While Notre Dame has faced little adversity during its current run of success in the Big East, Louisville continues to do its best to overcome a rash of injuries and remain in the hunt for the league title.
Still hurting, the No. 16 Cardinals face a stiff challenge trying to snap the eighth-ranked Irish’s five-game winning streak Wednesday night in South Bend.
In three months Notre Dame (19-4, 8-3) has gone from a team that didn’t receive a vote in the preseason Top 25 to being one win away from recording its best start during Mike Brey’s 11 seasons as coach.
However, the Irish expect to play better after a mediocre effort in Sunday’s 76-69 win over a Rutgers team that’s near the bottom of the league standings. Notre Dame held the Scarlet Knights to 43.5 percent shooting but still was unable to completely pull away and build a comfortable cushion.
“It was a hard game for us,” Brey told the school’s official website. “It was good for our group because I think we’re going to be in a lot of games like this the rest of the way.”
Though Notre Dame is trying for a 17th straight home win overall and Louisville (18-5, 7-3) looks to avoid a third consecutive loss in South Bend, the Irish know they must play better than their last effort.
Second in the Big East, Notre Dame is one-half game ahead of the Cardinals. Four of the teams’ last eight meetings have gone to overtime, including Louisville’s 91-89 double-overtime victory last season.
Though Louisville is 2-3 on the road in the Big East, one of those wins came at then-No. 5 Connecticut in double-overtime Jan. 29.
“Coach will get us ready,” said Irish forward Scott Martin, who had 14 points against Rutgers. “We know what we’ve got coming in here, we’re excited for the challenge, and hopefully it will be a good game.”
Louisville coach Rick Pitino hopes for the same if leading scorer Preston Knowles (14.9 points per game) returns after missing Saturday’s 61-57 win over DePaul with a hamstring injury.
The Cardinals are already without injured forwards Rakeem Buckles, Jared Swopshire and center Gorgui Dieng. Starters Chris Smith (eye) and Peyton Siva (back spasms) are expected to play despite dealing with injuries of their own.
A total of 10 Louisville players have missed games this season.
“We’re hanging on,” Pitino said. “We’re doing the best we can but it’s very, very difficult.”
Backup guard Kyle Kuric scored 19 points and hit the game-clinching 3-pointer with just over 2 minutes remaining to help the Cardinals overcome a 43.8-percent shooting effort against the lowly Blue Demons at home.
“Someone has to step up every game,” said Kuric, averaging 14.3 points on 15-of-24 shooting the last three games. “We can’t let (injuries) affect us.”
The Cardinals will need someone to step up on the defensive end and contain Notre Dame star Ben Hansbrough, who scored 25 versus Rutgers and ranks among the league leaders averaging 17.2 points.
“When you step back a bit, look at this, and get away from the preseason hype machine, certainly he is a Big East player of the year candidate as well as national player of the year,” Brey said.
Hansbrough, who scored 21 against Louisville last season, has averaged 24.0 points on 31-of-56 shooting his last four games.