This has been a season of highs and lows for the Wildcats, and over the last six games it has been mostly lows for the 'Cats. Though most of Villanova's losses have been close affairs this season, the 'Cats have had a lot of them in February, and many are worried that the wheels may be coming off the bus.
Notre Dame, on the other-hand is a top-10 program this season, winning nine of the last 10 Big East games, and will be playing to clinch a top-4 finish and a double-bye at the Big East Tournament in New York. The Irish can also finish the season undefeated at home.
Though the Irish haven't been known for their defense in recent years, their effort against Seton Hall this weekend was one of their best. They held the Pirates to 48 points on 30.4 percent shooting. By all measures, it seems that the Irish are peaking at the right time.
Notre Dame is lead by senior guard Ben Hansbrough in points, assists and steals, averaging 18ppg, 4apg and 1.2stg. The conference Player of the Year candidate is not without help, however. Senior forward Tim Abromaitis brings 14.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 2.1 apg to the Irish, while fellow senior forward Carleton Scott averages 11.4ppg and 7.3 rebounds.
Notre Dame has been a solid team across the board this season, but their defense, like Villanova's hasn't generated a lot of turnovers. In a game where neither team is turning the ball over, rebounding becomes increasingly important. Villanova will need strong rebounding performances from it's bigs in order to secure a victory.
Moreso than rebounding, however, the 'Cats needs their shots to start falling in. Cold shooting has prevented even good defensive performances down the stretch from helping the 'Cats to win. While Corey Stokes was 6 of 10 from 3-point range, his teammates shot just 34% from the floor -- only slightly better than the 32.3% shooting performance they had against Syracuse. Corey Fisher has notably been among those struggling, with only 10 points in the last two games after setting a career-high against DePaul.
In the last two games, the 'Cats haven't even been hitting their Free Throws at their average rate, connecting on 65.2% against St. Johns and 63.0% against Syracuse.
The once offensive-juggernaught that was Villanova hoops was lost somewhere around Piscataway, however, as it seems that the Rutgers game was the last time that 'Nova put up a spectacular team shooting performance. The 'Cats have to shoot through their struggles to try and regain that touch, but when the shots are still not falling, the back-up plan might be to pound the ball inside and hopefully get to the line. Perhaps if the inside game were to be established, it would help open up better shots on the outside as well.
Either way, something has to give for the 'Cats. They have underperformed expectations and their talent level in the second half of this season, and though an NCAA Tournament bid is likely assured, this team may not be mentally prepared for the challenge. So many close losses and tough performances take their toll on a team, and one worries that, as well as losing games, the Wildcats may have lost their confidence and "swagger" in the last few weeks.
Right now, Villanova has as much momentum as a statue garden. They desperately needs a big win either this week or in the Big East Tournament in order to begin building back up to their former winning-ways.
The game will tip off at 7:00pm EST from South Bend, Indiana. Television coverage will be provided nationwide by ESPN.