Any number of reasons could be attributed as the cause to Notre Dame's slow start against the visiting Scarlet Knights of Rutgers. The first time playing with the burden of being ranked? An unfilled arena and relatively uninspired student section? The difficulty in deciding whether to watch Revenge or The Challenge: Battle of the Exes first tonight? Whichever reason you think fits best, it was not a pretty start for the team on a six-game league winning streak.
Once it got rolling - following an opening five minutes where the Irish tallied only three Scott Martin free throws - the offense was fine, with a combination of outside shooting (7-of-16 from three, with makes from four different players) and Big East Player of the Week Jack Cooley domination (an impressive 22 points and 18 rebounds as he completely took over the paint). Four Irish players reached double figures, including a particularly attractive 10 points, 8 assists, 0 turnovers line from Eric Atkins. The five-point halftime lead ballooned to a 71-53 final, and Notre Dame improved to 10-3, second in the Big East.
Let me underline the fact that Rutgers was not very good, as any tenacity they played with was neutered by their affinity for creative turnovers and sloppy defensive rotations. However, this same Scarlet Knights team had already taken out the Irish, along with Florida, UConn, Pitt and Cincinnati, so there was some definite danger in facing them. Notre Dame followed the same blueprint they did against Seton Hall earlier in this winning streak: start atrociously on offense but play good enough defense to keep things close, then crank up the offensive production while the defense maintains its effectiveness. It's a great strategy, and one quite different from earlier Notre Dame squads, when a cold start to the shooting meant a double-digit deficit to attempt to dig out of.
The Irish show rolls onto Villanova, a struggling Wildcats team that is one of the less-inspiring efforts to come from Jay Wright and his impeccable taste in suits. But it's a road Big East game, at night, against a team that is not without talented players. Having already reached ten league wins - a number double what many of us expected in December - we're still finding out how high this Irish team can climb. Eight straight wins would not be a bad merit badge to gain before we reach March.