percent from the field respectively.

The Red Storm is young, long and athletic. Leading the way is 6-foot-3 sophomore Paris Horne, who is averaging 14.7 points overall and 16.5 in Big East play. His tag-team partner is Kennedy, the 6-foot-6 sophomore averaging 13.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.

Making it a difficult match-up for the Irish are 6-foot-8, 247-pound sophomore Sean Evans (9.9 ppg., 6.5 rpg.), who shoots 51.3 percent from the field (but just 49.1 percent from the line), and Burrell (9.0 ppg.), a 6-foot-8, 240-pounder who had that strong outing against the Irish in early January.

Two more sophomores—5-foot-10 Malik Boothe (7.0 ppg.) and 6-foot-6, 230-pound Rob Thomas (6.5. ppg.)—provide a bit more scoring punch while 6-foot-5 freshman Quincy Roberts (5.3) is another contributor off the bench.

“They’re a tough match-up for us in that they’re so physical and athletic, and it showed itself (against Georgetown) in New York City,” Brey said. “No question, we were disappointed that we couldn’t start the road sequence (in January) 2-0. Now we’re trying to win a regular season game to end the season, and then head to New York to try to figure it out.”

St. John’s may be athletic, but the Irish hold distinct advantages in most aspects of the game. The Red Storm ranks 12th or lower in the Big East in nine major categories—scoring offense, free throw percentage, field goal percentage defense, three-point percentage, three-point percentage defense, assists, turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio.

Look for the Irish to offset the Red Storm’s No. 3-rated rebounding margin with the three-point shot and from the free-throw line, two areas where the Irish usually excel at the Joyce Center (although they were just 10-of-20 from the line against Villanova).

Notre Dame’s seniors go out on a high note by avenging the critical early-season loss to St. John’s, lifting their spirits heading into the Big East tournament.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 11 ½
Prister’s Prediction: Notre Dame 74, St. John’s 58
Season record: 20-9 straight up; 7-15 vs. points

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