Feb. 5, 2001
Notre Dame and St. John's renew one of the best BIG EAST rivalries this evening in the Joyce Center. This is the 25th meeting between the two schools, with possibly none of the previous 24 meetings having more impact on the BIG EAST standings than tonight's game.
The BIG EAST Conference reformed into two divisions for the 2000-01 season and Notre Dame was sent to the west division, while the Red Storm reside in the east division. Both teams find themselves in similar territory tonight, second place in their division and hoping to move up.
The Irish lead the all-time series 13-11, including a 73-60 victory in front of a sold-out Joyce Center crowd last season. That 13-point Notre Dame victory seemed a harbinger of future stellar matchups between the two Catholic schools loaded with underclassmen talent, but things have changed for both teams since they last stepped on the court together.
St. John's, 6-2 in conference play and 13-7 overall, is getting over 60 percent of its offense from players who were not on the Red Storm roster last season. Bootsy Thornton and Lavor Postell, who accounted for 26 points in last year's Irish-Red Storm meeting, were lost to graduation. Erick Barkley, who scored15 points in the game last season, left St. John's for the NBA draft and was eventually picked by the Portland Trailblazers. The nucleus of the 1999-2000 BIG EAST Championship and NCAA second-seed St. John's team was gone before the next season even began.
Red Storm head coach Mike Jarvis (65-23 at St. John's) recovered with a strong recruiting class and currently has three freshmen in his starting lineup. Point guard Omar Cook, shooting guard Willie Shaw and center Mohamed Diakite combine with veterans Anthony Glover and Alpha Bangura to make up the starting five. Cook averages over 16 points and nine assists a game, while Glover has reached double figures in 14 games this season.
Jarvis and his team encountered some growing pains early in the season, suffering losses to George Washington, Fordham, Ohio State and Hofstra in a two-week stretch, but the Red Storm has recovered in time for BIG EAST play. Jarvis' team is right behind east-division leader Boston College.
Notre Dame has gone through its share of changes as well, mostly in its performance on the court. When the Irish faced the Red Storm last season, they were fresh off a home-court loss to Miami (Fla.). The Irish have yet to lose on their home floor in conference competition this season, knocking off Syracuse, West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Rutgers over the past three weeks. Notre Dame also boasts an eight-game win streak in the Joyce Center, dating back to an 82-68 victory over Tennessee Tech (Dec. 17).
In addition to its home court efficiency in the BIG EAST, Notre Dame has changed from its typical position in the league's standings. The Irish are tied with BIG EAST west division leader Syracuse in the loss column (6-2 vs. 5-2) heading into the Feb. 3, road game at Pittsburgh. It is the highest position Notre Dame has enjoyed this late in the season since it joined the league in 1995-96. The four-game win streak over BIG EAST opponents Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Syracuse and Georgetown marks the first time the Irish have posted four-straight wins against league opponents.
The Notre Dame starting lineup has changed since last year's game as well. Harold Swanagan has been in the starting five over the last four games, with David Graves providing some scoring punch off the bench. The top six Irish players, Troy Murphy, Ryan Humphrey, Martin Ingelsby, Matt Carroll, Graves and Swanagan have since been dubbed the "starting six." All six log starter-worthy minutes in each game. In the Irish victory at #10 Georgetown (Jan. 23), Murphy played 38 minutes, Humphrey 30, Swanagan 21, Carroll 35, Ingelsby 39 and Graves 29.
Another change in the Notre Dame team structure St. John's will have to contend with is the production of Swanagan when he is in the starting lineup this season. The junior forward has stepped up his production across the board in BIG EAST competition. In league play, Swanagan is giving the Irish seven points and six rebounds a game and combines with Humphrey and Murphy to form one of the best frontcourts in the conference.
As Swanagan has moved into the starting lineup, Graves has adjusted to his spot as the first man off the bench. Giving the Irish instant offense when inserted in the mix, Graves has posted 13 points and five rebounds a game since assuming his new role. The Lexington, Ky., native also blistered West Virginia for 17 points and nine rebounds on Jan. 21.
In keeping with the 'changes' theme, the Notre Dame defense has gone through a metamorphosis. An exclusive zone team the last time St. John's visited the Joyce Center, the Irish are now able to display a variety of defensive fronts, including an ever-improving man-to-man defensive look.
It is that man-to-man defense, combined with an effective 2-3 matchup zone, that helped Notre Dame post its four-game conference win streak. Over the last four games, Notre Dame opponents have managed just 36 percent shooting and the Irish have forced 18 turnovers a contest.
Notre Dame's point guard, Martin Ingelsby, will be another different look for the Red Storm this season. Last year, Notre Dame's Jimmy Dillon sealed the win over St. John's with a steal and dunk with 2:19 left to put his team up 61-58. The Irish would eventually outscore St. John's 12-2 the rest of the game to seal the victory.
This season, Ingelsby has the ability to drive to the basket or launch a back-breaking three pointer. At 10th-ranked Georgetown last Saturday, the Irish point guard nailed a three-point shot to tie the game at 59 with six minutes left. The Irish outscored the Hoyas 19-12 from that point on to earn the victory.
One constant for the Irish and a holdover from the game against St. John's last year, is the production of All-American and Player-of-the-Year candidate Troy Murphy. Murphy posted 30 points and 18 rebounds versus the Red Storm last season and currently averages 23 points and nine rebounds a game in 2000-01.
The junior all-world power forward has amassed a number of memorable performances against top competition this season, something the Irish will be hoping for tonight. When the Irish faced 15th-ranked Seton Hall (Jan. 8), Murphy scored 23 points and grabbed 20 rebounds, becoming just the seventh player in league history to hit the "20-20" plateau. On Jan. 23, against 10th-ranked Syracuse, Murphy put up 34 points and 16 rebounds, leading the Irish to their first win over a top 10 team at home since 1994.
The Georgetown win also served as a reminder to Notre Dame's BIG EAST opponents that there is more to the Irish squad than an All-American power forward that wears jersey number three.
Murphy was sent to the bench after committing his fifth foul with 4:28 remaining in the game. Notre Dame responded by forgetting its early-season struggles at the line to hit 15 of 19 free throws and seal the upset victory.
While each team has undergone numerous changes since they last met, one thing is certain for the fans in the Joyce Center and the players on the court. Tonight's matchup will be one of the best of the BIG EAST season and the repercussions for the winner and the loser might be felt far into the months of February and March.