Preview: Irish vs. Huskies

Notre Dame looks to earn an unexpected fourth win in its first five Big East games when it takes on Connecticut today at the Purcell Pavilion.

Today's tip-off between the 11-6 (3-1) Irish and 13-3 (3-2) #13 Connecticut Huskies is set for 11:00 AM (ET) on ESPN2. Dave Pasch (play-by-play) and Doris Burke (analyst) will call the action.

Notre Dame has won three straight in the series dating back to Senior Day 2010 in South Bend and have won consecutive Big East games after dropping their opening conference road game at Cincinnati.

The Huskies dropped back-to-back Big East road games to begin the new year before bouncing back with a home win over West Virginia on Monday, 64-57.

Winners of 29 straight at home (the nation's fourth-largest active streak behind Kentucky, Duke, and Ohio State), the Irish enter the contest as slight underdogs (+2) vs. the defending champs.

Our pre-game player notes for the Irish are included below. For more on the matchup, click here

Jerian Grant

Has posted six straight outings with at least 14 points and knocked down 24 of 29 free throws during that span…Grant has played 123 of the team's last 130 game minutes over the last three contests…Said Brey of his first year off guard: "I think there's a progression with him getting really comfortable. I still think he can be more aggressive at times and take some shots that he turns down."

While Grant has on occasion played passively in the first half of contests; he's not yet shied away from an important late-game shot, especially from beyond the arc.

"That is one thing about the guy," Brey continued of Grant's knack for big shots. "Last year when we would do end-game situations (in practice), Eric (Atkins) and Jerian on the Blue team would be (the starters) pretty regularly in the first month.

"At the end of the game he's a fearless guy, but given where he's played and how he's grown up and his bloodlines – there's a lot of good stuff."

Eric Atkins

Along with Cooley, the team's most important player as he has no viable backup on the nine-man scholarship roster…Has generally shot well at home though he attempted just two shots (0-2) in Tuesday's win over South Florida…Protects the ball better in South Bend as well, producing 44 assists vs. 14 turnovers with road numbers showing 9 assists and 18 miscues…Struggled mightily vs. classmate Shabazz Napier in last year's first matchup with the Huskies though Atkins' on-ball defense has since improved (Napier poured in 18 off the bench missing just two shots)…Needs to be more consistent attacking the rim as he was vs. Louisville and Pittsburgh as the sophomore's two other Big East outings included one free throw attempt (USF) and none (Cincy)…Has played every minute in six of the last eight games and 39 of 40 vs. the Bulls Tuesday night.

Jack Cooley

Has played the most consistent ball of his career over the opening quartet of conference contests, hitting 23 of 42 shots while ripping down 42 boards during the team's 3-1 start…The junior center has blocked at least two shots in six of the team's last eight games while in seven of the last eight contests…

"He feels so good about himself and a conditioning (issue) has not been a factor," said Brey of his junior center who logged 31 minutes vs. USF on Tuesday and played a whopping 43 of 50 in the double overtime win at Louisville last Saturday. "As I always say, he's one of the more underrated ball-handling big guys and right now I think he's playing as well as any big guy in the league."

Since missing the Maryland game on December 4 due to illness, Cooley has averaged 16.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks. He's shot 65.8 percent from the field (50-76) and 76.2 percent (32-42) from the free throw line during the 8-game stretch.

Scott Martin

Broke out of a horrendous shooting slump with a 7 for 14 effort and 15 points in Tuesday's win over USF…Had previously missed his last 18 three-point shots before knocking down his first offering vs. the Bulls…Still just 13 of 41 from the field in four Big East games but is trending upward, due largely to his efforts on the other end of the floor. Said Brey of his senior captain:

"If you were to watch him on defense, how he helps his teammate rotate, there's not a better team defender in our league–and maybe in college basketball– this is an old guy that really knows how to play, and help, and anchor (in the post).

Brey offered a bit of advice to the scattershot Martin prior to the South Florida contest: "The one thing I talked to him about was maybe not to hunt his three as early; to try to get some shots inside the arc."

Martin has hit for double figures in two straight but its his work on the boards that's been invaluable and buoyed the Irish to consecutive conference wins – his 25 boards over the last two games matches the most for any player at the program since Luke Harangody in 2010 with the Valparaiso, Ind.-native posting career best rebound numbers in successive games: 12 and 13, respectively…Martin's drawn charge at the rim vs. Louisville's Peyton Siva last Saturday forced the game's first overtime period in a 67-65 double OT win for the visitors, their first win outside of South Bend this season.

Alex Dragicevich

Gives the Irish rotation another outside shooter while mixing a drive or two to the bucket in recent games…Shot the Irish to an early lead vs. Indiana in the Crossroads Classic, scoring the team's first nine points a trio of three-point shots…Did not fare well early as a backup point guard option but the sophomore swingman has settled into a role in which he helps stretch the defense as a taller guard and can lend a bit of length when the Irish go to a 2-3 zone defense, much like Scott Martin did for the 2011 squad…Drained 4 of 7 three-point shots en route to a career-best 22 points in conference-opening win vs. Pittsburgh…Missed his next nine from long range before connecting vs. South Florida…Scored seven points vs. the Bulls and thus snapped his streak of six straight home games in double digits.

Pat Connaughton

The team's best athlete provides a spark of the bench with his weak side rebounding ability, finishing skills and baseline jumper…Excels in the open floor and in scramble situations…Likely to be the most improved Irish player from 2012 to 2013 conference seasons…Hit six three-point shots en route to a career-high 24 points vs. Sam Houston State in mid-November…Hasn't been to the free throw line in just 44 league game minutes – an indication he's become a bit less aggressive with a decrease in playing time…Connaughton's contributions will be mandatory vs. the more athletic teams in the conference as the winter progresses.

Joey Brooks

Has embraced the role of defensive stopper, one necessary today vs. talented Huskies swingman Jeremy Lamb…Brooks' minutes are sporadic but you can bet he'll play often vs. the league's better shooting guards and small forwards…Played the best game of his career with 13 points and nine boards for a short-handed Irish team in a contested win over Detroit…Has a knack for getting to the foul line but the Irish would be better off if the junior could elevate his 63 percent effort a bit…Hustle points, offensive boards, and the ability to defend multiple positions guarantees Brooks a role in the rotation but his ability to hit open mid-range shots and be under control on forays to the bucket will be key entering 2012-13.

Tom Knight and Mike Broghammer

One of the junior pair of backup centers must make Huskies freshman center Andre Drummond work when either is in the contest, as Cooley will likely encounter foul trouble in help defense situations vs. the penetrating Connecticut guards (not to mention the Huskies' front line)...Knight scored 10 points in the team's opening pair of league games but has not scored since, sitting out the entire 50 minutes vs. Louisville and playing sparingly vs. USF…Broghammer played seven minutes vs. Louisville but no more than one minute in the remaining three Big East games to date.

Notre Dame 60 Connecticut 58

Notre Dame has won a remarkable 21 of its last 26 regular season Big East contests, 94 of their last 100 home games, and 41 of the last 46 vs. Big East foes (best of any league team during that span).

It might be time to afford Brey's group the benefit of the doubt in an otherwise even matchup.

Season Prediction Record: 7-3 straight up; 6-4 against the spread Top Stories