Tonight is a big night. Jim Calhoun, Hasheem Thabeet and the rest of the bunch are in South Bend, Ind., to take on yet another ranked Big East opponent in front of a national television audience, not to mention hundreds of screaming, red-headed and freckled yahoos who made their presence felt this morning on College GameDay.
And they have reason to scream. The Fighting Irish have a 45-game winning streak in their building, the longest in the country, dating back two years. Most teams just don't win in South Bend.
Most teams don't have a crazy-balanced team featuring a 7'3 center, an All-American point guard and a woyah of a power forward. Just saying.
Still, the Joyce Center has been a house of horrors for UConn, including last year when the Huskies fell behind by 21 and battled back, falling short, 73-67.
The 7 p.m. ESPN clash is arguably the nation's biggest game on a busy Saturday. It, at least, is the only one that will feature the vocal stylings of Duke's No. 1 fan as well as Erin Andrews the world's most attractive sideline reporter this side of Tony Siragusa.
In today's preview, we'll take a look at all the angles, minutiae and chatter, including (but not limited to):
- Why Luke Harangoofy is taking Hasheem Thabeet's comments personally, and also why he gets upset when people confuse him with a Cabbage patch doll.
- Why I thought Kyle McAlarney was much bigger in real life after seeing him on the Lucky Charms box.
- How difficult it will be for UConn to win a game in the Joyce Center, where ESPN's Digger Phelps is high sorcerer.
- How I will manage to avoid poking fun at the Irish people's tendency to indulge in alcoholic beverages on occasion.
All of that, plus links, analysis, and my pick, after the jump:
- The game: #3 UConn (17-1, 6-1 Big East) at #19 Notre Dame (12-5, 3-3)
- The place: Joyce Center - South Bend, Ind.
- The time: 7 p.m.
- The media: ESPN (TV), WTIC-1080 or WHUS-91.7 (radio)
- UConn likely starters: PG A.J. Price (11.9 ppg, 4.6 apg), SG Jerome Dyson (13.4 ppg, 3.4 apg, 1.9 spg), SF Stanley Robinson (5.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg), PF Jeff Adrien (14.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg), C Hasheem Thabeet (13.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.7 bpg)
- Notre Dame likely starters: PG Ryan Ayers (11.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg), SG Kyle McAlarney (17.1 ppg, 3.5 apg), SG Tory Jackson (11.4 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.6 rpg), SF Zach Hillesland (6.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg), PF Luke Harangody (24.8 ppg, 12.9 rpg)
What's at stake: Lots, of course.
- For UConn as a team, Wake Forest's loss to Virginia Tech earlier in the week means the Demon Deacons are a fraud a win would leave the Huskies in the Joe Biden position; should would-be No. 1 Duke be rendered incapacitated to serve as the nation's top team, the Huskies would be in prime position to take over.
- As far as the Huskies' Big East prospects go, a UConn win will put the Huskies at 7-1, but in third place behind unbeaten Marquette and Louisville. The Cardinals are at up-and-down Syracuse tomorrow, while Marquette is playing DePaul currently. Obviously, with a sort-of dip in the schedule coming up over the next seven days (UConn plays DePaul and Providence, a relatively straightforward task prior to heading to Freedom Hall), a win would be a feather in UConn's cap as it strives to get its head in front of the Big East horse race.
- On a personal level, this game means a lot to everyone, but none moreso than Hasheem Thabeet. Thabeet, you may remember, caused a bit of a preseason stir when he talked half-serious trash about Harangody and North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough in ESPN: The Magazine. Thankfully, ESPN did not offer to have Thabeet play either of them one-on-one in a game of "Best Post Move". Instead, Thabeet will have to deal with thousands of green-body-painted Irish fans who will be out for his blood, not to mention a player - Harangody - who creates all sorts of matchup problems because he can hit outside shots. This is a big game for Hasheem. He hasn't lived up to the brutally high expectations of an NBA lottery pick. If he could actually back up those words, not only will UConn be better off, but so will his draft status.
- Speaking of needing to back up their words, it's Jeff Adrien, everybody! Adrien, apparently feeling a little spry after the win over Villanova on Wednesday, told reporters that "It will feel really good to break their 45-game winning streak." As if more bulletin-board motivation was necessary for the Irish faithful to get amped. Hey, if you can back it up, then go ahead talk all you'd like. But for a team that has struggled away from home against La Salle, Buffalo and St. John's, I'm not thrilled with the overconfidence.
- For the Irish, tonight's win is vital as they head into a murderous Big East stretch, as documented here. Seven of eight games against ranked teams between Jan. 12 and Feb. 12 will take it out of you, and the Irish could conceivably be 5-6 in Big East play at the end of it. They're 3-3 currently, and play (after tonight) Marquette, Pitt, Cincinnati and Louisville. Yikes. And, oh by the way, it would be nice to get first blood in this series; UConn and Notre Dame meet again Feb. 28 at Gampel, on what should be an incredibly emotional Senior Night in Storrs.
Last year: These two teams played a couple of memorable games last year. As mentioned above, Notre Dame took a 21-point first-half lead in South Bend before UConn came back.
In that game, Thabeet nearly notched a triple-double, blocking 10 shots (most of which from Harangody, forcing the power forward to sit the bench for performance reasons...truly a great moment in recent UConn basketball history).
But in the end, McAlarney frustrated the hell out of UConn fans everywhere by scoring 32, including a bunch of big shots down the stretch.
The Huskies would get revenge a month later at Gampel Pavilion, in one of the better game atmospheres I've seen since my freshman year.
Harangody had a monster game (32 points, 16 rebounds), and completely destroyed Thabeet, obviously a worriesome bit of foreshadowing for tonight's game.
But Thabeet would get the last laugh. After Stanley Robinson's 3 gave the Huskies a 79-74 lead with under two to play, Notre Dame battled to get a good look. What happened next, thankfully, has been recorded on YouTube for posterity:
Awesome. UConn won, 84-78 en route to a 24-win season.
What the media is saying: With help from the always useful New Big East Basketball Report page, a look at the newspaper articles of note heading into tonight's game:
- Phil Chardis's preview for the Journal-Inquirer says that Thabeet regrets the magazine quote. Come on, big guy! You can't back down now. Although I do like the sitcom-like backtracking of saying "I said Harangody was a good player, a good person."
- David Borges of the NH Register tell us that Harangody didn't take the diss too seriously, but that he recognizes that most of the country now thinks he's a wimp and takes his lunch money regularly. And he wants it stop right now, you big meanie!
- Wrapping up the Connecticut media contingent, take a look at the New London Day's preview, which goes on about the GameDay circus. I know that I always imagine Rece Davis wearing clown shoes and face paint.
- The Chicago Tribune's preview is all about the home winning streak and just why the Irish must win tonight.
My Take: It takes a really good team to go into the Joyce Center and win. It takes a great team to go in and win with all of the emotions swirling about this game.
Are the Huskies great? Hell if I know. I doubt they know, either. How they respond to the trash talk, the rowdy crowd and the loads of talent on this Notre Dame team will be very telling as we head into the meat of the Big East schedule.
UConn absolutely cannot afford the slow start they've gotten against (recently) Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova. A slow start could mean an early burial if McAlarney and Jackson are having good shooting nights.
On the other hand, ND has nobody who should be able to guard Thabeet. That particular calculus hasn't worked out much this season, but maybe a little extra motivation (in the form of "Thabeet Can't Spell ESPN" signs) is in order.
If Notre Dame has a good night shooting 3's, they'll probably win. If not, UConn's rebound advantage should translate to a 10-point win. If UConn's backcourt of Price and Dyson can match McAlarney and Jackson, I like the combination of Adrien and Thabeet against Harangody.
Still, me being the eternal pessimist, I'll overestimate the opponents before I overvalue my own team. And with the crazy crowd, UConn's tendency to start slow, and Harangody playing way over his head, I just can't pick the Huskies. Sorry.
Notre Dame 82, UConn 78
Now, a win tonight and UConn is set up to be something really special. If you can win in South Bend, you can win just about anywhere.
I am officially psyched. Go Huskies.
Bonus prediction: Even though we're running a little long, I would like to give a little shout out to the top-ranked and undefeated UConn women, who are fresh off a week that included Geno-Syracuse TripGate and a 30-point rout over supposedly the nation's second-best team.
Tonight the Huskies (18-0, 4-0) travel to Cincinnati to take on the Bearcats (13-5, 3-2), also at 7 p.m., on CPTV.
Actually, who am I kidding. Do I really need to preview this game? UConn wins by 20 or more.
The game you should catch, though, is Monday night's game at Gampel against No. 12 Louisville, which features maybe the country's second-best player, Angel McCoughtry.
Enjoy the games tonight, everyone.