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Men’s Basketball: Big East blues

Fran Tolan | Friday, February 6, 2009

Hopefully for the Irish, a respite from the cold Midwest weather is just what they need. Because really, as Notre Dame travels west to take on No. 12 UCLA Saturday, it seems like that’s the only thing the team has going for it.

The Irish have lost six straight games for the first time since the 1993-94 season and could be all but out of NCAA Tournament contention with a few more losses.

And a win will not come easily this weekend as Notre Dame heads into storied Pauley Pavilion to face the Bruins, who are 18-4 overall and 12-1 at home.

After winning four of its last five contests, UCLA looks to be headed in the opposite direction as the Irish. In just over a week, the Bruins have beaten California, Stanford and USC by at least 15 points each.

Meanwhile, the Irish have not won since a Jan. 10 matchup against Seton Hall. The Irish landed in Los Angeles Thursday and might be better-suited than the Bruins for Saturday’s 10 a.m. Pacific time start, 1 p.m. Eastern.

Still, the Irish will need to play much better than they have in order to topple UCLA. This game was widely-hyped at the beginning of the season but now Notre Dame appears to be an obvious underdog.

The Irish scoring was more balanced Wednesday against Cincinnati as Ryan Ayers came off the bench to drop 14 points and Zach Hillesland chipped in 11. But Notre Dame could not get defensive stops down the stretch as Bearcats guards Deonta Vaughn and Larry Davis torched them for 34 and 21 points, respectively.

The UCLA backcourt of senior Darren Collison and freshman Jrue Holiday figures to present just as much of a challenge to Notre Dame’s defense.

“We’ve got to be able to play defense, get rebounds and stop teams from putting up 90 on us,” Hillesland told the Associated Press after Wednesday’s game.

Underneath the basket, Irish junior Luke Harangody will battle Bruins forward Nicola Dragovich and center Alfred Aboya. Harangody is averaging 25.3 points and 13.2 rebounds per game while carrying the Irish in virtually every recent contest.

The Irish will probably need more of a team effort against the Bruins. Notre Dame’s starting backcourt of Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney will try to rebound after shooting a combined 6-of-22 from the field against Cincinnati.

The matchup against UCLA will be Notre Dame’s final non-conference game of the regular season. After returning home, the Irish will play eight more Big East opponents.