Marquette must overcome history vs. Fighting Irish

IMG_2077Senior day is usually a time of dedication and fond memorial, but for Buzz Williams’ teams, it has consistently been one of the toughest tests of the year. This Saturday is no different.

Notre Dame, one of Marquette’s biggest rivals, visits the Bradley Center having won four of its last five games. The Fighting Irish rebounded from an embarrassing 71-54 road loss to Providence by beating the Panthers in Pittsburgh and knocking off Cincinnati in South Bend.

With road wins over the Bearcats and Pittsburgh and a neutral site win over Purdue this season, Notre Dame is fully intent on ending Marquette’s 24-game home win streak, which ranks second in the nation among active streaks.

In order to finish the season perfectly at home, the Golden Eagles must overcome the specter of their past. Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom took a big step toward that last year, winning on their senior day over Georgetown 83-69.

It was the first time a Williams-led Marquette squad had won the last home game of the season.

The closest Marquette had previously come to securing that elusive win was in 2010, when the Fighting Irish and Luke Harangody broke the Golden Eagles’ hearts in a 63-60 overtime loss. Since that game, Marquette is 1-2 against Notre Dame, with its one victory coming the next season at home.

The stakes are even higher this season, as Marquette’s chances at a Big East regular season title still hang in the balance with three games to go. A Notre Dame win would bring the Irish record equal with Marquette’s and likely end the Golden Eagles’ hopes of winning the conference for the first (and last) time.

This will be the last time in for the foreseeable future that Marquette will face its Big East Catholic rival, and with so much to be determined, it’s going to be a classic finish.

Players to Watch

Jack Cooley, senior forward

Cooley is a Naismith award candidate this season, as he has been Notre Dame’s clear-cut leader on the court. Averaging 14.4 points this season and pulling down 11 rebounds per game, Cooley has continued Notre Dame’s recent trend of bruising forwards.

It will be interesting to see him battle with Davante Gardner or Chris Otule, assuming Williams uses the “jumbo-package” involving both of his big men.

Pat Connaughton, sophomore guard

The last few Notre Dame-Marquette games have come down to the three-point line. In their win against the Fighting Irish two years ago, the Golden Eagles shot them out of the building with 12 three-pointers.

Last season, Notre Dame knocked down 11 threes in a 76-59 upset of then-No. 15 Marquette. Connaughton hit five of those bombs from beyond the arc.

This season he leads the Irish with 40 made three-pointers, but he’s been streaky, posting just a .345 shooting percentage from long distance.

If Marquette can keep him cold throughout the contest, it would go a long way toward keeping the Fighting Irish from breaking out.

Vander Blue, junior guard

Blue’s had his moments recently, but his production has been noticeably down, as he scored seven points in the road loss to Villanova and six points in the win over Syracuse.

In last season’s loss in South Bend, Blue played what had been the best game of his career, scoring 12 points and keeping Marquette’s transition game going for a good part of the contest.

Look for Blue to be a big scoring factor again and get back to his old form against the Irish. His play at both ends of the court will be huge for Marquette.