Notre Dame (22-7, 10-6) currently sits tied with Syracuse for fifth place in the Big East standings, one game ahead of postseason ineligible Connecticut and two games ahead of an unpredictable Villanova squad. With two games remaining, the Irish need just one victory to lock up at least sixth place, which is very significant heading into the Big East tournament.
Unlike recent years with 16 teams in the tournament, this year's version is down to 14 teams due to the defection of West Virginia to the Big XII and UConn's academics-related postseason ineligibility. This time, only four teams will not earn a bye, and those teams are dreadful. By earning a sixth seed for the postseason tournament, the Irish would be guaranteed to play one of these four bottom feeders.
Struggles against DePaul this season notwithstanding, Notre Dame would MUCH rather play any of the four play-in teams (Rutgers, Seton Hall, DePaul, or South Florida - who currently have 4, 3, 2, and 2 conference victories, respectively) than any of the middle of the pack teams with at least 8 wins (Nova, Cincinnati, Providence, St. John's).
As for finishing fourth or better and earning the coveted double-bye, Notre Dame needs to sweep their final two games just to have a chance. In this scenario, the Irish would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against Pitt, so they jump the Panthers. They would also need a loss from Syracuse to either DePaul (ha!) or Georgetown (maybe...). Or, given that a 2-0 finish would mean beating Louisville, another loss by the Cardinals tonight to Cincy would also allow the Irish to sneak into 4th place (again, the head-to-head tiebreaker allows the Irish to jump them). All of those things happening (2-0 finish + 'Cuse loss to G'town + L'ville loss to Cincy) would be a best-case scenario 3rd place finish.
Got all that?
Anyway, what games do the Irish have left?
Home vs. St. John's - Tonight (7 ET, ESPN2):
Notre Dame lost to the Red Storm back in January at Madison Square Garden, where the Irish have inexplicably struggled for the past few years against St. John's. The Irish erased a double-digit deficit in that one and looked like they may cruise down the stretch, but the Johnnies rallied and did just enough to hold off the Notre Dame comeback.
St. John's comes into this one losing 4 of their last 5 (and the 1 win was to last place USF) and following this weekend's suspension of leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison for the rest of the season. Notre Dame has continued its excellence at home (16-2), and it's hard to see them dropping this one given the Red Storm's, er, storminess. Still, given how this series has played out in recent years, this one is far from a sure thing.
At Louisville - Saturday (4 ET, CBS)
The Irish won this matchup at Purcell Pavilion one month ago Saturday in a 5 OT game that was one of the most memorable in years. The Cardinals will doubtless be out for revenge in this one as they let the first game slip out of their hands in the final minute of what was a blowout for the first 39. They have only dropped one game at home this season (to Syracuse) and have been on an absolute tear of late.
This will be a tough one for Notre Dame to pull out, but they have shown they can win tough ones against Louisville, including the 5 OT thriller and last year's double OT victory at the KFC Yum! Center.
I think most people will look at this week's slate and envision a 1-1 finish, which would be good enough for 5th or 6th place and set the Irish up nicely for a Big East tourney victory and a game against one of the top four seeds for another resume booster for Selection Sunday.
The Irish are pretty consistently projected to be a 6 seed in the NCAA tournament, but a 2-0 finish and/or a semis or better Big East tournament could easily swing them up to a 4-5, maybe even as high as a 3 if they do the unthinkable and find themselves in the Big East Finals. An 0-2 finish and/or a one-and-done likely would not put them on the bubble but may put them in an unenviable 9-12 range.
Only a week left, but plenty of basketball to be played, and it could really impact Notre Dame's prospects for a breakthrough postseason.