Preview: UConn

The short-handed, 14th-ranked Irish play host to No. 8 Connecticut tonight at the Purcell Pavilion.

No. 14 Notre Dame vs. No. 8 Connecticut

Records: Notre Dame (12-2) vs. UConn (11-1). Notre Dame lost to current No. 10 Kentucky in Louisville, 72-58 on December 8 and Saturday at No. 4 Syracuse, 70-58. UConn lost at No. 6 Pittsburgh, 78-63 on December 27.

Tip-off: 7:00 PM

Previous Meeting: March 3, 2010: In a de facto NCAA Tourney elimination game, Notre Dame hammered a suddenly hapless Connecticut squad, 58-50 at the Purcell Pavilion. Senior point guard Tory Jackson dominated the senior night contest, scoring 22 points on 8-14 shooting in 40 minutes. The Irish outscored the Huskies 41-30 in the second stanza following an ugly first half that featured just 37 total points.

Series history: UConn leads the all-time series 16-7 including four wins in the last three seasons (four straight prior to last March 3rd detailed above). Mike Brey is just 4-11 vs. the Huskies with each of the four victories occurring in South Bend.

Quality Wins: Notre Dame (Georgia, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, #9 Georgetown); Connecticut (#2 Michigan State, #9 Kentucky)

Quote to Note: "They controlled the backboards. They're really big and physical. I think it was not wanting it, maybe. I'm not sure. It's tough to say." – Irish senior captain Tim Abromaitis on the loss to Syracuse Saturday afternoon in the Carrier Dome.

Point Spread: Notre Dame -4.5

Notre Dame Starters and Key Contributors

  • Forward: 6'8" 235-pound senior Tim Abromaitis: Struggled vs. his home-state team last season, netting just 18 points on 7 of 21 field goal shooting including a 2-9 effort from long range. Abro's struggles, however, were likely the result of dedicated, flypaper defense by departed athlete Stanley Robinson…Is a remarkable 35 for 61 from beyond the arc in 10 career Big East games played at the Purcell Pavilion…Will need to at least match his season rebounding average tonight (7-8) to make up for the loss of Carleton Scott but had just 8 boards in 70 minutes in two contests vs. the Huskies last season.

  • Forward: 6'8" 232-pound senior Tyrone Nash: A consistent producer in the season's first six games including two tests in Orlando (vs. Georgia and California), averaging 12.6 points and 7 board per game but has been sporadic in the eight contests since…Excelled vs. Georgetown (15 points and 10 boards) but was a non-factor vs. Kentucky, Gonzaga, and Syracuse, netting just 16 total points and nine rebounds in those three contests vs. NCAA Tourney regulars…Trips to the free throw line will be the tell-tale tonight: Nash averages 12 points per contest when he attempts at least six free throws vs. just over 6 points per night when he shoots fewer.

  • Guard/Forward: 6'8" 219-pound senior Scott Martin: Has seemingly found his stroke, hitting 21 of his last 40 shots including 7 of 12 from deep in the last five games…Next up: care of the basketball, as the formerly silky small forward committed 5 turnovers to offset his season-best 6 assists Saturday in a loss to Syracuse…Though the Irish generally perform best when each of the starting five pistons are firing as one, the offense could improve greatly if Martin's purported mid-range excellence would surface over the next seven challenging contests.

  • Guard: 6'3" 203-pound senior Ben Hansbrough: Has hit for double digits in eight straight and 13 of 14 contests but the senior's shot volume – and level of accuracy – has varied vs. formidable opponents…Just 8-24 in two league games though he does have eight assists vs. just two turnovers in the 1-1 start vs. Top tier foes…The Irish are dangerous when Hansbrough handles the ball into the opponent's lane – shots from long range are gravy as he creation of offense is essential to the team's overall success…Draws a tough matchup tonight will future All-America guard Kemba Walker – a player whom Tory Jackson handled in the Senior Day win last March…Hit on just 4 of 19 offerings last season vs. the Huskies though that was with All Big East defender Jerome Dyson roughing him up throughout the contests.

  • Guard: 6'2" 173-pound freshman Eric Atkins: Will earn the second start of his career but first against a quality foe tonight…Fellow freshman Shabazz Napier will prove a handful, likely coming off the bench for ample playing time tonight vs. the slower Irish…Should UConn go big with swingman Jeremy Lamb in the lineup, Atkins could find himself matched up with the scoring prowess of Kemba Walker with the need for the bigger Hansbrough shifting to check Lamb in half-court sets…Atkins has yet to distinguish himself in league play with just 3 points on 1-7 shooting in two contests.

Key Reserves:

  • Center/Forward: 6'9" 2448-pound sophomore Jack Cooley: – Additional playing time – and his ability to handle those minutes without finding silly fouls – will help determine tonight's contest…Has the hands, feet, body and head to compete tonight but must channel his aggressiveness to contribute on the boards and with defensive positioning, rather than weak side help vs. Walker who will undoubtedly challenge the Irish lane…Would benefit greatly if fellow sophomore Mike Broghammer can offer 5 quality minutes in relief.

  • Forward 6'6" 215-pound sophomore Joey Brooks: Becomes the team's seventh option and will receive as many as 10 minutes of court time with Scott sidelined…Defense and rebounding a must: offensive contributions would be a bonus for the still-developing Brooks who greatly favors his right hand and has just one speed in when given a crease…Like Cooley, his ability to defend without fouling will be invaluable vs. the athletic Huskies.

  • Center 6'9" 244-pound sophomore Mike Broghammer: A good night would feature 2 points and 2 boards with two hard fouls…A great night, and Irish victory, would include 2-4 points with 6 boards and 4-5 fouls over 10 minutes as the Irish attempt to protect the backboard vs. UConn's size and length.

  • Forward: 6'8" 218-pound senior Carleton Scott: The team's best rebounder and most improved player over the last calendar year has been ruled out of tonight's contest with a hamstring injury. Scott's status for Saturday afternoon's meeting with upstart St. John's in South Bend is also in doubt.

Meet the Huskies

They're still big – Jim Calhoun's 9-man rotation includes players standing 7'0" 6'9" 6'9" 6'8" and 6'7" with wingspans exceeding each. They can still beat you with quickness: guard Kemba Walker is among the nation's best players, scoring more than 26 points per game (to lead the country) with solid percentages (48/83/38) despite a high volume of shots. He simply cannot be stopped by one defender.

UConn is also battled tested with wins over Michigan State and Kentucky and a loss at Pittsburgh.

What the 2011 Huskies are lacking – and what the 2008-10 Huskies had in spades – is veteran talent. Gone are Irish killers Adrien, Robinson and Dyson. Replacing them are talented but inconsistent perimeter players such as Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (he's like a box of chocolates, if you catch my drift) and a lead role for power forward Alex Oriakhi, whose nine boards and four blocks keyed an 82-70 win over the Irish in Storrs last January.

Freshman guard Shabazz Napier will be a test for either Atkins or Hansbrough on the perimeter, but no greater than that posed by the aforementioned Dyson or A.J. Price before him.

Erratic 7'0" center Charles Okwandu burned ND with 10 points on five shots and five boards off the bench in last season's win. He's just once sniffed double digits since. Freshman forward Roscoe Smith will be a pain to contain on the glass, especially without the long arms and vertical of Scott protecting the backboard for the Irish.

Fellow frosh Jeremy Lamb rounds out the starting lineup and rotation – he's likely too big for Atkins, though a resulting switch would pit the raw and undersized (Atkins needs 10 pounds, pronto) Irish guard against the indomitable Walker – a tall task for player in his first league start.

Tonight: 7 or 8…or 6?: It better not be the latter. The loss of Carleton Scott greatly affects Mike Brey's rotation and ability to attack offensively. The Irish had settled into a seven-man rotation, relying mostly on five senior starters and freshman point guard Eric Atkins. Brey then dutifully found time for sophomore bruiser Jack Cooley over the course of a contest.

Such a short bench won't suffice, at least not against the power and potential explosiveness of UConn and forthcoming athleticism of St. John's on Saturday. Cooley will play a lead role off the bench: can he contribute 15-18 minutes without finding foul trouble? Can Broghammer reprise his role at Louisville last season – the best game in his brief career?

More important, Tyrone Nash must show up on the glass and at the charity stripe tonight. His ability to create offense for others on the low block and to protect the defensive glass will determine the contest. Eight or more free throw attempts and at least that many boards would do the trick, as will a hot effort from long range from either (not necessarily both) Abromaitis or Hansbrough…and continued improvement (double digits, fewer turnovers) from Martin.

The Irish are a different team at home. They'll prove it again tonight before receiving all they can handle Saturday.

Prediction: Notre Dame 71 UConn 68


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