After eking out a victory in an overtime thriller against the Penn State Nittany Lions last week, DePaul Blue Demon fans probably hope that if their team does beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Saturday, that their margin of victory is larger than the two-spot separation between the two teams in the Ken Pomeroy rankings.
After all, Blue Demon fans may not have any fingernails left to chew on. But a win is a win and beating the Fighting Irish by any margin isn’t going to be easy.
The Fighting Irish enter 4-1. But when the season began, Notre Dame and their 19-year head coach Mike Brey probably envisioned finishing the first five games undefeated with all five contests at home against mid-majors. But, a 63-60 loss against Radford University now puts a blemish on their record. Perhaps even more surprising than that loss to Radford was something that happened with one of their players earlier this week. On Tuesday, the program announced that tri-captain Elijah Burns would leave the program for a school that would allow him to play more minutes. He only averaged 5.3 points and 3.8 rebounds this season for the Irish, but was a high-level intangibles guy and one of the leaders on the team.
This Notre Dame roster has a different feel to it than a season ago as the Fighting Irish graduated their two best players Bonzie Colson (averaged a double-double last season) and Matt Farrell (16.3 points and 5.5 assists per game). Their best perimeter defender Rex Pflueger returns as does now junior guard Temple Gibbs. Last season when the Fighting Irish defeated the Blue Demons in the first-ever game at Wintrust Arena, Gibbs netted 21 points and contributed to the Fighting Irish sinking eight of their first 10 3-point attempts of the second half to create separation on the scoreboard that the Blue Demons couldn’t recover from after a competitive first half.
Last season, Notre Dame missed qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2013-2014 season largely because of Colson and Farrell missing significant time during conference play with injuries. The silver lining to those injuries was guys who are playing key roles this season received more playing time and the experience that comes with it last season. The Fighting Irish’s leading scorer John Mooney falls in that category and this season his per 40 minutes scoring average is nearly nine points higher than a season ago.
Upperclassmen usually power Notre Dame teams. This season, Brey has had to tweak that template for success. Three freshmen from his top-15 recruiting class have averaged 15 or more minutes per game this season.
Meanwhile in Blue Demon land, DePaul looks to improve to 4-0 for the first time since the 2008-2009 season. Despite the rotation only running seven deep this season, the Blue Demons handily took care of their two Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference opponents to begin the season (Bethune Cookman and Morgan State), then grinded out an overtime victory against Penn State last week to start the season with a 3-0 record.
The hot start has equated to a ton of DePaul representation on the top of Big East statistical leaderboards. Senior star Max Strus leads the conference in points, sophomore big man Jaylen Butz leads it in rebounds, senior Eli Cain leads it in assists, and Femi Olujobi and Butz are fifth and sixth respectively in field goal percentage.
DePaul hasn’t beaten Notre Dame since 2007 and hasn’t beaten the Fighting Irish in South Bend since 2004. In a season that’s already had a little bit of magic surrounding it, the Blue Demons will look to end both those droughts on Saturday at 11 a.m. in South Bend, Ind.