No opponent has defeated Notre Dame in nearly a month. The last one to do it is among the Big East’s worst teams but certainly seems capable of pulling off a win again.
Ranked for the first time this season, the No. 23 Irish take a six-game winning streak into their rematch with visiting Rutgers on Wednesday night.
“I guess we’ve got it now,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said when asked if his team has a target on its back.
“We played at times with the weight of the world on us. I think the one thing about Wednesday is I could get their attention because (Rutgers) beat us. That’s the last time we weren’t poised and we were probably a little immature at times. Since then, we’ve been on a great streak and we get to come full circle against Rutgers.”
Brey’s squad trailed the entire second half of a 65-58 road loss to the Scarlet Knights on Jan. 16.
The defeat left Notre Dame tied with Rutgers in the conference standings, but the teams have since gone on opposite paths.
The Irish (17-8, 9-3) responded with an upset of then-No. 1 Syracuse to spark the current win streak - three of the six victories were over ranked teams - and earn a spot in this week’s Top 25.
“It’s really an accomplishment for us, especially coming from where we were in conference play,” guard Eric Atkins said. “It really does feel good to have our whole season turn around like that.”
The Scarlet Knights (12-13, 4-8) have been far from pushovers. They defeated Florida and Connecticut when those teams were in the top 10, and their lone loss to a ranked opponent was a 52-50 defeat at No. 10 Georgetown on Jan. 21.
Only two Big East teams have fewer conference wins, though, with Rutgers having followed the Notre Dame victory by losing five of six. However, the only two of those defeats decided by more than five points were on the road earlier this month, and Rutgers was within four at Providence with under three minutes remaining and trailed Louisville by three midway through the second half.
It followed those defeats with a 59-54 home loss to Seton Hall last Wednesday, shooting a season-low 31.5 percent.
“Eventually that gets old,” coach Mike Rice said of the close losses. “We do lack experience, how many times have I said that? But you have to grind this out.”
The Irish grinded out a win Saturday, beating DePaul 84-76 after trailing with less than eight minutes to go.
Jack Cooley had 22 points and 14 rebounds, three days after finishing with 21 and 12 in a win at West Virginia. He shot 17 of 21 from the field in those games en route to Big East player of the week honors.
“I’m really proud of Jack,” Brey said. “He was obviously a man down low in Morgantown, and I told him we needed him to do it again. For him to do that back-to-back says a lot about his maturity and focus as a player.”
Cooley had nine points last month at Rutgers. Atkins led the Irish with 15 but shot 4 of 14, and starting backcourt mate Jerian Grant was held to nine. Grant averages a team-leading 13.0 points after scoring a season-high 22 on Saturday.
Freshman Eli Carter led Rutgers with 13 against the Irish and averages a team-best 13.8.
The Scarlet Knights are 1-6 in true road games, and they’ve dropped seven straight at South Bend.
The Irish have won 32 of 33 at home.