The first one was supposed to be easy and, relatively speaking, it was.
No. 10 seed Notre Dame's 61-50 victory over Rutgers Tuesday night was anything but a cakewalk. But the Irish led most of the game after falling behind early and then pulled away with a 12-0 run, led by point guard Tory Jackson, who seems to play some of his best basketball in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Now it's on to Wednesday night at 7 p.m. EST against No. 7 seed West Virginia (21-10, 10-8), which won five of its last seven regular season games, although the competition was anything but stiff throughout most of that stretch.
The Mountaineers, coached by the irascible Bob Huggins, knocked off teams like Rutgers, a fading Cincinnati, South Florida and DePaul before falling by three points at home to Louisville.
The Irish might be catching West Virginia at the right time with sharp-shooting senior Alex Ruoff coming off one of his worst performances of his career. Ruoff managed just four shots, missing all of them, in a zero-point effort against the Cardinals. He also was just 3-of-15 in a losing effort at Cincinnati.
But on Feb. 18 against the Irish, the 6-foot-6 Ruoff—the only senior in the West Virginia rotation—scored 24 points as the Mountaineers out-rebounded the Irish, 44-32, and Notre Dame struggled from the free-throw line (10-of-20) en route to a 79-68 setback.
Ruoff, 6-foot-7 junior Da'Sean Butler (17.1 ppg., 6.1 rpg.) and 6-foot-9 freshman Devin Ebanks (9.8 ppg., 7.4 rpg.) combined for 54 points in the 11-point victory over the Irish. The Mountaineers had a startling 17 offensive rebounds that night at Morgantown, including five by 6-foot-7 junior Wellington Smith (5.7 ppg.) and three by 6-foot-8 freshman sub Kevin Jones (6.9 ppg., 5.0 rpg.). Even seldom-used 6-foot-7 sophomore Cam Thoroughman had four points and four rebounds against the Irish.
Only a 7-for-27 three-point shooting night (.259) and an 0-for-7 effort from the field by 6-foot-2 freshman Darryl Bryant marred an otherwise strong performance by the Mountaineers, who withstood Notre Dame's early charge to take a slim lead into halftime before pulling away over the final 20 minutes.
Speaking of players who are struggling, first-team all-Big East performer Luke Harangody has had some recent shooting cold streaks, particularly against Rutgers and including Tuesday night at the Garden. Harangody made just 3-of-17 shots, including 0-of-6 in the second half, as the Irish junior played just 25 minutes.
The Irish need Harangody at the top of his game against West Virginia's long and active front line, which also means that sophomore Tyrone Nash will have to contribute more than zero points and four rebounds in the nine minutes he played against the Mountaineers three weeks ago.
Additionally, the Irish must do a much better job of shooting from three-point range than they did in the first meeting with West Virginia when they connected on just 3-of-14 (.214), including 2-of-8 by Kyle McAlarney.
This is a young West Virginia team, and perhaps they may experience a bit of stage fright at Madison Square Garden. That certainly shouldn't happen to the senior-laden Irish, although their spotty and inconsistent performances have become the norm rather than the exception this season.
The trio of Butler-Ruoff-Ebanks averages 43 points per game. If the Irish can hold them in that range—as opposed to the 54 they scored in mid-February against the Irish—Notre Dame likely will win the basketball game.
Unfortunately, the Irish aren't playing solid basketball right now. There are too many holes in their game, from their defense to their free-throw shooting (although Nash came up big against Rutgers) to their rebounding woes. Bob Huggins will push his troops to the brink to advance to Thursday's game against No. 2 seed Pittsburgh.
Mike Brey has pushed all the buttons this year, and at a certain point, a coach runs out of buttons to push, particularly against yet another team that the Irish have difficulty matching up against.
Maybe the Irish have one more run in them. A senior-dominated team should. But the hunch here is that Notre Dame's NCAA tournament hopes end tonight.
Pointspread: West Virginia by 4 ½
Prister's Prediction: West Virginia 72, Notre Dame 64
Season record: 22-9 straight up; 8-16 vs. points