Irish Ready For Connecticut

Notre Dame has won four of its last five games and has a chance to remove itself from the bubble on Saturday with a win over Connecticut. Meanwhile, the Huskies are playing for the chance to reclaim the nation's No. 1 spot.

As Notre Dame began to show signs of turning its midseason funk into a season-ending spurt, many people looked toward the Feb. 28 game in Connecticut.

The Irish (16-11, 7-8) have won four of their last five, including a 70-65 home win over Rutgers on Wednesday night, but head coach Mike Brey did not want to think about the Huskies until after the game with the Scarlet Knights.

"I was getting a little frustrated during the week because people were coming through here talking about Connecticut before [Rutgers], which was jinxing the whole thing," Brey said. "I hate that."

With the Rutgers game behind them, the Irish can now start concentrating on UConn (26-2, 14-2).

"Now that we've got the Rutgers game out of the way, now we can go in and look at some of the things that we need work on and then focus on UConn," Tory Jackson said immediately after Wednesday's game.

But some players planned to wait a bit before turning their attention to the Huskies.

"We're going to enjoy this win for the night," Luke Harangody said. "It's going to be on our mind definitely [Thursday night] and [Wednesday night.]."

Since the beginning of the season, Brey has talked about a 9-9 record in conference being strong enough to earn a NCAA Tournament bid. Two weeks ago, a .500 record in the Big East seemed out of reach for Notre Dame.

But when the Irish started winning, it became clear that they could get there by splitting road games against West Virginia and Providence and holding serve at home against South Florida, Rutgers, Villanova and St. John's.

The one game that no one counted on Notre Dame winning was Saturday's contest in Storrs, which is why the last few games have been so important.

Considering that the Wildcats are ranked 10th in the current Associated Press poll, the home game against Villanova (22-5) is certainly not a gimme and there is no guarantee that a 9-9 Big East record will get Notre Dame in the Tournament either.

So it is not as if the Irish will be pressure-free on Saturday, especially since a win in Connecticut will almost assuredly place them in the field, at least for now.

Brey knows what the rest of the schedule looks like, but he is still taking it at one contest at a time.

"We've got to just concentrate on getting up there to New England and getting back Saturday and letting it rip against a great team," he said.

He is not worried about his players being overwhelmed by the chance they have this weekend.

"This group is pretty level-headed, they know it's a great opportunity, it's a big game. It's not like we haven't played in any big games this year, that's all they throw us is big games," said Brey. "Let's go let it rip against a really good team, but it's not lost on us that it's a great opportunity."

It is clear that Brey has relayed that message to his guys.

"We've played in big games before and we've never really let all the hype and all of the talk get to us too much," said Kyle McAlarney. "It's important to us to just stay grounded and stay focused because this is a huge opportunity and we know it's a great opportunity.

"For us to go out and let it rip with nothing to lose, it's not like our lives are on the line. It's obviously a huge game for us, huge opportunity, but we just want to let it rip and just play and have fun."

In the teams' last meeting, UConn came into the Joyce Center and snapped Notre Dame's 45-game home winning streak with a 69-61 win over the Irish. On Saturday, Connecticut will be playing for the right to reclaim the nation's No. 1 ranking, but Brey believes that the Irish have a chance.

"We played those guys well last time," said Brey. "I'd like to have a couple of those looks that we had here in Storrs, we had some clean looks from outside."

Jackson learned some lessons from the Jan. 24 loss to UConn.

"Rebounding. I remember that we didn't rebound well," he said. "They outtoughed us, so we've got to go out there and play with some more heart."

But at the same time Jackson is not going to dwell on the loss.

"That game was hard for us, they're a tough team so we're just thinking about what's happening now, what's going to go on Saturday, what can we do," he said.

Brey was able to use a smaller lineup to take advantage of his team's quickness against Rutgers, but acknowledged that may not work against the Huskies for the reasons that his point guard mentioned.

"I don't know if we can play that way Saturday because they've got a few big dudes last time I checked," said Brey.

But do not expect the Irish to come out scared.

"We're not going in there with low hopes or feeding into what people are saying and not giving us a shot," McAlarney said. "We're going in to win the game. We have a pretty good shot, we're going in there confidently and we have nothing to lose so we're going to go for it.

"We're going to let it rip on Saturday and that's all we're thinking about right now, we don't want to start talking or thinking about tournaments or anything like that. We're just still trying to put ourselves in the best position possible."


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