Play-in Game

The official NCAA Tournament Play-in game will be held Tuesday, March 16 in Dayton, Ohio. An unofficial Play-in game, one between two teams that could actually deliver a bit of madness in March, takes place tonight in South Bend at the Purcell Pavilion. IrishEyes previews the season-defining matchup between Notre Dame and Connecticut.

The loser of tonight's game could still receive an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. But Wednesday's nationally-televised matchup between the teams many consider the current "last in" (UConn) and the "last out" (ND) will likely determine the post-season destination for both participants.

A win by the Huskies would put them into a conference tie (8-9) with the Irish with one game remaining. But that final game becomes largely irrelevant when comparing the two teams as Connecticut would have swept Notre Dame on the season. There's little chance the Selection Committee would consider the Irish over the blue-blood Huskies' program in any ensuing scenario, and its doubtful nine Big East teams (the winner of tonight's is likely the conference's eighth NCAA participant) will be deemed worthy on Selection Sunday.

A win by the Irish would give Notre Dame a two-game advantage over UConn in the conference standings with one to play. Notre Dame would not be penalized by the Selection Committee with a subsequent loss at 11-6 Marquette on Saturday (in fact, their computer ranking will rise regardless of the outcome), while the Huskies would make few waves with a season-ending win at competitive but low-profile South Florida.

As for the pipe-dream of a deep run in the Big East Tournament …the Irish have never fared well in that setting (just 4-9 in Mike Brey's tenure).

The phrase "Must-Win" is overused over the course of a 30-game season. It finally applies tonight in South Bend. Tip-off is set for 7 pm on ESPN.

Note: Irish senior forward Luke Harangody remains out indefinitely with a bone bruise in his right knee. Notre Dame is 2-2 without Harangody in the lineup over its last four contests.

At a Glance

Notre Dame: 19-10 (8-8)
  • Losses: Northwestern (Chicago Classic), Loyola Marymount, at Connecticut, at Cincinnati, Syracuse, at Villanova, at Rutgers, at Seton Hall, vs. St. John's, and at Louisville.
  • Ranking Notre Dame's best wins: at Georgetown, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, at South Florida; vs. South Florida, Cincinnati and UCLA (each occurred in South Bend).
  • Losses for the Selection Committee's Consideration: A December home defeat to middling LMU is a black mark on the Irish tourney resume as is a home defeat to St. John's and loss at Rutgers. Losses at Cincinnati and at Seton Hall will likely be judged less harshly.
Connecticut: 17-12 (7-9)
  • Losses: Neutral site games vs. Duke and Kentucky, at Cincinnati, at Georgetown, vs. Pittsburgh, at Michigan, at Providence, Marquette, at Louisville, at Syracuse, Cincinnati, Louisville.
  • Ranking Connecticut's Best Wins: at Villanova; vs. then-No. 1 Texas; vs. West Virginia; vs. Notre Dame; vs. Seton Hall.
  • Losses for the Selection Committee's Consideration: The Huskies sweep at the hands of the Bearcats is tough to swallow, as is the loss at Providence. The remaining defeats were to quality opponents.

Meet the Huskies: Key Matchups

On January 20, Hall of Fame head coach Jim Calhoun took a seven-game medical leave of absence from his coaching duties (the Huskies finished 3-4 without him). Since that time, Calhoun's troops have rebounded to win three of their last five, including two wins over Top 10 teams Villanova and West Virginia.

Calhoun is 16-6 in 22 career games vs. the Irish though holds just a 4-5 mark in South Bend.

  • 6'4" power guard Jerome Dyson imposed his will on the Irish backcourt in January's meeting, finishing with 20 points and 10 assists, the bulk of which came after the hard-charging Dyson broke down his defender and penetrated deep into the heart of the lane vs. a less-than-intimidating group of help defenders.

    The senior leads the Huskies in scoring (18.4), turnovers (3.7) and free throw attempts (200) while contributing 4.6 boards, 4.5 assists, and 1.3 steals per contest. Dyson, a 1st Team Defensive choice among Big East coaches and players last season, will again matchup with Irish senior Ben Hansbrough tonight.

    A football player in high tops, Dyson has averaged double digits for four consecutive seasons, starting 101 games in his Huskies career. His ability to harass Hansbrough defensively during Notre Dame's newfound "Burn" offense in half-court sets, and counter with determined penetration into the middle of the Irish defense serves as a game-within-the-game element this evening. (Dyson is not a consistent 3-poitn shooter at just over 30 percent on the season and Hansbrough should give the quicker and solidly built guard a cushion on the perimeter.)

    The Dyson/Hansbrough battle is the key individual matchup of tonight's contest.

  • Kemba Walker runs the show for Calhoun's Huskies. He ranks second (behind Irish senior Tory Jackson) in the conference with 5.3 assists per game and second in steals as well at an even two per contest.

    My pre-season favorite to earn the conference's Most Improved Player award (that trophy will be placed in a Purcell Pavilion glass-enclosed case next week courtesy of Tim Abromaitis), Walker has played his best ball of the season over the last six games, averaging 20.3 points and 3.3 assists per night. Walker has corralled 21 boards in his last four outings while somehow finding his way to the charity stripe for 49 free throws over that four-game span (hitting 83.6% of his offerings).

    Jackson must control Walker's penetration if the Irish are to pull-off a third consecutive quality win over one of the Big East's top programs of the decade.

  • Stanley Robinson exploded all over the Irish in early January, finishing with 22 points and 16 boards, including a handful of breathtaking athletic plays above the rim. The 6'9" senior is second on the squad at 15.5 points per game while leading the team with 7.9 boards per contest. He's improved his range in this, an NBA-audition season, connecting on 36.6 percent of 71 shots from beyond the arc, and has scored in double figures in each of the Huskies' 29 games this season.

    His unique leaping ability (especially from a flat-footed second jump) will again create problems for the Irish defensively and near the rim. Robinson has 26 boards in Connecticut's last two games (vs. two solid rebounding teams in West Virginia and Louisville); a staggering 13 of which were collected from the offensive glass.

    As he did in early January, Robinson will once again shadow Tim Abromaitis defensively. The senior taught the still-learning Abro about life in that early conference matchup, holding the Irish shooter to 8 points on 3-9 shooting.

  • Senior Gavin Edwards comes off the bench (Center Charles Okwandu is a starter in designation only) to play both the high and low post for the Huskies. The 6'10" former role player scored 13 points on a 6-10 effort from the field in the meeting between the teams earlier this season – his quickness on the low block bothered both Harangody and junior forward Tyrone Nash, defensively.

    Edwards is a quality rebounder on both ends; a solid shot-blocker with quick hands in the post and an improved offensive weapon, scoring in double digits in 9 of the Huskies' last 11 Big East contests. He can score on short jump hooks with both hands, runs the floor, and is a patient, savvy player near the rim. The Irish (namely Tyrone Nash) can't allow anything more than a garden-variety solid effort from Edwards in tonight's contest.

    Okwandu broke out vs. Notre Dame in the first matchup, scoring a conference-best 10 points on five field goals in 14 minutes. The 7'0" 255-pound junior has scored just 11 points in 14 conference games played since.

  • 6'11" project Ater Majok generally rounds out UConn's starting five. The former 5-star recruit has intermittently struggled since joining the Huskies at mid-season, playing as few as two and as many as 32 minutes in February games. Majok's 7'7" wingspan obviously serves a purpose on the defensive low block.

  • 6'9" 240-pound freshman Alex Oriakhi pounds the offensive glass (four of his nine boards vs. the Irish in 24 minutes came on the offensive end). Oriakhi has totaled 10 conference games with at least six rebounds this season. Freshman forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel could matchup with both Abromaitis and Carleton Scott in a relief role, defensively, while junior guard Donnell Beverly should see 8-10 minutes as well.

  • Whom to Foul? Each member of the trio of Huskies big men is a bricklayer: Oriakhi 55.6 percent; Majok 47.1 percent, and Okwandu is just 1-6 on the season. He should be fouled if he gets the ball within 3-feet of the rim. Of the main ball handlers, Robinson is the top candidate, hitting just 64.1 percent of 92 free throw attempts this season while Dyson is just average at exactly 70 percent for the year. Walker (79.2 percent), Edwards (78.8 percent) should be kept off the foul line by the Irish defense in crunch time.

The Last Time

Connecticut pulled away from the Irish midway through the second half en route to an 82-70 early-January win in Hartford. Huskies forward Stanley Robinson was the difference-maker, finishing with 22 points and 16 rebounds while playing lockdown defense on Irish forward Tim Abromaitis. Senior guard Jerome Dyson directly accounted for 41 Huskies points, finishing with 20 points and 10 assists.

Luke Harangody led all scorers with 31 points while Ben Hansbrough chipped in with 14 though the senior guard struggled offensively vs. Dyson, shooting 4-11 and fouling out near the end of the contest.

Series Stats and Streaks

  • The Irish have dropped four straight to the Huskies since an early January upset win in 2008. UConn holds an 11-3 advantage over Notre Dame during Mike Brey's tenure though Brey is 3-2 vs. Jim Calhoun in South Bend.
  • The Huskies rank No. 2 in the nation with 7.9 blocked shots per game. After a first-place ranking last season in terms of fouls committed, the Huskies are currently slated 18th in that category in 2010 (the Irish are No. 12). UConn is 14th in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to a 38.7 shooting effort on the season while the Irish rank 19th in overall field goal percentage at 48.4 percent.
  • The Irish continue to pace the nation in assist-to-turnover margin, ranking first with a 1.69 ratio through 29 games. Notre Dame is fourth nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (41.3 percent); 3rd in assists per game (17.8); and 8th in fewest turnovers committed per contest (10.5).
  • The Irish are 3-2 against repeat conference opponents this season. ND swept South Florida; finished 1-1 vs. Cincinnati with both teams winning on their home floor, and lost at Connecticut in early January.

Irish Personnel Notes

  • Notre Dame's senior class became the program's all-time leader for cumulative Big East regular season victories (though not in terms of overall winning percentage). Luke Harangody, Tory Jackson, Jonathan Peoples, and walk-on Tim Andree, Jr. holds a 41-27 record in conference action with two games and the conference tournament remaining.

    They are 30-5 at home vs. Big East foes with four of those losses coming at the hands of Top 15 teams.

  • Tim Abromaitis, a Connecticut native, has connected on 47 of 89 3-point attempts in Irish home games since joining the starting lineup on December 6. He's averaged 20.7 points per game in South Bend over that span with only South Florida holding Abromaitis under double figures (8 points on just 6 field goal attempts in 28 minutes).
  • After scoring just one point and concluding an inexplicable 2 for 24 home court shooting slump in an 18-point win over Cincinnati on February 4, senior point guard Tory Jackson has averaged 15.5 points per game while knocking down 31 of 63 shots from the field (despite an additional 1-10 outing intermixed in a loss to St. John's).

    Jackson has hit just 19 of 64 shots from the field in Big East home games while drilling 36 of 71 in conference road tilts.

  • Ben Hansbrough has averaged 17.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.5 assists over his last four games. After failing to go to the free throw line in consecutive losses to Seton Hall and St. John's, Hansbrough has knocked down 16 of 20 free throw attempts over the last three contests. He's scored in double figures in eight straight and nine of his last ten outings.
  • Junior forward Tyrone Nash, a 54.8 percent free throw shooter last season, has hit 23 of his last 30 offerings from the charity stripe. Nash has averaged 10.1 points and 5.2 rebounds over the last five contests. He's averaging 6.9 boards per game in his last five home tilts and has accounted for 13 assists and 7 turnovers in Notre Dame's last four outings.
  • Sportsbook.com has Notre Dame as a 1-point favorite for tonight's contest.

Prediction

For the last six halves and two additional overtime periods, the reborn Irish are playing the best basketball seen at the school since midway through the 2008 season.

Carleton Scott has added defensive length and an above the rim presence to the rotation in Harangody's stead and has burned opponents from the outside with his high-rising, over-the-head jump shot when left alone.

The team's starting five can each handle the ball, score when needed, and see the floor. They're unselfish, understand the nuances of the game, and have restored the long missing elements of consistent hustle and toughness to the program's basketball vernacular.

But tonight's matchup offers a familiar challenge: Can the suddenly nationally-recognized Irish take the next step? Can they play the role of assassin rather than plucky underdog?

And if you're not into underlying storylines, can coach Brey's patient "Burn" offense continue to beat the clock vs. a talented quartet of defenders in Dyson, Walker, Edwards, and Robinson as well as a host of big men waiting on the backside?

Can the Irish rebound against the massive, athletic Huskies out of an occasional 2-3 zone defense? Can they stop an offense run through the high and low post play of veteran center Gavin Edwards? And can they continue to improve without the program's best basketball player on the court?

Recent success and the "Eye Test" points to an Irish victory tonight in what should be a raucous Purcell Pavilion.

Recent history suggests otherwise.

Connecticut 70 Notre Dame 68


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