Winners of two straight at home after an agonizing seven-game losing streak, Notre Dame (14-10, 5-7) will see if they can carry their recent defensive intensity on the road to Morgantown when they take on West Virginia (17-8, 6-6) Wednesday night.
The Mountaineers are coming off an impressive 93-72 victory over No. 13 Villanova at the WVU Coliseum. Six-foot-seven junior Da'Sean Butler let loose with 43 points against the Wildcats as the Mountaineers remained in the middle of the Big East pack, vying for an NCAA tournament berth.
West Virginia, coached by Bob Huggins in his second season at his alma mater, is capable of playing exceptional defense. The Mountaineers rank first in the Big East in three-point percentage defense (.239), third in scoring defense (66.2) and fourth in field-goal percentage defense (.433).
Wednesday night, it will be West Virginia's stingy three-point defense against the Big East's No.1 shooting three-point team. The Irish pace the conference in three-point percentage (.388) and three-pointers made per game (8.3).
Notre Dame has had incredible success against the Mountaineers in recent years, winning 13 out of the last 14, including a 69-56 victory last January at the Joyce Center. But look for this trip to the WVU Coliseum to be extremely challenging for the Irish, who are just 1-5 on the road in conference play.
West Virginia has beaten the teams at home that they should have beaten (Villanova, Providence, St. John's and South Florida) and fallen to two of the top teams in the country (Connecticut by six and Pittsburgh by 12). The victories over Villanova (by 21) and Providence (by 27) were accomplished in impressive fashion.
In addition to Butler, who is averaging 21.1 points per game in conference play, the Mountaineers are led by 6-foot-6 senior Alex Ruoff (15.9), who scored 24 points in the one-sided victory over Providence.
The rest of the major contributors to the Mountaineers' cause generally are youngsters. Six-foot-two freshman Darryl Bryant averages 10.0 points per game. The long and athletic Devin Ebanks, a 6-foot-9 freshman, averages 9.1 points and 6.6 rebounds to go with 18 blocked shots.
Six-foot-eight freshman Kevin Jones and 6-foot-7 sophomore John Flowers combine for another 10.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game with Flowers adding 23 blocked shots. Six-foot-seven junior Wellington Smith (5.6 ppg., 4.0 rpg.) is another impediment in the lane with a team-leading 36 blocked shots.
The Mountaineers are adequate-to-exceptional in most categories, including turnover margin (second in the Big East at +3.08) and assist-to-turnover ratio (fourth at 1.2). They even rank second in the conference behind Notre Dame with a .770 mark from the free-throw line.
Yet the Irish are playing their best basketball in the last six weeks. They held Louisville and South Florida to just 57 points each, marking the first time since Notre Dame joined the Big East in 1995-96 that they've limited back-to-back foes to under 60 points.
The challenge for the Irish will be to maintain their three-point shooting prowess away from the Joyce Center. That will be difficult against the Mountaineers, who allowed Notre Dame just 12 three-point attempts last year (the Irish made five) in a 69-56 victory.
The Irish went inside to Luke Harangody that night as Harangody scored 29 points while grabbing 16 rebounds. Kyle McAlarney, who finished with just seven points on 1-of-4 shooting from three-point range, had nine assists in that victory over West Virginia.
Look for another close, relatively low-scoring affair in the WVU Coliseum Wednesday night. The key for the Irish on the defensive end will be preventing Butler and/or Ruoff from an offensive explosion. Notre Dame controlled the backboards against the Mountaineers last year (46-33). But that will be a more difficult goal to achieve this time around without Rob Kurz and with West Virginia's addition of Ebanks to the equation.
If McAlarney and Ryan Ayers combine for another 10 three-pointers as they did Sunday against South Florida, the Irish will travel to Providence this weekend with an excellent chance to even their record in Big East play.
But Huggins will have his Mountaineers hugging the three-point line, overplaying Notre Dame's three-point shooters. Harangody likely will have a big night offensively. The key to an Irish victory—as it has been throughout this up-and-down season—is how much help his teammates have to offer.
The hunch here is that the veteran Irish squad will put up a good fight, but it won't be enough.
Pointspread: West Virginia by 8 ½
Prister's Prediction: West Virginia 71, Notre Dame 64
Season record: 17-7 straight up; 6-11 vs. points