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January 24, 2009

Basketball preview: No. 3 Connecticut @ No. 19 Notre Dame

There have been several close calls along the way during Notre Dame's 45-game home winning streak. But very few of those battles have been as difficult as the one the Irish face tonight.

Head coach Jim Calhoun brings his No. 3-ranked Connecticut (17-1, 6-1) squad into the Joyce Center as the Huskies try to add to Notre Dame's recent skid, which includes double-digit road losses to Louisville and Syracuse.

After dropping their Big East opener at home against Georgetown by 11, the Huskies have reeled off six straight victories, including road wins against West Virginia (61-55), Cincinnati (81-72) and St. John's (67-55), mixed in with home victories over Rutgers (80-49), Seton Hall (76-61) and Villanova (89-83) Wednesday night.

This is a veteran-laden basketball team with four juniors and three seniors among the top eight in the rotation.

"They're really good," said Irish head coach Mike Brey. "Certainly we're familiar with them. We played them twice last year and split. Their personnel really hasn't changed that much.

"You start with speed and being able to change ends and transition, getting up on the backboard and rebounding the basketball. You have to hold your own on the backboard."

Six-foot-seven, 245-pound Jeff Adrien leads the balanced scoring chart with a 14.4 average, 9.6 rebounds per game, and a 54.8 field-goal percentage.

"I am very impressed," said Brey of Adrien. "He's a most improved player of the year (in the Big East) candidate. He's one of those guys you feel has been in the league 10 years. I think he sets the tone with toughness. He's a man in this league. There's a physicalness about him. I think he's become a great leader for Jim Calhoun."

Assisting Adrien on the boards is 7-foot-3 junior Hasheem Thabeet, who scores at a 13.2 clip, averages 10.1 rebounds per game, shoots 66.9 percent from the field, and intimidates in the paint as a constant shot-blocking threat.

Last year against the Irish, he blocked 16 shots in two games, including 10 in Notre Dame's home victory over Connecticut.

Three other players average double-figure scoring. Six-foot-four junior Jerome Dyson is scoring at a 13.4 clip. Six-foot-two senior A.J. Price ties it all together, scoring at an 11.9-point pace while leading the Huskies in three-point shooting (38-for-85, 44.7 percent).

When Price needs to take over the scoring duties, he's certainly well equipped. Wednesday night against Villanova, with Thabeet limited to 17 minutes due to foul trouble, Price tossed in 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting.

Six-foot freshman Kemba Walker has been a huge addition to the rotation, scoring 10.0 points per game while connecting on 50.9 percent of his shots and 78.4 percent of his free throws. Six-foot-three senior Craig Austrie averages 8.2 points per game and is one of the most accomplished free-throw shooters (77.1 percent) on a team that struggles at times from the stripe.

A pair of 6-foot-9 juniors-Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards-gives the Huskies a combined 10 points off the bench as well as high-percentage shot selection. Edwards is shooting 62.2 percent from the field and Robinson is at 54.5 percent.

Connecticut shoots and defends well. They rank third in the conference in field goal percentage (48.7 percent) and field goal defensive percentage (40.2 percent). Led by Thabeet, the Huskies are second in the Big East in blocked shots with 126.

While both teams are excellent three-point shooting squads, the Irish are averaging four more three-pointers per game in Big East play than the Huskies. Notre Dame likely will need an even greater advantage in the three-point department in order to win this game.

Another factor in Notre Dame's favor-besides the obvious home-court advantage and ESPN's GameDay madness-is its sudden resurgence from the free-throw line. After struggling through the non-conference portion of the slate, dipping below 60 percent at one point, the Irish currently lead the Big East in free-throw percentage with an 80.6 mark in conference play.

As if the Irish needed any extra motivation, Luke Harangody is using Thabeet's declaration that Harangody lacked toughness by posting the statement on his locker. Actually, it's probably more important that Harangody settles down and picks his spots to attack Thabeet, who will try to swat virtually everything the Irish All-American throws up there.

Also look for senior Zach Hillesland to make a positive impact following a recent rough patch. Kyle McAlarney has hurt the Huskies in the past. Connecticut likely will overplay McAlarney, which means players such as Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller was step to the forefront.

The home streak is in jeopardy. But you can't underestimate the magic that the Irish possess at the Joyce Center. The prediction here is that Notre Dame finds a way.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 1
Prister's Prediction: Notre Dame 77, Connecticut 73
Season record: 13-4 overall; 5-5 vs. points



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