Preview: Connecticut

Notre Dame (16-11, 7-8) travels to Storrs on Saturday afternoon for a game with the nation's de facto No. 1. A win over Connecticut (26-2, 14-2) could be the victory that moves the Irish off of the NCAA Tournament bubble. The 2 p.m. game can be seen on CBS.

Notre Dame and Connecticut played in South Bend on Jan. 24 and the Huskies snapped the Irish's 45-game home winning streak in front of a soldout crowd on national television.

A week later UConn was voted as the top team in the country while Notre Dame was in the midst of a seven-game losing streak that threatened to ruin its season.

On Saturday the Irish get a shot at payback.

The Huskies held the nation's No. 1 ranking for three weeks before losing to Pittsburgh on Feb. 16. Even with the loss to the Panthers, UConn only dropped one spot to No. 2 and after Pitt's loss earlier in the week to Providence, the Huskies have a chance to regain the top spot with a win over Notre Dame.

While the Irish (16-11, 7-8) would love to prevent UConn from elevating to No. 1, they're much more focused on getting themselves a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Notre Dame has won four of its last five after the seven-game slide and with three regular season games left, a victory in Storrs would be its best case yet.

While motivation surely will not be a problem for Notre Dame, dealing with the opposition will be. The Huskies (26-2, 14-2) have only one loss other than the one to Pitt, against Georgetown in the Big East opener, and are a favorite to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Junior center Hasheem Thabeet is a lock for Big East Defensive Player of the Year and is a serious candidate for the league's Player of the Year Award while senior forward Jeff Adrien and senior guard A.J. Price have been steadying influences on the team.

Thabeet is averaging 13.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game. Adrien and Price are both scoring over 13 points a game with the forward pulling down 10.0 rebounds and the point guard handing out 4.6 assists per contest.

The Huskies will be without senior guard Jerome Dyson, who had season-ending knee surgery after UConn's win over Syracuse earlier in the month. Dyson had been averaging 13.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 steals per game.

Freshman guard Kemba Walker was playing plenty of minutes before Dyson's injury, but those minutes have become more consistent since. Walker is scoring 8.7 points a game while providing a burst of energy for UConn.

The problem for the Huskies is that no one else has stepped up, reducing their eight-man rotation to a seven-man rotation with senior guard Craig Austrie and junior forwards Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards.

Dyson had a team-high 15 points in UConn's win over Notre Dame and also grabbed nine rebounds. Price scored 13 while Adrien had 12 points and a career-high 19 rebounds. Thabeet was held to nine points, but he did have 11 boards and five blocks.

Luke Harangody led the Irish with 24 points and 15 rebounds, but no other Notre Dame player reached double-figures as Kyle McAlarney and Tory Jackson had nine apiece. Tyrone Nash came off the bench to score eight and Luke Zeller five, but starters Ryan Ayers and Zach Hillesland combined for just four.

Despite getting some clean looks, the Irish offense struggled to shoot the ball, making just 25 of 76 field goal attempts (32.9%). Notre Dame made just eight of 27 three-pointers (29.6%) and it did not help that the Irish attempted just four free throws while their opponent took 30.

UConn led 30-29 at halftime and after Notre Dame scored the first bucket of the second half to take a one-point lead, the Huskies responded with a 12-2 run that gave them a 42-33 lead less than five minutes into the half.

Notre Dame made a run to cut the margin to 49-47 with nine minutes to play, but the Huskies answered with a 13-1 spurt that pushed their lead to 14 with less than three minutes to clinch the game.

While the Irish can take confidence from the way they fought in the team's first meeting, they will not be able to rely on a packed Joyce Center for their runs on Saturday.

Whatever happens, Notre Dame will have a chance to further prove its case to the tournament committee over the final two regular season games and in the conference tournament, but the Irish would love to have Saturday's game be the top line on their résumé.


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