Saddle Up: The other Notre Dame game

January, 7, 2013
1/07/13
11:00
AM ET
Despite the Discover BCS National Championship, there is actually college basketball on television tonight. And, believe it or not, that college basketball features Notre Dame, who'll tip off at Cincinnati at 6:30 ET -- just in time to squeeze in some basketball before the Irish football team takes the field in the national title game against Alabama.

I have no idea whether Notre Dame fans can even think about basketball right now. I have a bunch of friends who went to Notre Dame, and I have a feeling basketball is going to be the last thing they care about as game time creeps ever closer tonight. They're nervous. Palms are sweaty, knees weak, etc. etc. But if you guys are looking for a distraction before the game, an athletics appetizer, you can't do much better than Notre Dame's trip to Cincinnati.

For the straight-up college hoops fiends, it's also a pretty fascinating strength-on-strength matchup. The Irish, who have been quietly rolling along to their 13-1 record since their high-profile November win over Kentucky, are playing some of the most efficient offensive basketball in the country. They've scored 1.20 points per possession in their 14 games this season, fourth best in the country. They rank in the top 10 in the country in field goal percentage from both outside (40.6) and inside (56.7) the arc. Jack Cooley is the best rebounder in the country, bar none -- his 23.4 offensive rebounding rate is the highest in the nation, and he grabs 24.0 percent of available boards -- and his offensive rating of 130.6 on 25.8 usage marks him as one of the most effective offensive players in the country. And Cooley is surrounded by some really capable, experienced players -- guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, senior forward Scott Martin, sharpshooter Pat Connaughton and really impressive 6-foot-7 freshman Cameron Biedscheid.

On defense, on the other hand, the Irish are plainly mediocre. Their defense is ranked No. 140 in the country in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, which is sort of strange considering (a) how good the Irish have been, and (b) how good the Irish are on offense. It's a huge disparity, but don't be fooled by the Irish's slow pace -- it's real.

Cincinnati is a little bit like that, but, you know, the opposite. The Bearcats boast the third-ranked efficiency defense in the country; they hold opponents to 29.0 percent from 3 and only 38.5 percent from 2 -- the third-lowest percentage for opponents in the country. If you've seen Cincy play, you realize the reason for this immediately: The Bearcats are long and athletic and fast, and they smother and swarm and extend their defense, and they make life very difficult for opposing offenses. They grind you, and usually it works.

When it doesn't work -- see Cincinnati's home loss to St. John's Saturday -- it's because the Bearcats' offense is, like ND's defense, pretty mediocre. The Bearcats' 1.06 points per possession ranks them No. 76 in the country. With the exception of Cashmere Wright, who shoots 46.2 from long range, and Sean Kilpatrick, who makes 51.8 percent of his twos, the Bearcats can be just as much of a grind on offense.

Which is why, in a nutshell, this game is pretty interesting: Because it will put Notre Dame's great offense against Cincinnati's great defense, and the game could well come down to who does their worst thing best -- whether Cincinnati can score on ND's soft D, or whether the Irish have improved enough to take control of the game.

Expect a slow pace, a tough, hard-fought game, expect a high-level Big East clash. And then go watch football. Not bad, right?

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