One Week, a World Apart

Grant will be key to ND's continued ascent

From middle-of-the pack and stagnant to the league's top tier and on the rise, Notre Dame's most challenging game pairing of the season is on tap for Mike Brey's Irish this week. O'Malley examines tonight's matchup between Big East co-leader Syracuse and suddenly alive -- and tied for third -- Notre Dame.

What a difference a week makes.

Notre Dame touched down in Tampa last Saturday (January 26) mired at 3-3 and riding a wholly-unattractive two-game losing skid. The Irish looked up and saw seven teams ahead of them in the conference standings.

10 days, three wins, and a rotation reinvention later, head coach Mike Brey has his Irish sitting pretty at 6-3, tied for third in the Big East Standings with a team they've beaten and will face again (Cincinnati), a team they've lost to (Georgetown), and a team they'll play twice (Louisville) on tap before season's end.

But first comes the season-headliner to date and a Carrier Dome challenge vs. #6 Syracuse. At 6-2 (18-3 overall) the Orange are predictably tied for first in league play but as losers of two straight and still smarting from a loss at their personnel house of horrors, the Petersen Events Center, and a 65-55 defeat to Pittsburgh.

Both teams played Saturday with the Irish winning in overtime at perennially struggling DePaul. Syracuse returns home trying to move past back-to-back road upsets and Notre Dame upset then-No. 1 Syracuse to end the Orange 20-game winning streak last January.

Put it all together, and in betting parlance, this is what is known as "a bad spot."

The Irish will get Syracuse's best tonight at 7 p.m. on ESPN, and even short-handed, their best is more than ND has to offer. Couple that with the fact that Notre Dame's entire bench (all two of them) will take the floor at one of college basketball's toughest places to play for the first time and the initial Las Vegas betting line of 9.5 points in favor of the Orange seems more than appropriate.

A win tonight would rank as one of the five biggest Vegas upsets of the 13-season Brey era. Three others occurred over the last three seasons, with Notre Dame winning as 11-point underdogs at then #10 Georgetown in 2010, at #2 Pittsburgh (dogs of 10.5) in 2011, and at Connecticut (9-point dogs) last January.

Though the method of each win among the trio differed drastically, each contest contained a pair of similarities: Notre Dame led for the bulk of the second half in all three, and in each of the threesome they converted free throws throughout, knocking down a combined 32 of 43 road freebies to hold off their higher-ranked foe.

Brey's Irish are technically the fifth-best free throw shooting team in the Big East this season (73.6 percent), but 11 misses vs. DePaul on Saturday, including 10 in their first 21 attempts, opened the door for a Blue Demons surge that forced overtime.

Notre Dame can't give back charity offerings this evening and expect to withstand the inevitable scoring runs their hosts will chalk up along the way.

Dueling Duo

First there was Horace and Harvey. Now its Jerian and Jerami. Horace Grant is the twin brother with whom most basketball fans are familiar thanks to his three championship rings earned alongside Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, et al during the early 1990s with the Chicago Bulls.

Harvey played for a title too, losing the 1988 NCAA Championship in upset fashion to the outstandingly named "Danny Manning and the Miracles." Both produced more than a decade of NBA ball, but its the latter's sons that will take center stage tonight in Syracuse.

Notre Dame's junior (redshirt-sophomore) shooting guard Jerian vs. Syracuse's true freshman forward Jerami.

Said Jerian Grant in an interview with Syracuse.com reporter Donna Ditota, "It's not like I can let my little brother win. It's just one of those things that my team has my back on."

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Player Profiles

A look at key Orange and Irish in tonight's contest:

Orange forward C.J. Fair: Scored 20 in 40 minutes Saturday as the Orange fell in Pittsburgh. Fair has hit for double-digits in 11 straight contests, adding three double-doubles and four separate 20-plus point outings in that span. The 6'8" junior scored just six points in 23 minutes during last year's upset loss to the Irish in South Bend.

Orange guard Brandon Triche: The senior guard scuffled Saturday vs. the Panthers, missing all five of his three-point offerings en route to a 4-14 shooting effort overall along with six turnovers. Triche had scored 20-plus in four of his previous seven outings including a dominant 23-point, six rebound effort vs. then-No. 1 Louisville, a 70-68 Syracuse win in which Triche missed just four of 13 shots and connected on 5 of 7 from long range.

Orange point guard Michael Carter-Williams: Leads the nation in assists at 8.6 per game. The 6'6" sophomore guard hit just 7 of his 29 shots in back-to-back losses last week at Villanova and Pittsburgh. Carter-Williams is 2 for 15 from beyond the arc in Syracuse's three losses on the season (Temple is the third) and has suffered through five horrendous shooting efforts over the last 40 days, though when he's finding holes in a team's defense, Carter-Williams is among the nation's best at creating baskets for his teammates and free throw for himself.

Irish center Jack Cooley: The league's hardest worker inside and perhaps its most effective interior player, Cooley holds a distinct advantage vs. Syracuse sophomore center Rakeem Christmas tonight at the Carrier Dome. At 6'9" 245 pounds, Cooley averages 15 points and 11.3 boards per game, collecting a whopping 46 boards in his last three contests while scoring 49 points. He's hit for double figures scoring in 16 of the last 17 games and for double-digit rebounds in five straight, in 8 of 11, and in 12 of Notre Dame's last 17 contests.

Irish point guard Eric Atkins: Crafty veteran helped "create a win" for Notre Dame at DePaul Saturday. As his teammates (sans Cooley) tightened around him, Atkins willed his way to score 9 of his team's last 11 points in the final minutes and overtime. The true junior has produced double digit scoring outings in 8 of his last 10 and has 14 steals over a six-game span, while knocking down 22 of 29 from the charity stripe and 13 of 25 three-point shots in Big East play.

Irish combo guard Jerian Grant: Notre Dame's chief creator of half-court offense, Grant has 36 assists and 62 points over the last five games. Streaky from long range, Grant has been off of late, connecting on just 9 of his last 28 three-point shots, this despite a 4 for 7 outing vs. Villanova last Wednesday. Grant has rested a combined five minutes over his team's last five games.

Orange X-Factor -- Jerami Grant: Newly-minted starter thanks to injuries and attrition for the Orange, the 6'8" freshman struggled Saturday, hitting just 1 of 8 shots vs. Pittsburgh's zone. Grant gives Syracuse a third starter in the 6'8-6'9" range, a No. 3 player height advantage the Irish must combat with its freshmen pair of Cam Biedscheid and Zach Auguste off the bench.

Irish X-Factor -- Pat Connaughton: Lost in the shuffle over the last two games, scoring 0 and 8 with a combined 3 for 12 shooting effort (1 for 8 from long range) albeit in two Irish wins. Connaughton's corner jump shot from beyond the arc will be a decisive factor tonight in the Carrier Dome. The Irish probably can't win without 2-3 triples from the true sophomore, not to mention another five rebounds, a number he's contributed in six of his last 10 contests.

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