Notre Dame Preview

UCLA goes to chilly South Bend today to take on a tough, physical Notre Dame team that is almost certainly headed to the NCAA tournament. While it's not a make-or-break game for UCLA as many are making out, a win would probably clinch an NCAA berth for the Bruins...

UCLA's Head Coach Ben Howland goes into familiar territory today when he takes his Bruins to South Bend to face Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish are 16-8, and 8-6 in the Big East, which has them tied for sixth in the conference. The Domers, though, are considered an almost-certain NCAA tournament team, flirting on and off with a top 25 national ranking for much of this season and currently with an RPI of 31. Big East play literally and figuratively beat them up a bit, though, mostly in terms of national rankings. But they have two huge Big East wins against #3-ranked Boston College and #19-ranked Connecticut. It's one of only two losses for Boston College all season.

UCLA and Notre Dame do have some common opponents in Boston College and Michigan (they lost at Michigan) , but those matchups were so long ago you can almost throw them out in terms of what they mean for this game.

From a personnel standpoint, Notre Dame presents UCLA with some matchup problems. They have some tough, physical players inside and some great shooters outside, with a very solid point guard, and generally like to play very physical. In fact, if you had to draw a comparison, they're probably most similar to Stanford in the Pac-10, but with far more depth and outside shooting.

As with Stanford, Notre Dame is fueled by its point guard, 6-0 senior Chris Thomas, who it seems has been at Notre Dame for about 10 years. He's averaging 14 points and is their leading scorer and 6 assists per game. Thomas isn't overly quick, but has decent quickness, and isn't overly strong, but decently strong. He has good skills, shoots the ball very well and has become a very smart, savvy leader.

Thomas loves to penetrate and dish to some big, strong post players for the Irish, namely 6-10 junior center Torin Francis. Francis is a rugged 250-pounds and is very good at beating up opponents in the paint. Going with the Stanford analogy, he's similar to the Cardinal's Rob Little but more athletic and probably not quite as skilled. He's averaging almost nine points per game and 7.6 rebounds, but he's a far more effective offensive player because of his strength inside than those numbers suggest.

Really, though, Notre Dame's rugged frontline is made up more of a steady stream of big, strong bodies than just one guy. Playing alongside Francis is 6-9, 240-pound senior Jordan Cornette. Cornette is the inside defensive stopper, often times getting the assignment of playing the opponents best inside scorer. He's also a very accomplished shot blocker.

Coming off the bench inside are primarily three other guys who are all invariably 6-8 and 230 pounds – Dennis Latimore, Rick Cornett and Omari Israel. Latimore, you might remember, is a transfer from Arizona, who has never really delivered on the hype from high school. He is, though, a very strong player, and uses it effectively inside to score and rebound. Cornett is another very physical player and is probably a true five. Israel is not as much a banger inside, thankfully, but is more of a slasher type.

These guys, obviously, present a problem for UCLA's offense since the Bruins have a limited amount of bodies that can physically body-up in the paint well. Perhaps the only issue for Notre Dame when facing UCLA is who among these guys will defend UCLA's Dijon Thompson. The Irish might opt for Latimore or Israel, the two that are slightly quicker.

Notre Dame, though, is perhaps even scarier on the perimeter, with some nice scorers who put up points quickly. Like Thomas, 6-2 junior guard Chris Quinn seldom comes off the court (both are averaging about 37 minutes per game). Quinn is another lead guard, who will actually take over the point guard position from Thomas when he graduates this year. He's not overly quick and doesn't present much problem with defending him off the dribble, but he's a very heady player that knows how to find room quickly on the perimeter to get off his shot. And that shot goes in quite a bit, with Quinn shooting 46% from three.

The guy that tends to then be the back-breaker this season has been great-shooting, 6-5 sophomore wing Colin Falls. Defenses are so busy keeping track of Thomas and Quinn on the perimeter that Falls's pretty, quick release has definitely been a dagger.

Notre Dame plays its perimeter guys so much since they have little depth in the backcourt. Only one player comes off the bench, Russell Carter, a 6-4 sophomore guard, but he's only averaging about 7 minutes per game. Carter, though, also has nice shooting ability.

Notre Dame, though, presents a bit of a different challenge for UCLA offensively than they're used to in the Pac-10 generally. Its perimeter players aren't near as athletic as the Arizonas and Washingtons, but they execute a strong, structured offense that works to get them open looks on the perimeter. The Bruins won't have to worry about too much dribble penetration, except from Thomas, but will have to be very active in pushing through screens and flying out on shooters.

As it has been all season, whether UCLA can be competitive in this game will be determined by how well they play defense. Notre Dame doesn't have the athletic wings to get out and run. Its offense is geared more toward grinding it out in the halfcourt, using the shot clock effectively and waiting for an open look. UCLA will have to sustain great defensive effort for the entire game and not get worn down by Notre Dame's physical play. More than likely you can expect UCLA to not double the Irish's post players much, probably being too worried about its perimeter players, who are its most effective scorers. Surprisingly, Notre Dame's physical front line are just decent rebounders, so UCLA keeping the Irish to just one shot per possession will be key.

On the other side of the court, UCLA has a real challenge with Notre Dame's defense. As has been repeated here a few times, the Irish are a physical team, and will beat up opponents inside while also being dilligent on the perimeter. They're primarily a man-to-man team but could utilize some zone against the Bruins. How Thompson does against Notre Dame's various 6-8, 230-pounders will be instrumental in how UCLA's offense will fare.

Much of the media is making this game out to be a highly critical one for UCLA in terms of an NCAA tournament berth, which we don't really see. Yes, it would be a big win for the Bruins, and probably clinch an NCAA tournament nod. But it would clinch it mostly because it would make it far more likely that UCLA would finish with 18 wins, while also getting a big road win against a top 50 team would be big. But it's not anywhere near a NCAA-make-or-break game for UCLA. The more critical games for the Bruins are the ones they are expected to win. But definitely not getting blown out on national is probably also important.

A big factor, too, could be the loss of Josh Shipp for the game. He sprained an ankle against USC, hasn't practiced the last couple of days and is considered a game-time decision. Without Shipp, UCLA has only Brian Morrison on the perimeter, or opt to play Ryan Hollins at the three and slide over Thompson to the three spot. Not only does UCLA lose Shipp's ability, but the loss of just his body makes UCLA even more vulnerable to Notre Dame's toughness.

It's difficult to predict how UCLA will fare against Notre Dame. The only real measuring stick is how the played against another Big East opponent, Boston College. If you remember, UCLA seemed to do pretty well physically against BC for much of the game. But just last week the fact that UCLA couldn't hang with Stanford physically, both inside and on the perimeter, isn't a good indication.

UCLA's youngsters, though, have at times seemed to play more focused on the road. This game, more than anything, will be a good test to see if Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo have come far enough this season to remain poised in an environment like Notre Dame.

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