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Monday, January 24, 2011
Saddle Up: Can ND win one on the road?

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is already tired of talking about Jay Cutler.

No. 14 Notre Dame at No. 2 Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: After an impressive 16-1 start to the season, Notre Dame hit the Big East. Or, perhaps more appropriately, the Big East hit Notre Dame.

It's not as if Notre Dame has been bad in conference play. It really hasn't. The Irish are 5-3 through eight games, including wins over Georgetown and Connecticut, and their ranking -- No. 14 in the coaches poll this week -- has held steady in the middle of the top 25. But the Irish have a bit of a weird thing going on right now, and that weird thing is this: Notre Dame is great at home and awful on the road.

I know what you're thinking. "Duh, Eamonn. Most teams are better at home than on the road. Tell us something we don't know." Fair point. What makes this weird is that the Irish are so much better in South Bend than elsewhere.

ND has yet to lose a game at home and yet to win on the road. You know that. You might also know that the Irish have yet to score 60 points in any Big East road game, and have yet to win a single non-neutral or non-home contest this season. What you might not know is that in its five Big East victories, Notre Dame has averaged 1.17 points per possession. That looks like the ND team we've seen for much of the season, the one that ranks No. 18 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. In its Big East three losses, Notre Dame has scored .88 points per possession. That performance is less familiar.

If this trend holds, Pittsburgh wins tonight (and easily so). The Irish aren't shooting the ball well outside the Joyce Center, and this offense isn't good enough to shoot the ball poorly, nor are the Irish good enough to win when their offense isn't scoring at a high rate. This is especially true when Mike Brey's team is facing the likes of Pittsburgh -- owners of the nation's best offensive rebounding rate and best overall offense, period -- but, as we've seen so far, it's true when you're the likes of St. John's and Marquette, too.

In other words, the Irish have to figure out how to score on the road. It doesn't have to happen tonight; there's no shame in losing at Pitt, and Notre Dame will have other chances (at DePaul next week, for example) to work out the kinks in a hostile environment. But it has to happen eventually, and tonight's as good a time as any.

Everywhere else: Tonight's Kansas State-Baylor game (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) doesn't warrant the full preview breakdown treatment, but it remains very intriguing. Why? Because it pairs what might be the two most disappointing teams in college hoops this season -- certainly the two most disappointing in the Big 12 -- in a game that neither can truly afford to lose. Baylor needs something (anything!) to avoid a total sink into NCAA tournament bubble territory. Kansas State needs something (anything!) to get the ship righted once and for all. More likely than not, this game doesn't matter, and these teams really are what they've been for, oh, two months now. But maybe, just maybe, one of these teams can use this win as a launching pad. We'll see. ... There's not much else on the docket tonight, but if you want to check in on some Colonial action, JMU-Hofstra is available on ESPN3. ... Kenneth Faried and Morehead State will play a late nonconference game at Ball State. ... And Furman and Wofford will do battle for regular-season SoCon supremacy.