The madness of the NCAA Tournament is largely unfamiliar territory for both the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, but the winner of their play-in matchup on Wednesday night will move into the Round of 64 against West Region 6-seed Alabama.
Notre Dame (22-12) has not tallied a win during March Madness since 2016, which saw the Fighting Irish reach their second Elite Eight in as many seasons after falling short of the regional final in every appearance from 1980 to 2014.
Rutgers (18-13), on the other hand, reached the Big Dance last season for the first time since 1991, when the Scarlet Knights lost 79-76 to Arizona State after finishing the regular season atop the Atlantic 10. The last time that Rutgers made it to the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons, however, came all the way back in 1975 and '76. The 1975 Tournament saw Rutgers lose in the first round to Louisville, only for the Scarlet Knights to right the ship the very next season and reach the Final Four before falling to Michigan.
With the First Four kicking off the action, Notre Dame and Rutgers meet as 11-seeds coming off losses in their only games of the ACC Tournament and Big Ten Tournament, respectively. Notre Dame has won 20 of the 33 all-time meetings with Rutgers, including each of the last three showdowns and 14 of the 20 with Mike Brey at the helm. It's been nine years since these two programs last met on the hardwood, though, a 69-61 Fighting Irish victory in the 2013 Big East Tournament in both schools’ final season in the conference.
First Four: No. 11 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (22-10) vs. No. 11 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (18-13)
Time: Wednesday, March 16 at 9:10 p.m. ET (approximately)
Where: UD Arena (Dayton, Ohio)
Spread: Notre Dame -1
Keys for Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s performance from 3-point range has been a key factor in determining its record throughout this campaign. The Fighting Irish have connected on at least 10 3-pointers in 15 games, posting a 14-1 record in those contests. Notre Dame's 9.2 made treys per game this season lead the ACC while its 38 percent clip from deep ranks in the top 20 nationally and puts the Irish narrowly behind only fellow Tournament participant Virginia Tech for the conference lead.
Senior guard Dane Goodwin may be second on the team in scoring with 13.9 points per game, but he enters the NCAA Tournament as the only player in the nation to average at least 13 points per game while shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 44 percent from 3-point range, and 85 percent from the free-throw line.
Only freshman guard Blake Wesley stands above Goodwin, making an immediate impact for the Fighting Irish as the first public-school recruit from South Bend to attend Notre Dame since 1985. Wesley's streak of 17 straight games with double-digit points earlier this season set a new school record for freshmen. His first career start in Purcell Pavilion ended with a game-winning jump shot with 12 seconds remaining to seal the upset win over then-No. 10/12 Kentucky. A similar leadership-esque command of the offense will be vital for Notre Dame to move forward in the NCAA Tournament.
Keys for Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights' 12 wins in Big Ten play were their most since joining the conference, many of which came against the league’s top programs. Rutgers collected five ranked wins — a single-season school record — which got off to a blazing start with a win over then-No. 1 Purdue in December, the program’s first-ever victory over a top-ranked team. Fast-forward to February and the Scarlet Knights tallied four straight wins over ranked opponents with victories over No. 13 Michigan State, No. 16 Ohio State, No. 14 Wisconsin, and No. 12 Illinois, becoming the first unranked team in college basketball history to take down four ranked foes in a row.
That success against top-tier opposition will be a key foundation upon which Rutgers will hope to build on Wednesday, especially with eight of the 12 Big Ten wins coming by single digits. Combine that ability to finish off close games with strong defense — Rutgers finished the regular season ranked second in the Big Ten in both points allowed (65.8) and steals (7.2) per game —and the Scarlet Knights should be well-equipped to come out victorious in a game that is close down the stretch.
Rutgers is led by a pair of seniors — Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. — who pace the team in both scoring and minutes. They have combined to lead the Scarlet Knights in scoring in more than 70 percent of their games this season.
Though Rutgers has put on plenty of strong performances against top competition, one of its defensive struggles has been against teams that shoot the ball well from distance. Notre Dame is among the nation’s best 3-point-shooting teams, so look for the Fighting Irish to rely on this strength to bounce back from a disappointing ACC Tournament loss against eventual champion Virginia Tech and get back to their winning ways in March.
Prediction: Notre Dame 71, Rutgers 66
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.