The home stretch to the regular season is in sight as the Notre Dame basketball team visits Marquette on Saturday in a key clash between the two long time Midwestern rivals. The matchup is the first of three remaining regular season games for both teams, and both are vying for a double bye to start the March 13-16 Big East Tournament.
No. 20 Notre Dame (22-6, 10-5 Big East) sits in fourth place in the current Big East standings, while No. 22 Marquette (20-7, 11-4) is in third place, just percentage points ahead of the Fighting Irish in the standings. Georgetown (22-4, 12-3) and Louisville (23-5, 11-4) are in first and second place, respectively.
Georgetown hosts Rutgers this weekend and then travels to Villanova before closing the regular season at Syracuse (tied with ND for fourth place). Louisville is at Syracuse this weekend and then hosts Cincinnati before a regular season finale against the Irish.
Nine of the top 10 teams in the current standings has locked-up at least a first round bye (seventh-place Connecticut is on probation), and the jam-packed nature of the standings makes Saturday's game against the Golden Eagles especially important for both teams.
"We know we have the ultimate challenge playing Marquette in their building with a 24-game home win streak and senior day and all of the above," Irish head coach Mike Brey said during his Big East teleconference this week. "But our group, this nucleus has loved big challenges like this, especially on the road. They've played well in a number of them."
Marquette's last home loss was more than a year ago. They won their last nine home games last season after a 74-57 defeat at the hands of Vanderbilt on Dec. 29, 2011 and they have won all 15 home games this season.
Saturday's game marks the 117th all-time meeting between the two Catholic universities. The Irish own an 80-36 advantage in the series, including two straight victories. The only meeting between the two teams last season was a 76-59 win by the Irish in South Bend. Pat Connaughton hit five three-pointers in that game and registered 23 points and 11 rebounds.
Vander Blue leads the Golden Eagles with a 14.3 scoring average. The junior guard has also hit 30 of 100 three-point attempts this season. Davante Gardner is Marquette's only other double-digit scorer at 12.1 per game. The 6'8, 290 pound forward has come off the bench in all 27 games this season and is a top candidate for the Big East's sixth-man of the year award.
Marquette's two seniors that will be honored Saturday are Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett. Cadougan is ninth all-time at Marquette with 418 assists. Lockett is a transfer from Arizona State who is averaging 7.4 points and 4.7 rebounds. He has started 26 of 27 games this season.
Saturday's game tips-off at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
How the series with Marquette continues in the future is uncertain right now. Marquette is one of the "Catholic seven" schools that will soon leave the Big East to form a new basketball-oriented conference. News broke Thursday that Indianapolis-based Butler and Xavier (Cincinnati) could be signing-up with Marquette, Georgetown, DePaul, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's, and Villanova in the new league.
The new league also wants to keep the Big East name as well when it forms.
"It almost seems fitting that they should have the name," Brey commented. "I only say that just from the impression and who they've been in the league and how they've carried the flag for the Big East - those Catholic schools."
Georgetown, Villanova, St. John's, Providence, and Seton Hall were among the founding members of the Big East. In addition to Butler and Xavier, Dayton and Omaha-based Creighton may join the other Catholic schools within the next couple years.
"I think it's going to be a heck of a league," Brey continued. "It was a league that we investigated a little bit when all this movement happened. Maybe it would be fitting for them to have that title, given the tradition and history of those Catholic schools in the league."
Brey said Notre Dame looked at the possible scenario of staying with those Catholic schools well over a year ago, before the announcement that those schools would go their own way. It was one of a handful of possibilities the school had on the table prior to deciding to join the ACC in all sports but football and hockey.
"We felt the ACC was going to be the best landing spot for us," Brey added. "Certainly, the bowl tie-ins in football that are available there are extremely important (and) would not have been able to take place if we stayed with the Catholic seven."
The New Threads
Old school fans and alums likely cringed when Adidas announced the new "adizero" uniforms the Irish basketball teams will be wearing during this year's postseason games. The uniforms are a florescent green and include a camouflage pattern on the shorts.
"As I said when I was asked about the black uniforms, I said our players love it," Brey said on Thursday of the bright uniforms. "And most importantly, that group of dudes I'm trying to get here over the next couple of years, I know they really love it."
Brey got his first glimpse of the uniforms back on Oct. 6 in Chicago when the Irish football team played Miami in the Shamrock Series game. The football team wore its own special Adidas uniforms in that night's 41-3 trouncing of the Hurricanes.
Both the Notre Dame men's and women's basketball teams will wear the new-look uniforms beginning with their respective Big East Tournament games and will continue to wear them throughout the NCAA Tournament.