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February 28, 2009

Basketball Preview: Notre Dame @ No. 2 Connecticut

A loss won't end Notre Dame's NCAA tournament hopes Saturday at No. 2 Connecticut. But an upset victory over the Huskies would propel the Irish into the middle of the Big East pack and smack dab in the mix for post-season play with an equally important home tilt against No. 10 Villanova Monday night.

The Irish, winners of four of their last five, enter Saturday's CBS game at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn., with a golden opportunity. Notre Dame hasn't won a game over a top-five ranked opponent since Dec. 7, 2006, when the Irish began a successful two-and-a-half year run with a statement-making victory over No. 4 Alabama.

The Irish are 3-7 against ranked opponents this season. Its clash with Connecticut ties the Notre Dame mark for regular-season games against ranked opponents (11) set in 1991-92. The school mark for games versus ranked opponents (including post-season) is 12 set in 1977-78 during Notre Dame's run to the Final Four.

Notre Dame is just 1-8 versus the Huskies in Connecticut. The Irish defeated No. 2 Connecticut, 75-70, at the Hartford Civic Center on Jan. 5, 2000. This is Notre Dame's third visit to Gampel Pavilion since joining the Big East in 1995-96. The Irish are 0-2 on the Huskies' home court during that time frame.

Connecticut has been weakened since the Huskies defeated the Irish 69-61 on Jan. 24 to end Notre Dame's 45-game home winning streak. Six-foot-4 junior Jerome Dyson (13.2 ppg.) is out for the balance of the season with a knee injury. Despite falling at home to No. 1-rated Pittsburgh without Dyson, the Huskies remain atop the Big East standings by one-half game over Louisville.

The Huskies offer balanced scoring and the frontline prowess of 7-foot-3 junior Hasheem Thabeet and 6-foot-7, 243-pound senior Jeff Adrien. Thabeet averages 13.5 points and 10.7 rebounds to go along with his 4.4 blocked shots per game and a 65.2 shooting percentage from the field. Adrien scores at a 13.4 clip while snagging 10.0 rebounds per game.

Tying things together in the backcourt for the Huskies is 6-foot-2 senior point guard A.J. Price, who averages 13.2 points per game while connecting on 42.3 percent of his three-point attempts. Price leads Connecticut with 63 three-pointers.

Craig Austrie, a 6-foot-3 senior, has stepped into the starting lineup in Dyson's absence, averaging 7.5 points per game, while 6-foot-0 freshman Kemba Walker scores at an 8.7 clip.

Playing a key role off the bench is 6-foot-9 junior Stanley Robinson (6.3 ppg.), who gives the Huskies additional length.

Connecticut is good at, well, virtually everything. The Huskies lead the Big East in scoring defense (61.4), scoring margin (+11.7), field-goal percentage defense (.371), rebounding (41.8), and blocked shots (7.9) while ranking second in three-point field goal defense (.301), rebounding margin (+7.4) and offensive rebounds (14.3).

The only thing the Huskies don't do particularly well is shoot the three-pointer (with the exception of Price). They are 15th in the conference with just 4.5 three-pointers per game. But when you have a front line like Connecticut's, it seldom matters. Thabeet has blocked 76 shots in 16 Big East games. To put that in perspective, consider that the Irish have just 70 blocked shots in all 27 of its games this season.

Connecticut's average margin of victory in its 14 Big East wins is an impressive 15.5 points per game.

Irish All-American Luke Harangody (24.0 ppg., 12.6 rpg.) will have his hands full up front against Thabeet, Adrien and Robinson. He'll need some help from sophomore Tyrone Nash, who has been a spark off the bench in recent games.

Notre Dame also will need a big game from beyond the arc if they are to keep pace with the Huskies on their home court. That means Kyle McAlarney needs to add about half a dozen three-pointers to his current total of 103. And as is often the case, as Ryan Ayers goes, so go the Irish.

Motivated by the chance to upend the No. 2 team in the country, which would push the them to the top of the NCAA tournament bubble, the Irish may just have enough to put a scare into the Huskies.

But at Gampel Pavilion, it's a constant uphill battle. The Irish are just 2-6 away from the Joyce Center in the Big East this season. The odds are much greater that the Irish take care of business Monday night against No. 10 Villanova at the Joyce Center, followed by the Big East regular-season finale Friday versus St. John's.

Pointspread: Connecticut by 11
Prister's Prediction: Connecticut 78, Notre Dame 65
Season record: 19-8 straight up; 7-13 vs. points



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