Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
Another Big East match-up between two poll-ranked teams features two sides moving in different directions, as #6 Connecticut (17-1, 6-1) enters South Bend trying to extend a six-game win streak, while a #70 Notre Dame (12-5, 3-3) team that has lost its last two games is in search of a Big East record 21st consecutive home win.
Notre Dame had a decent showing in Maui, getting a win over Texas before losing to North Carolina in the final, but didn’t do much else in its non-conference schedule. The Irish also picked up a nice Big East win against Georgetown, but have done very little on the road, losing at St. John’s, Louisville and Syracuse. Connecticut took its only loss in its conference opener with Georgetown, but has cruised since, getting victories over Villanova and West Virginia to move to 6-1 in conference play. The Huskies’ non-conference profile is also solid, getting wins over Miami, Wisconsin and Gonzaga, among others.
Connecticut has one of the nation’s best offenses, an extremely efficient unit that dominates most opponents inside, but has a solid outside shooting presence as well. The Huskies make a good, but not spectacular, percentage of their shots, but grab nearly 40% of their misses, commit very few turnovers and get to the free throw line seemingly at will. All of this spells big trouble for Notre Dame, which has struggled defensively, worse than such conference stalwarts as St. John’s and Rutgers. Notre Dame should manage to keep the Huskies from doing too much damage at the free throw line, but forces very few turnovers, and is likely to get beaten up inside, despite the presence of Luke Harangody.
Notre Dame is a fascinating offensive contrast: without Harangody, the Irish are essentially a faster version of the classic ‘mid-major’, heavily dependent on ball control and the three-point shot. Of course, ignoring Harangody is totally nonsensical, as he is one of the most important players to his team in the country. Even with him, though, the Irish are not particularly good shooters inside, and not great on the offensive glass; his teammates focus on perimeter play, and do so successfully, making over 40% of three attempts and putting up one of the country’s best turnover rates. Defensively, Connecticut has its strength inside, so while the Irish will be able to thrive on the perimeter, they will have trouble against a defense that blocks a lot of attempts and does well on the defensive glass. The Huskies also are very judicious with fouls, sending opponents to the line less often than any other team in America, and given that Notre Dame don’t get to the line much under normal circumstances, this bodes well for Connecticut.
Connecticut features an excellent inside duo in 6-7 senior Jeff Adrien and 7-3 junior Hasheem Thabeet. Adrien has made 55% of his shots and gets to the line often, while also being a strong force on the glass and leading the team in scoring. Thabeet is a game-changer, shooting over 65%, a higher percentage then he makes on his free throws, averaging nearly 10 boards a game and leading the Big East in blocks. The question about Thabeet is how large his role is; often the Connecticut offense will ‘lose’ him, as it did against Georgetown. Stanley Robinson has returned to the starting line-up to provide even more size inside, and the 6-9 junior has shot very well, though his rebounding has been spotty. Junior Jerome Dyson takes more shots than any other player, but his percentages aren’t particularly good; he sits at 45.6 eFG%, and has made less than a third of his shots in Big East play. A.J. Price is a solid point guard, averaging nearly 5 assists per game, with a 1.7 A/TO ratio, and shooting nearly 45% from behind the arc. Craig Austrie is a solid shooter who generally takes a pretty small role in the offense, while speedy freshman Kemba Walker is a good scorer inside who lacks consistency, but can be a major force when hot.
As I mentioned above, Notre Dame is very much Harangody and friends, as the 6-8 junior is a dominant force, as important to his team’s success as any player this side of Stephen Curry. Harangody places in the top 5 nationally in both scoring and rebounding, has only failed to earn a double-double three times all season, and has scored at least 25 points in every Big East game so far. His percentages aren’t spectacular, but they are solid, and he is a good free throw shooter. One under-appreciated area of his game is ball control, as his turnover rate is one of the lowest in the country. The only thing you could quibble with would be getting to the free throw line, he’s an 82% shooter who manages fewer attempts than you might expect for such an interior force. Zach Hillesland is the forward who starts alongside Harangody, a decent scorer and rebounder who is stuck in the All-American’s shadow. Luke Zeller is the other big man available, but he has shot a poor percentage off the bench, taking a large number of his shots from behind the arc. The other major players on the Irish are a strong group of guards, none better than senior Kyle McAlarney. McAlarney is a spectacular three-point shooter, hitting 48% of his attempts this season, and capable of some absurd runs, as he had against North Carolina. Tory Jackson is also a solid shooter, but tends to focus more on point guard duties, leading the team in both assists and steals. Ryan Ayres is another good shooter who starts in the backcourt, and his 45% three-point efforts are somewhat overshadowed by McAlarney’s sterling numbers. A serious problem for Notre Dame is depth, as beyond the six players I’ve mentioned, only one other averages over 10 minutes a game in junior guard Jonathan Peoples, who hasn’t done anything particularly notable.
It may have been 35 months since Notre Dame last lost a home game in conference play, but in the two full seasons that constitute their home winning streak, the Irish benefited from avoiding most of the conference’s best teams in South Bend: in 2008, neither Georgetown nor Louisville came to town, and in 2007 they avoided the Hoyas and Pitt (though Louisville did come in that year). So, Notre Dame’s chance at the all-time Big East record may be their most difficult game they’ve faced since it began, and given their defensive deficiencies, Connecticut should have enough to hold them off, especially inside, where the Huskies depth should be a real advantage. It’s hard to pick against such an impressive streak, but the Huskies look like the better team in this matchup.
Winner: Connecticut Margin: 5-9
-- Evan Dorey's rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.