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Friday, April 19, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame men's basketball prepares for First Four matchup with Rutgers

Wednesday night, Notre Dame men’s basketball will begin their March Madness campaign. The Irish drew Rutgers in the No. 11 seed play-in game on Selection Sunday, sending the team to Dayton for a First Four showdown.

Being a well-balanced team, the Scarlet Knights loom as an interesting matchup for the Irish. They’re rock-solid and tireless defensively, anchored by Big Ten defensive player of the year Caleb McConnell. They can score both from deep (leading scorer Ron Harper Jr. shoots 39% from three) as well as down low (sophomore center Cliff Omoruyi averages almost 12 points per game).

But, perhaps Rutgers’ most valuable characteristic is their experience. Between the Scarlet Knights’ starting five of Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., Paul Mulcahey, Caleb McConnell and Cliff Omoruyi, there's 16 seasons of starting experience in some capacity. Three of those five are seniors, and the junior Mulcahey has been a consistent member of head coach Steve Pikiell’s rotation since 2019.

The Scarlet Knights have only just one tournament appearance in Pikiell’s tenure, but the core of their team has played together for three years now. They have a certain chemistry that enhances their game.

To get past Rutgers and advance to the round of 64 against Alabama, Notre Dame will have to answer a few major questions. The first is how the Irish will contain Cliff Omoruyi. Irish starting center and go-to post presence Paul Atkinson has quietly had an excellent season. However, he hasn’t had to square off with many players as outright physically dominant as Omoruyi. The 6’11” sophomore from Benin City, Nigeria likes to power his way into the post with pure strength and athletic ability, often finishing off his rim attacks with aggressive dunks. Atkinson has excelled at playing with finesse this season, but will face perhaps his toughest task yet locking down Omoruyi. 

Another key for the Irish will be figuring out how to get Dane Goodwin involved. Goodwin has been one of Notre Dame’s top scoring threats this season — except for games the Irish lose. In seven of Notre Dame’s ten defeats, Goodwin has posted scoring numbers below his season average. Most notably, this includes each of the team's last five losses. Conversely, in games where the junior guard outscores his season average, the Irish are 16-3. Notre Dame’s offense excels in spreading the points around. Five Irish players average more than nine points per game, but none average more than 15. But Goodwin especially helps force opponents to respect Notre Dame’s spacing from distance. He’ll need to be active early hitting shots for the Irish to win. 

Overall, Rutgers should reveal a lot about what Notre Dame’s odds are of winning a round of 64 game if the Irish are able to advance. The Scarlet Knights have the offensive capability to force Notre Dame to lock in defensively. This is something the Irish (80th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency) have struggled to do this year. They’ll also force the Irish to figure out how to handle a physically dominant center, another matchup that has given Notre Dame’s defense headaches this year. 

If Notre Dame can take down Rutgers, they'll prove themselves capable of stepping into a pressure game and playing their best basketball. The ability to play in the spotlight of an elimination game might be the most important characteristic the Irish can display if they want to make a run this March.

Notre Dame men’s basketball will take on Rutgers Wednesday at 9:10 p.m. EST. The game will be broadcasted on TruTV.