Trying to Stop The Irish

Rick Pitino spent the better part of three days breaking down videotape of teams trying in vain to stop No. 17 Notre Dame.

The Louisville coach went bleary-eyed watching teams try zone, man-to-man and a myriad of ``junk'' defenses that desperate coaches sometimes experiment with - Pitino included - when attempting to disrupt an opponent's offensive flow.

Oddsmakers from Bodog have made Louisville -8 point spread favorites (View College Basketball odds) for today’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 78% of bets for this game have been placed on Notre Dame +8 (View College Basketball bet percentages).

Finally, after watching the Fighting Irish light up Syracuse's trademark 2-3 zone in a 94-87 win on Sunday, Pitino turned the video machine off in a fit of exasperation.

``They've been destroying zones,'' he said. ``They shot like 56 percent for the game against Syracuse. I hate zone after watching that game.''

Too bad, because Pitino knows the 13th-ranked Cardinals (22-6, 12-3) have little choice but to give it a shot when they host Notre Dame (21-5, 11-3) on Thursday.

``We've got to try a little bit of everything and see which one works,'' Pitino said.

Not much has against the Irish, who have blitzed opponents this season behind a breathtaking fast break and a steady dose of center Luke Harangody, the leading candidate for Big East Player of the Year. Harangody, however, is hardly doing it alone. Try to double-team him and he'll simply kick it out to guard Kyle McAlarney, who set a school record with nine 3-pointers against the Orange.

``It's like playing Georgetown at twice the speed,'' Pitino said. ``They're just very difficult to play against. Shot selection is so important for us because if you take a bad shot against them they get out on the break so well. ... They can beat you so many different ways.''

Notre Dame has won eight of nine by simply running past teams. The Irish have become so efficient in their motion offense and so quick to get out on the break opponents have been rendered breathless bystanders at times. Turn your head the wrong way, and odds are there's a Notre Dame player streaking to the basket right behind you.

``You can't connect the dots,'' Pitino said. ``You can't say 'Go here and we're going to scramble from this point to the next point.' It's not going to happen in this game.''

Maybe, but Notre Dame coach Mike Brey knows all zones aren't created equal.

Syracuse's lack of depth prevented the Orange from extending the defense to get out on shooters like McAlarney. The Cardinals and their 10-man rotation have no such problems. Get beat, get tired or get in foul trouble and Pitino doesn't hesitate to go with someone else.

``I think their zone is the most active zone I've seen,'' Brey said. ``They've got length and athletic ability and they bounce around in it and they're able to keep fresh bodies in it.''

The Cardinals are fourth in the nation in field goal defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 37.5 percent from the floor. Their fullcourt press makes teams work to simply get the ball up the floor, and Brey said the Irish can't afford to simply take a breath when they cross midcourt. Notre Dame thumped Louisville last year by attacking the press to get easy baskets.

``That got us going a little bit and we were successful,'' Brey said. ``We have to remember to try and do that.''

It hasn't been easy for opponents this season against the Cardinals. No Big East team has managed more than 58 points at Freedom Hall this year. Notre Dame, by contrast, hasn't been held under 64 points all season. Yet Pitino doesn't necessarily think his team has to walk it up the floor every possession to win.

``You know going in the way they're going to play (fast) and we're going to play fast with them,'' Pitino said. ``We're not going to try and slow it down.''

The Cardinals have found a way to turn up the tempo when they've had to during their seven-game winning streak. They've topped 80 points three times during the streak and played well enough offensively to overcome an uncharacteristically sloppy defensive performance during a 75-73 victory at Pittsburgh on Sunday.

The winner of Thursday's game all but sews up a top-four seed in the Big East tournament and a much-needed first-round bye.

It's a position the Cardinals have been preparing themselves to be in all year, though they're not worried about the big picture. Do the little things right and things tend to fall into place.

Besides, no matter at what speed the game is played, if it comes down to the last three minutes, players on both sides know what to do.

``Late in the second half it is going to come down to who is going to stop the other team,'' said Louisville guard Andre McGee. ``It is going to come to a point where shots are not going to fall and you've got to be able to (get after it).''

by: Staff Writers - Email Us

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