Notre Dame sits at 16-4 on the season with there only non-conference loss at the hands of Big 5 and Atlantic-10 member, St. Joes. The Wildcats knocked off the Hawks earlier this season, but the transitive property won't do the 'Cats much good as they travel to South Bend, likely for the last time, to take on the Irish.
Notre Dame was good enough to be ranked earlier this season, but were knocked out of the polls after a loss at home to Georgetown on January 21st. Three of the Irish's four losses came at home this season.
Villanova enters the game coming off of two huge wins at home against #5 Louisville and #3 Syracuse, but their pending game against the unranked Irish may be more difficult. The Irish, unlike those top-5 programs, can shoot, and their offense is more efficient than those sported by the defense-first Orange and Cardinals. They are 7th in the nation in field goal percentage and connect on over 39% from deep. They are third in the nation in assists-per-game as well, and lead the Big East in offensive efficiency rating on KenPom.com since the conference season began.
Where the Wildcats hold an edge on the Irish is in defense, however, ranking 56th in defensive efficiency, Nova is lightyears ahead of the 186th-rated Irish 'D'. Villanova has held opponents slightly under the national average for three-point percentage, but they have also faced a number of teams (including the past two) that were not terribly good at making those shots.
Villanova still turns the ball over too much, while Notre Dame has protected their possessions.
There are as many reasons for Villanova to lose this game as there were leading up to the last two, but a smart game-plan and some tireless execution will be the key. The Wildcats aren't going to be a great offensive team, but they have a chance to be great on defense, which is good enough to win a lot of games, but the defensive intensity, adjustments and execution need to be good enough to continue to neutralize some of the top offensive teams.
Syracuse and Louisville are ranked 12th and 17th, respectively in offensive efficiency. Notre Dame is ranked 7th.
The Wildcats will have to put pressure on the Irish shooters and slow their impressive shooting performances. Inside, it will be up to Mouph Yarou and Daniel Ochefu to stick to Jack Cooley and make it tough for him to put up shots underneath -- where he connects on about 60% of his attempts.
Expect to see Darrun Hilliard or Aschraf Yacoubou used on guard Eric Atkins, who is probably the team's most dangerous deep threat with a 44.8% clip from beyond the arc (especially with Scott Martin out until at-least late February). The Irish have other solid shooters though, so the Villanova defense will have to execute it's switches and help without offering up any easy opportunities to Atkins or Pat Connaughton; the latter has posted another terrific shooting percentage, but haven't been as involved on offense as Atkins.
Even without the ball, the Irish will be dangerous on the perimeter, and they are one of the best passing teams in the nation right now (ranking 6th in assists-per-made field goal). That means that passing lanes will be a concern and shooters need to be a concern anywhere on the floor.
Offensively, Villanova will hope that the streaky shooters get hot during the game, but scoring inside the paint may be the easiest path for a team that is playing big more often than not. Even the guards should look to get inside and draw fouls, since the team as a whole has normally been a solid performer at the free-throw line.
The bottom line is that after prevailing in two straight defensive battles, the Wildcats are now faced with a team that is dramatically stronger on offense. Even without an Associated Press-assigned number next to their name, the Notre Dame team is as dangerous an opponent as Syracuse or Louisville for Nova.