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March 2, 2009

Basketball Preview: No. 10 Villanova @ Notre Dame

At a certain point, the margin for error in must-win situations reaches the critical point.

Consider that point reached by the Fighting Irish (16-12, 7-9), who battled valiantly but still fell 72-65 at No. 2 Connecticut Saturday. Had the Irish been able to pull out a victory over the Huskies, they would be in a position to finish two games over .500 in the Big East with home games against No. 10 Villanova (23-6, 11-5) and St. John's (14-15, 5-11).

But now the Irish simply cannot afford to stumble against the Wildcats nor the Red Storm, plus at least two games in the Big East tournament. Three wins in Madison Square Garden would be even nicer.

Winning four the next four games is not a pipe dream for the Irish. The Wildcats struggled in their two games this past week, and Notre Dame owes the Red Storm for their upset victory over the Irish at Madison Square Garden the first week of January.

If the Big East tournament were starting today, the Irish would be the No. 10 seed and play the Tuesday, March 10 game at 7 p.m. against the No. 15 seed, Rutgers (10-19, 1-15). A victory over the Scarlet Knights would advance the Irish to Wednesday, March 11 versus the No. 7 seed, which would be a challenging yet beatable Syracuse (21-8, 9-7).

From there, it would be a little more problematic. The Irish would have to play the No. 2 seed, which at the present time is Louisville, which fell to Notre Dame by 33 points at the Joyce Center a couple of weeks ago. The Cardinals would have a bit of revenge on their minds.

But if the Irish can continue to play the solid basketball they've offered in the last three weeks, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. First things first, which is a winnable clash with the Wildcats Monday night at the Joyce Center. Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m. ET.

After losing three of their first five Big East games, the Wildcats have won nine of their last 11, including a 67-57 victory over Pittsburgh, a 94-91 win at Providence, a 102-85 conquest of Syracuse at home, a 102-84 victory over Marquette and a surprising 89-86 victory over the Orange in Syracuse.

Yet the Wildcats played some of their worst basketball in the last month-and-a-half just last week. Villanova turned the ball over 20 times and shot just 33.3 percent at home Saturday in a 56-54 loss to Georgetown. They squeaked out a two-point victory over hapless DePaul early last week.

The Wildcats are 5-3 on the road in the Big East. One of those losses was a 93-72 setback at West Virginia in which Da'Sean Butler of the Mountaineers tossed in 43 points.

With Villanova struggling in its last two games and the Irish fighting for their NCAA tournament lives, the time is ripe for Notre Dame to put forth one of its top efforts on the Joyce Center hardwood, where they have won three in a row since dropping back-to-back games to Connecticut and Marquette to end their 45-game home winning streak.

If the Irish are to knock off the Wildcats Monday night, they'll likely have to do it without the services of senior Zach Hillesland, who is listed as doubtful after suffering a severely bruised sternum Saturday at Connecticut.

Some Irish fans may consider that a blessing in disguise with Hillesland struggling throughout most of the Big East season while sophomore Tyrone Nash has come of age in recent weeks. Nash has provided a spark off the bench, averaging 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in about 12 minutes of action per game over the last six contests. Nash is often the only player other than All-American Luke Harangody who is consistently prepared to crash the boards.

Look for a high-scoring affair Monday night as the Wildcats enter the Joyce Center as the Big East's leading scoring team. Villanova scores at a 80.2 clip, led by 6-foot-8 senior Dante Cunningham, who averages 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds while shooting .544 from the field.

Villanova's leader is 6-foot-2 junior Scottie Reynolds, who tossed in 27 points in the 18-point victory over Marquette and 31 points in the road victory over Providence. Reynolds is averaging 15.4 points per game while shooting .834 from the free-throw line.

Six-foot-one sophomore Corey Fisher (11.3 ppg.) is next on the Wildcats' balanced scoring sheet. He tossed in 21 points in the victory over Marquette. Another sophomore, 6-foot-5 Corey Stokes, comes off the bench to average 9.9 points per game. Despite limited playing time, Stokes leads the Wildcats in three-pointers with 60 while shooting an incredible .441 from beyond the arc. He also is shooting .836 from the free-throw line.

Other major contributors include 6-foot-7 senior Shane Clark (5.3 ppg., 4.0 rpg.), who is shooting .525 from the field, 6-foot-5 junior Reggie Redding (7.0 ppg., 5.0 rpg.) and 6-foot-5 senior Dwayne Anderson (7.9 ppg., 5.7 rpg.). Six-foot-eight sophomore Antonio Pena averages 6.0 points and 4.9 rebounds in just 20 minutes of action per game.

It's time for the Fighting Irish to put together a run after winning four of their last six. Their offensive flow and man-to-man defense at Gampel Pavilion was impressive despite the loss to the Huskies. If the Irish can maintain that level of play, they'll come out of Monday's game with the Wildcats still clinging to their hopes for an NCAA tournament bid.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 3
Prister's Prediction: Notre Dame 89, Villanova 81
Season record: 20-8 straight up; 7-14 vs. points



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