The 13-4 Irish must first overcome 11 seasons of Storrs-related heartache in a 2:00 battle vs. Connecticut on the Huskies' Senior Day. Should Notre Dame prevail in this relative toss-up – earning their first win at UConn since 2000 – head coach Mike Brey and his troops would then become the biggest Villanova Wildcats fans outside the City of Brotherly Love as the slumping but dangerous ‘Cats take on conference-leader Pittsburgh at 4:00.
With a win, Pittsburgh would clinch the regular season crown, a first-seed in the forthcoming Big East Tournament, and likely take the final step toward a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. But a Panthers loss to Villanova, coupled with an Irish win at Connecticut would give Notre Dame the regular season crown, the conference tournament's first seed, and cement at least a No. 2 seed in March Madness for Notre Dame with a distant shot at No. 1, likely dependent upon a two-game run to the Big East Tournament title game next Saturday.
Below is a closer look at Connecticut heading into today's contest. For a preview of Notre Dame's regular seven-man rotation, click here.
No. 7 Notre Dame at No. 16 Connecticut
Notre Dame (24-5/13-4) – Notre Dame has won three straight after seeing it's seven-game winning streak snapped at West Virginia on February 19. The Irish won a nail-biter at Providence, 94-93; rallied to beat Seton Hall in South Bend, 60-48; then closed out a perfect home season with a rout of No. 19 Villanova, 93-72. The Irish are 4-4 in conference road games this season, winning four of their last five dating back to a January 24 upset at then-No. 2 Pittsburgh.
Connecticut (21-8/9-8) – The Huskies have dropped three of four following a key win vs. No. 9 Georgetown in mid-February. Included in the trio of losses are a pair of road defeats at No. 16 Louisville and most recently Wednesday at West Virginia. Connecticut is 5-3 at home in Big East play this season with two of the three defeats occurring in overtime (Louisville and Marquette).
Tip-off: 2:00 (EST) ESPN
Previous Meeting: Notre Dame held off the Huskies, 73-70, in early January. Ben Hansbrough led four Irish in double figures with 21 points while limiting the explosive Kemba Walker to 19 points on 23 field goal attempts. Tim Abromaitis chipped in 19 points and 7 boards while Ty Nash scored 11 with 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 blocked shots. The Irish played without Carleton Scott, injured one game prior in Syracuse.
Connecticut had a chance to tie on its last possession after Abromaitis missed a pair at the free throw line but freshman guard Shabazz Napier (18 points) missed a deep three prior to the final buzzer.
Series history: Connecticut leads 16-7 including a 10-1 mark in the Nutmeg State. Notre Dame is 0-3 at site of today's matchup, the on-campus Gampel Pavilion.
Notre Dame (Georgia, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Connecticut, St. John's, Cincinnati, Marquette, at Pittsburgh, Louisville, Villanova)
Connecticut: (Wichita State, Michigan State, Kentucky, Texas, Villanova, Tennessee, Marquette, Georgetown, Cincinnati)
Quote to Note: "They out-toughed us. It's very disappointing. I can accept a lot of things. Throughout my career, I have not allowed our teams, generally speaking, to get out-toughed. And I thought (we) did. ... We're a very good basketball team that didn't, quite frankly, play tough enough tonight. And that led to [37.3] percent shooting; that led to getting posted up. We didn't play with the [right] kind of energy."
– Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun after Wednesday's loss at West Virginia.
Point Spread: Connecticut -2.5
Meet the HuskiesSenior Day in Storrs features Jim Calhoun's non-conference monsters (three wins vs. Top 12 non-conference foes) bloodied but unbowed after three losses in their previous four league contests.
Calhoun's rotation features six underclassmen with shooting guard Jeremy Lamb as the newest in a long line of slashing swingmen at the school. Lamb (9.7 points/4.6 boards in 25 minutes per game) enjoyed an eight-game mid-season stretch in which he averaged 16.6 points per game but has tailed off a bit over the last six contests, hitting double figures just once while shooting 19-50 from the field in that stretch.
Fellow frosh Shabazz Napier torched the Irish in January with jump shots off the dribble. He, like young guards Maalik Wayns and Peyton Siva, since, is too quick for anyone on the Irish to handle defensively with the exception of Hansbrough. Napier and Kemba Walker combined for 38 of the Huskies' 59 field goal attempts Wednesday in Morgantown (and 40 of the 56 points).
Napier's an underrated defender as a true freshman.
Walker is the straw that stirs the drink, leading the Huskies in conference scoring (21.0 – second in the Big East), assists (4.7– 7th in the conference), steals (1.7 – 7th), minutes per game (37.3), and three-point FG percentage (36.1%). Walker's streak of consecutive 20-plus-point game was snapped at 11 in South Bend on January 4, a 73-70 Irish victory.
Walker, the only UConn player to boast a double-digit scoring average this season, dominates the basketball for Calhoun's club but nonetheless ranks behind only Irish freshman Eric Atkins and West Virginia senior Joe Mazzulla in assist-to-turnover ration (2.5-1) in league play. The junior scorer has topped 20 points in nine league contests and in 18 games overall this season including a 30-point effort vs. Michigan State, a 29-point performance against Kentucky, and a 22-point afternoon at Texas – all Huskies victories.
A third freshman, Roscoe Smith, ranks second on the squad in rebounding (5.3) while chipping in 6.7 points per game. Smith enjoyed success vs. the Irish in the first meeting, scoring 11 points on 5-8 shooting. Sophomore Jamal Coombs-McDaniel scored 64 points with 20 boards over a three-game February stretch but has since seen his minutes and production dip (13 points on 11 shots in three games).
6'9" 240-pound sophomore Alex Oriakhi anchors the lane, averaging 9.9 points, 8.5 boards and nearly two blocks per contest. Like Walker, Oriakhi dominated vs. top non-conference competition, riddling Michigan State, Kentucky, and Texas for an aggregate 44 points and 49 rebounds in the three-game set. He was held without a point in 23 minutes in Notre Dame's January win over UConn.
Big man Charles Okwandu and freshman Niels Giffey should also see time in an eight-man rotation. A redshirt-junior, Okwandu's only career double-digit scoring effort occurred in an 82-70 win vs. the Irish in Hartford last season, though he's scored just two points in two meetings since (both Notre Dame wins).
Burn Baby Burn?The Huskies scored the bulk of their 70 South Bend points in the first meeting thanks to a quick end-to-end turnaround following Irish buckets. Both Walker and Napier can push the ball down court in a hurry, with Walker especially adept at a mid-range pull-up jump shot with the defense still on its heels. Look for Notre Dame, despite an established groove offensively, to turn to its "Burn" attack in the first half for the first time since a January 24 upset at Pittsburgh.
Connecticut ranks third in the Big East in both defensive field goal percentage (40.8%) and 3-point defensive percentage (30.8%). The Irish counter with an offense that ranks first in both categories, 46.6% and 40.3% respectively, and come off a performance in which they knocked down a school-record 20 triples in a rout of Villanova.
Notre Dame won't get as many open deep looks today (they were 8-19 vs. the Huskies in Game One) and will thus be forced to earn a fair number of points in their customary 2011 manner – at the foul line – in order to pull off a mild (Vegas) upset.
Notre Dame is a dreadful 1-10 in road games vs. the Huskies and Brey has never won in the Nutmeg State in seven tries. I expect the Irish to struggle vs. Napier and Walker on the secondary break, and to drop their fifth Big East road game this season…but unlike the first four blowouts, this will come down to the wire.
The Irish settle for second in the Big East with two tournaments poised to provide the season's final, memorable tests.
Prediction: UConn 69 Notre Dame 66
Season Predictions (Big East and major conference foes): 17-5; 13-8-1 against the spread.