While this game might not be the most important of the season for the Bruins, it is very significant. UCLA, and for that matter all of the Pa-10, is in desperate need of some strong out-of-conference wins to boost its RPI and thus its potential NCAA tournament seeding. This game could mean the difference between, say, a #2 seed and a #4 seed for UCLA come seeding time, and could actually mean the difference in another Pac-10 team getting an NCAA bid at all.
Notre Dame came into the season ranked #9 in the country in both polls, but has experienced some tough times. They are currently 12-9, and 12th in the Big East Conference, having lost their last six games in a row. They've been going through practically Murderer's Row of a Big East schedule, and it's definitely taken its toll on the program.
The Irish are going through some serious issues like poor chemistry, disgruntled players and a coach, Mike Brey, who is definitely sitting on a hot seat. There is a feeling that, in fact, Brey has lost the team.
It is definitely the case of a team that has found itself, UCLA, and is putting it together, and another going the other direction, with the wheels coming off the cart.
The game presents itself, though, as a very good opportunity for Notre Dame to right itself.
The Irish definitely have the talent to do it.
They perhaps have one of the few best inside men in the nation in junior Luke Harangody (6-8, 255). He is one of the country's leading scorers, averaging 25.3 per game, and leading redbounders, averaging 13.2 boards per game, which is astounding. He's averaging 27 and 14 in Big East play. He has achieved 11 straight double-doubles, and done it in 16 of the 19 games he's played in this season. Truly astounding. He's definitely a first-team All-American.
Harangody is big, strong, skilled and plays hard. He is very good at sealing off on the block, has very good post footwork, can step out and hit a jumpshot (even shoots 36% from three), and can draw fouls, which he takes advantage of, shooting 81% from the free-throw line.
No one in the country, really, has been able to stop him. You would consider it a good day against Harangody if you held him under 20 points (which hasn't been done in 14 straight games) or under 10 rebounds. If UCLA can do that, they'd have a chance to beat Notre Dame by 20.
But don't expect it. Expect Harangody to get his numbers, because the general theory lately is to not to double him, let him get his points, and don't allow someone else to beat you.
You're basically picking you poison, too, because Notre Dame has three other guys who are averaging double figures.
Senior Kyle McAlarney (6-0, 195) is one of the best scoring small guards in the country, averaging 15.8 points and shooting 45% from three. Against North Carolina, he hit 10 three-pointers. He is a bit stiff and not very agile, and definitely is on the smallish side for the two-guard spot at 6-0, but he plays with a chip on his shoulder.
His backcourt mate for the last couple of years has been junior point guard Tory Jackson (5-11, 193), who is averaging 6 assists per game and an impressive 4.7 rebounds per game, while scoring 10.6. Jackson is definitely the playmaker, the guy who sets up the rest of his sharp-shooting teammates, but if you leave him open he, too, will knock down a three (37%).
Those are the big three for the Irish, with each playing over 34 minutes per game, and scoring 65% of their points.
Senior wing Ryan Ayers (6-7, 210), is their fourth double-digit scorer, and he can certainly shoot the three-ball, too, at a 41% clip. He's started most of the season, but has been coming off the bench as of late, since he went through 1-for-17 slump. When he's shooting well, Ayers' shot is tough to defend because of his height, and Bray uses him to defend bigger wings.
Senior Zach Hillesland (6-9, 228) is the other post, and he's been solid, at 6.1 points and 5.4 rebounds. Hillesland also went through a slump where he scored just two points in three games, so he was relegated to the bench also, where he has seemed to give the Irish a spark.
Lately, Brey has started junior Jonathan Peoples (6-3, 215) to try to infuse some quickness and defense, but he's only played 13 minutes or so a game.
The designated sixth man is senior Luke Zeller (6-11,245). He has started the last two games, though, since Brey is trying to mix up things and find a better combination. Zeller is long and skilled, and likes to shoot from the outside; in fact, he made six threes in the first half against Pittsburgh a week ago and scored 18 points in his first start of the season.
Sophomores Tyrone Nash (6-8, 225) and Carelton Scott (6-7, 217) get limited minutes off the bench to give the starters a rest.
As a team, Notre Dame is shooting 40% from three, which makes them among the best outside shooting teams in the country.
Their issues have been primarily chemistry and defense.
In terms of chemistory, there really is not true leader on the team, which causes some dissension. McAlarney, also, isn't happy with the amount of touches he's getting.
Then there's the defense, which is, of course, the first thing to break down when a program is starting to slide, and that's the case here. They alternate between a zone and man, and both are pretty soft. Brey is looking for someone – anyone – to play some perimeter defense, but he's not finding many takers. They're allowing opponents to score 72 points per game.
UCLA, defensively, will have its hands full. You can probably expect Alfred Aboya to defend Harangody, since no one else on the squad is probably capable of it. It will definitely be a test of the Bruins defense to rotate and pick up shooters if they double Harangody. While Drew Gordon has done well for a freshman so far this season, it gives you the willies to think about him trying to defend Harangody.
Now, there's a great deal to consider when trying to get a grasp of how good Notre Dame will be in this game. They play in by far the best conference in the country, the Big East, so they should be battle-tested and by no means intimidated by UCLA. Their conference schedule definitely makes them better than they might seem. They, too, know they're playing for their NCAA tournament lives, and a big out-of-conference win for them would help. Also, a team that is basically a good one having lost six in a row is a dangerous one.
On the other hand, they have issues, they're on the road, they're Big-East beaten up, and probably distracted, having to go right back at it after UCLA and face #5-ranked Louisville in a few days.
And UCLA is playing its best basketball of the season.
Even though Notre Dame doesn't currently have it together, the Pac-10 competition hasn't prepared the Bruins for Big East boys like Notre Dame. The Irish, despite their record, might be the best team UCLA has faced all season. This ain't Arizona State or Washington. So, it'd be surprising if UCLA blew out the Irish. It'd be a definite indication that UCLA is, in fact, really putting it together if they did.
Also, you have to always give UCLA a couple of extra points when Ben Howland has more time to prepare, and he has one extra day for this one as opposed to his conventional Pac-10 Saturday games.
Notre Dame 68