There is no chance of overstating how huge this game is for the Bruins. This game represents the final chance this season that the Bruins have of picking up a good non-conference victory against a "name" school. As was the case during the New Mexico State preview, this game will really come down to which UCLA team shows up -- the unfocused, lazy team from much of the season or the focused and energized team fans saw on Tuesday during UCLA's win against New Mexico State.
Notre Dame comes into Saturday's contest with a record of 9-2, but that record is a bit misleading. The Irish have only played one "good" team, and they lost to both of them. Yes, that's a play on words as the Irish lost to Northwestern, although the Wildcats won going away without their top player Kevin Coble, and they lost inexplicably to a 4-7 Loyola Marymount squad. The latter loss was even more puzzling considering that the Irish lost at home where they've been virtually unbeatable outside of the Big East the past few seasons.
UCLA is coming off clearly its best effort of the season, a 100-68 win over New Mexico State that wasn't as close as the score indicates. In that win UCLA looked collectively more energized on both ends of the floor, but particularly on offense where Malcolm Lee, Jerime Anderson and Mike Roll played far more actively and under control (and in Anderson's case, confidently) than they had at any point this year. Couple that with Tyler Honeycutt looking more comfortable as he gets his legs under him and the Bruins simply looked like a different club than the one that got run out of the 76 Classic in Anaheim two weeks ago.
While the energy and effort the Bruins brought to the game were a welcome development, it was accomplished against an inferior opponent. It remains to be seen if the Bruins are, as Tracy Pierson noted earlier this year, a team that plays with energy only when they're beating up a bad team, or if this game was truly a development in the right direction, i.e. the Bruins will continue to show that kind of activity even when they are tough game against a good opponent.
This game is actually a good match-up for the Bruins, at least on paper. While Notre Dame clearly has a big match-up advantage at one spot, the other four spots on the floor and the bench are basically a toss-up, with the Bruins actually having better players at some key spots.
Notre Dame basketball begins and ends these days with senior Luke Harangody (6'8", 246 lbs.) who chose to return for his final season after flirting with the NBA draft. Always known as an inside banger who has a non-stop engine, Harangody has added to his game. He leads the Irish in scoring at 24.6 PPG and rebounding at 10.1 RPG. He is shooting 52% from the floor and 84% from the free-throw line. He's even shooting three-point shots at a 30% clip this season. He has more assists than turnovers, which is amazing considering he is the primary scoring option and the ball touches his hands on virtually every Irish possession. He's even blocking shots this year. No one in the arena will be surprised when Ben Howland doubles Harangody because the Notre Dame offense clearly goes through him. You can bet that Reeves Nelson certainly will not be scared of Harangody, but it will take quite a bit more to contain Harangody than no fear. Harangody is similar to Nelson physically and athletically, maybe with about 20 more pounds and another inch, and he's the type of player, actually, that Nelson should aspire to be, with a far advanced skill set compared to the UCLA freshman. Plus, in this game, the advantage lies, really, in Harangody's experience and savvy, which he'll undoubtedly use to exploit Nelson's inexperience. Nelson will have to play smart and not get into foul trouble because J'mison Morgan is probably going to be exposed if he is matched against Harangody for any length of time and James Keefe got hurt at the worst possible time for the Bruins.
Coach Mike Brey has another senior running the team in point guard Tory Jackson (5'11", 195 lbs.). Jackson has a very good assist-to-turnover ratio (almost 5 to 1) and he plays solid defense as well as knowing where to get the ball on the offensive end. However, Brey wanted Jackson to be more of a scorer this season but Jackson is averaging only 8.2 PPG and is shooting below 39% from the floor and 36% from beyond the arc. On top of that, Jackson is only shooting 57% from the charity stripe. Jackson has never been an overly athletic guard and he doesn't often look to get into the lane. Much of that can be attributed to trying to get Harangody the ball, but Jackson still is a distributor from the perimeter. Jerime Anderson and certainly Malcolm Lee can disrupt the Irish offense at the point of attack by playing Jackson tight.
Senior transfer Ben Hansbrough (6'3", 206 lbs.), the brother or UNC's Tyler Hansbrough, and junior Tim Abromaitis (6'8", 235 lbs.) are the two primary perimeter shooters for the Irish. They average 12.5 and 15.7 PPG respectively and shoot over 48% from beyond the arc combined. They have more than made up for the lost of graduated sharpshooter Kyle McAlarney. However, both players have some real deficiencies in their game, specifically on the defensive end of the floor. Both players are poor athletes, and that's being generous. Hansbrough plays with a lot of fire and in many ways his approach to the game is similar to his more famous sibling. When Honeycutt is on the floor he gives UCLA a significant athletic advantage over both Abromaitis and Hansbrough. In fact, Abromaitis is so stationary that Nikola Dragovic stands a good chance of being able to slow him down and close out on his shots.
The final two players in Brey's primarily seven-man rotation are senior Jonathan Peoples (6'3" 207 lbs.) and junior Tyrone Nash (6'8" 232 lbs.). Peoples is a solid balhandler and can run the point in Jackson's absence. Peoples has actually started eight games, but his minutes are getting shorter because he is a major defensive liability. Nash is a decent athlete whose main job is to support Harangody inside on the boards.
If Brey wants to get more athletic he'll insert junior Carleton Scott (6'7" 217 lbs.), who can get up and down the floor and has some very good "hops," but Brey knows that Scott tends to play out of control, and that's saying a lot considering the Irish are pretty sloppy on the offensive end.
Notre Dame is very much like last year's squad in that the Irish can score but play woeful defense. They are last in the Big East in both field-goal percentage defense and 3-point field goal percentage defense, and that's without playing any really difficult competition. The Bruins are going to get good looks and if they can cause turnovers they will be able to get more than a few fast break hoops.
The Irish are certainly going to be angry because of the loss to LMU in their last outing. Further, they will be playing at home. There will also be the added motivation of trying to gain a measure of revenge against the Bruins for the 89-63 beat-down that UCLA put on the Irish last year at Pauley Pavilion. However, when looking closer at the intangibles, first, the Irish are still an emotionally fragile team, much like UCLA, only Notre Dame is a senior-dominated squad. The homecourt advantage really shouldn't be all that daunting. Notre Dame hasn't come close to selling out a home game this season and their students are heading home for the Christmas break before Saturday's tip.
There are some significant things favoring the Bruins, too. UCLA hasn't done well against teams that can spread the Bruins out and dribble drive. The Irish are not that kind of team. In fact, UCLA will be more athletic across the board than the Irish. UCLA's confidence will be at a high after Tuesday's win and that could go a long way to UCLA playing well. Notre Dame will probably play a lot of zone because they won't be able to keep players like Lee and Honeycutt out of the lane. Although UCLA has struggled against zone defenses this year, the Irish 2-3 zone has a lot of holes in it, the kind of holes that could allow Mike Roll to go off.
Perhaps the biggest factor going against UCLA is it being the first road game of the season for a team that plays a lot of inexperienced players. It's the first college road game ever for the freshmen, and one of the first for Anderson and Lee where they're going to play significant minutes. If this game were in Pauley it'd actually be a pretty easy call for UCLA. It will come down to whether UCLA's youngsters can maintain composure and not lose focus. Watch to see if, say, Lee is jump-stopping or if Anderson is jumping to pass, or just how many turnovers UCLA commits early. Those could be obvious signs if the young Bruins are focused or not.
It's clearly a serious test for the Bruins, but this really is a match-up that, outside of Harangody, on paper favors UCLA.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say the Bruins who played New Mexico State Tuesday get off the plane in South Bend.
Notre Dame 70