With UConn (13-3, 3-2 Big East) headed to South Bend for a Saturday morning game (11a.m., ESPN2), coach Jim Calhoun was asked Thursday what makes the Irish (11-6, 3-1) so tough at home. After he pointed out that UConn isn't alone (Notre Dame has won 29 straight home games), Calhoun praised the players who have worn the Irish uniform, and lauded coach Mike Brey for the job he has done.
"They just do a really good job at home," Calhoun said. "They're a good basketball team. Every guy kind of knows his place. …
"It seems they have a real good sense of who they are."
Calhoun didn't sound envious when he said that, but a little voice inside him had to be asking why 17th-ranked UConn can't find that same comfort zone this season. The coaching staff is still searching for that "sense of who they are" with this team.
The Irish have battled through injuries, including the loss of co-captain and fifth-year senior Tim Abromaitis for the remainder of the season after he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in late November, but it seems they have pulled things together.
It was clear entering this season that UConn would have an issue trying to find its identity without point guard Kemba Walker, who was such a strong personality on the national championship team. But after 16 games, Calhoun still doesn't have a clear-cut leader. In addition, eight players have found a spot in the starting lineup at one time or another for UConn.
Calhoun said Thursday he anticipates making another lineup change for Notre Dame. Freshman DeAndre Daniels will be back at small forward, replacing Niels Giffey. Giffey had started the past two games, but went scoreless against Rutgers and had two points against West Virginia.
"DeAndre's had two really good days," Calhoun said.
Power forward Tyler Olander is questionable for Saturday's game due to a right heel contusion suffered in the West Virginia game Monday night. Olander missed practice Wednesday and Thursday.
If Olander can't play, Calhoun said sophomore Roscoe Smith would be the first big man off the bench. Smith has played just 18 minutes the past three games. Smith has been bothered by a sprained wrist but looked better in practice Thursday.
"Roscoe has been playing very well," Calhoun said.
Alex Oriakhi, who has struggled all this season, said he is prepared to play additional minutes if Olander isn't healed. Calhoun said Monday night that Oriakhi played his best game in a month against West Virginia. Oriakhi said that effort left him feeling better about himself.
"I thought I did some things better, especially rebounding," Oriakhi said. "I just tried to be a defensive presence out there."
Finally, one of the biggest discussions surrounding this UConn team has been leadership. After the loss to Rutgers last Saturday, Calhoun said, "There's not a lack of it, there's just none," Calhoun said.
Napier responded by saying, "I feel as though I'm their best leader. Sometimes they give me a chance, sometimes they don't. That's how it is. It's just basketball, I guess."
That controversy seemed in the distant past after Thursday's practice.
"I'm not even worried about that no more," Napier said. "If it happens, it happens. We'll find a leader sooner or later. If it doesn't, it doesn't. We're going to win games and lose games without a leader – and with a leader. I just feel as if we play team basketball, we should be fine. And within that, we'll find a leader."
Napier hadn't even said that when Calhoun said this: "Well, obviously, coming off a win is much easier than coming off a loss." Obviously.