After a rough couple games in which the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team got absolutely eviscerated by the Maryland Terrapins and then failed to defeat the Boston College Eagles at home, your favorite questionable hoops squad got back on track in the most effective of ways this week.
The Irish had a slump-buster of a game against the Detroit Mercy Titans, crushing them 110 to 71 while shooting 59% from the floor, 51% from deep (and making a program-record-tying 20 long balls), and tying a program record for team assists (33).
Now, the Irish get back to playing major conference opponents, playing host to the UCLA Bruins on Saturday in South Bend. Last year, the Bruins got the best of a young, unsure Irish squad, winning at the buzzer just weeks before firing their coach, Steve Alford.
This year, UCLA has Mick Cronin at the helm, an old Big East foe the Irish know well. His Bruins are in their first year of rebuilding with him as coach, but the ability of his teams to play great defense and compete should not be taken lightly.
So, how should we expect this one to go? Let’s dive into the details, ladies and gentlemen.
- The Irish and Bruins will be meeting for the 50th time, with UCLA leading the all-time series 29-20. Notre Dame is 12-11 against UCLA at home (per Alan Wasielewski, Associate Athletics Communication Director)
- UCLA is currently #110 overall in the KenPom.com rankings, with the #67 offense and #173 defense; the Irish, meanwhile, are #63, rating 74th on offense and 55th on defense
- Saturday’s game marks the 10th meeting between Mike Brey and UCLA head coach Mick Cronin, who is in his first season with the Bruins. Brey holds a 7-3 advantage in the series between the two coaches (per Alan Wasielewski)
- This will mark just the 12th time in the 50 meetings between the two teams that at least one of the schools does not appear in the national rankings (per Alan Wasielewski)
- Notre Dame leads the country in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.78, ahead of Iowa (1.61) and Richmond (1.60). The Irish are also averaging 10.1 turnovers per game, good for 6th-best in the nation as of December 12th. The Irish have committed just 101 turnovers in 10 games (per Alan Wasielewski)
- John Mooney is tied for 2nd in the country with 7 double-doubles in 2019-20. There are just 7 Division-I players with 7+ double-doubles this season, led by William & Mary’s Nathan Knight with eight (per Alan Wasielewski)
- Saturday’s game features the No. 7 (UCLA 1,894 wins) and No. 8 (Notre Dame, 1,887 wins) winningest programs in college basketball history. The Bruins are sixth in percentage (.689), while the Irish are 14th (.646) (per Alan Wasielewski)
Where: Purcell Pavilion — Notre Dame, Indiana
When: Saturday, December 14th at 3:00 PM ET
How to Watch:
- TV — ABC with Dave Pasch (play-by-play), Bill Walton (analyst), and Digger Phelps (analyst)
- Radio — Notre Dame Radio Network with Jack Nolan (play-by-play) and Zach Hillesland (analyst); also available locally on WSBT AM/FM and worldwide on und.com.
UCLA Bruins (7-3)
The UCLA Bruins of 2019 are certainly not the Bruins of the John Wooden era, or even most other eras in that storied program’s history.
After a Ben Howland tenure in which the Bruins went 233-107 and at one point made at least the Final Four in three straight seasons, Steve Alford took over in 2013 and, despite a few Sweet 16 appearances, never managed to get the Bruins back to that elite level of basketball. After a 21-12 2017-2018 season that finished in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Alford’s squad started 7-6 in 2018, leading to his termination.
After the season, Mick Cronin was hired away from Cincinnati after going 296-146 in 13 seasons there, making the NCAA Tournament in all of his final 9 seasons at the helm.
Despite a rough past couple years, Cronin inherited a team with some solid talent and a good incoming freshman class, as the Bruins have never really struggled to reel in a few elite prospects each recruiting cycle. This year’s team is no different, with established contributors like Cody Riley, Chris Smith, Jalen Hill, and Prince Ali leading the charge and with flashy frosh like Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez Jr., and Shareef O’Neal — Shaquille O’Neal’s son — joining the program.
Riley, a 6’9” sophomore, leads the team in scoring with 11.6 points per game (to go with 5.9 rebounds per game and 55% shooting from the field), but overall Cronin’s offensive attack is very balanced, with four guys averaging double figures. Junior guard Chris Smith, also a long, athletic guy at 6’9”, scores 11.4 points per game himself while snaring 4.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and shooting 47% from the field.
6’10” sophomore forward Jalen Hill also averages 11.4 per game, and leads the team in rebounding (7.7 rpg) and blocked shots (1.4 bpg) while making 59% of his shots from the field. Prince Ali, another long guard at 6’4”, scores 10.6 per game himself (along with 3.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game).
5’11” guard Tyger Campbell is playing nearly 29 minutes per game as a freshman, scoring about 8 points per contest while also dishing out about 4 assists and making 36% of his shots from long range, all while sporting some truly incredible hair.
The rest of UCLA’s rotation is also long, athletic, and teeming with potential. Whether it’s 6’6” freshman guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (6.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.3 spg, 59% FG), sophomore guard Jules Bernard (also 6’6”, 6.2 ppg, 3 rpg, 33% from deep), or 6’4” guard David Singleton (4.2 ppg, 52% from long range), the Bruins have some young guys who, at the very least, could disrupt anything the Irish try to keep going offensively after their explosion against Detroit Mercy.
Then, of course, there’s Shaq’s son Shareef. The 6’9” frosh forward only plays about 11 minutes per game, but he adds more size and athleticism to go with a little scoring and rebounding (2.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg), and of course it’s just exciting to see the son of an all-time legend out there playing for one of the blue blood programs.
UCLA is the classic case of a ton of athletes but very little outside shooting, as the Bruins shoot just 30.9% from deep, which places them tied for 260th in the country with Lehigh. For the Irish to stand any sort of chance here, they will have to try to keep them out of the lane as much as possible and force them to take shots from the perimeter.
This effort would be pretty similar to what ND needed to do against Maryland a week and a half ago, and of course we all know how that turned out — the Terps did whatever they wanted with the ball and dominated the Irish down low and at the rim.
Interestingly, on the defensive side, the Bruins — despite all their length and athleticism and Mick Cronin’s penchant for having suffocating defensive teams — are not very good defensively.
They’re 180th in the country in field goal percentage defense, allowing 42.2% shooting from their opponents, and are even worse in shutting down three-point-shooting teams, as the Bruins are currently 299th in the country, allowing opponents to shoot 36% from long range.
The Bruins, in fact, are 173rd in the KenPom.com adjusted defensive ratings, so despite the size and length that might bother the Irish, they might actually stand a chance of semi-replicating their fantastic offensive performance from Tuesday night.
Bruin to Watch
Jalen Hill, Forward, Sophomore
Just like Jalen Smith of Maryland did a ton of damage in the paint against the Irish, so too should we expect to see Hill have a lot of success down there, simply due to his size, athleticism, and the lack of a fantastic low-post defender for the Irish.
T.J. Gibbs, Guard, Senior
Gibbs has had some very bad games this year, but he looked much better and more confident against Detroit Mercy, and the Irish desperately need him to play within himself, hit some shots, defend the perimeter tenaciously, help distribute the ball to Laszewski and Goodwin for threes and to Mooney on the block, and get to the free throw line. If Gibbs can start to consistently do those things, it will go a LONG way toward getting this team back on track to try to compete with real competition.
Everything logical inside me is screaming that this Irish team is just a week removed from losing to a bad Boston College team at home, and thus the Bruins — though young and rebuilding — will win this one fairly easily due to their raw talent, length, and ability to win the rebounding battle.
However, I don’t make predictions with my head, folks. I believe deep down that the Irish’s performance against Detroit Mercy — though partially a product of the bad opponent, no doubt — is proof that this team can hit shots, pass the ball beautifully, etc. Mike Brey can still get this thing figured out, it will just take a bit of time.
Notre Dame wins this one 73-69.