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Men’s Basketball: Back to the Big Apple?

Greg Arbogast | Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In an odd bit of symmetry, the finish of Monday’s Kentucky-Creighton game ensured that this year’s seniors would go out in style.

Just days after Tory Jackson’s last-second shot put Notre Dame one game away from the NIT semifinals in New York City, Jodie Meeks’ last-second basket ensured that its next game would take place in the Joyce Center – and that it would be against Kentucky, arguably college basketball program’s most storied program.

“I was trying to rally the spirit of Adolph Rupp throughout the night because I didn’t want to go over to Midway and fly to Omaha quite frankly,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “We’re thrilled we get to play again in front of our home crowd.”

Now Notre Dame is left to wonder if any of its fans will notice. Last week the Irish drew 2,064 and 3,013 fans, respectively, for their games against UAB and New Mexico despite the incentive of free tickets for the first 1,000 students. Brey is optimistic that an opponent of Kentucky’s pedigree will help put fans in the seats.

“We need a good crowd, and I feel just talking to our ticket people and being out in the community the last two days that we’re going to have a good crowd,” Brey said. “There’s no question when our crowd is rolling we play better.”

Those in attendance Wednesday night will be treated to an opponent usually occupied with another tournament held in March. The winningest team in the history of college basketball, Kentucky had made the NCAA Tournament each of the past 17 seasons.

The history of the Wildcats’ program is a laundry list of accomplishments. In addition to topping any other school in all-time wins (1,988) and all-time winning percentage (.758), Kentucky also leads the nation in NCAA Tournament appearances, victories and games played. The Wildcats’ seven national titles put them behind only UCLA.

“One of the famous names in college basketball,” Irish forward Luke Harangody said. “That just adds to it. This is the matchup we kind of wanted, and we get to play another home game which is great.”

The Wildcats have had Notre Dame’s number in their meetings over the years. Kentucky leads the all-time series 41-17 and has won the past 10 meetings between the two schools. The last Irish victory over the Wildcats came on March 5, 1990.

This year’s Kentucky squad doesn’t possess the talent of many past teams, but it does one of the most dynamic players in the country. Meeks – who Brey paid a house visit to before watching him commit to Kentucky one week later – is sixth in the nation in points per game with 24.2.

A 6-foot-4-inch slasher with range, Meeks has topped the 30-point plateau seven times this season. He drew national attention on Jan. 13 when he scored 54 points in leading Kentucky to a 90-72 win over Tennessee.

“You have to be really aware of him at all times. You can’t rest,” Irish forward Ryan Ayers said of defending Meeks. “You have to be on his hip the whole time, make him feel uncomfortable. Maybe deny him the ball a little bit, so he can’t have the ball in his hands. You just really concentrate on team awareness and helping out.”

Wednesday’s game will begin at 7 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN2. It will be the final game in the current Joyce Center, which is set to be renovated at the end of this year.