UConn Huskies Face Tall Task with Trip to South Bend to Face Notre Dame

Kevin McRaeFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2013

Ryan Boatright will need to have a big game for the Huskies to be competitive.
Ryan Boatright will need to have a big game for the Huskies to be competitive.USA TODAY Sports

The days when a trip to South Bend was a guaranteed win for the Connecticut Huskies men's basketball team are over.

Long over. 

In fact when UConn (11-3, 1-1) arrives at Notre Dame (14-1, 2-0) for a Saturday afternoon matchup with the No. 17 Fighting Irish they will be heavy underdogs. In fact, they will face a team that possesses many of the strengths that in year's past have defined Husky basketball.

The Irish are a team stocked full of experienced players. Most of them saw great regular-season success last year before a disappointing postseason, and they are well-coached and can shoot the lights out.

Although UConn is used to winning big, it is Mike Brey's bunch who have realistic dreams of competing for a Big East and even national title this season. The Irish have five returning starters from a team that won 22 games last year before being bumped from the NCAA Tournament in the first round by Xavier.

They are led by Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant—two slick guards who can distribute the ball and score in double digits. 

With them directing the offense on the floor, Notre Dame has become one of the nation's least selfish teams. The Irish are ranked second in the nation in assists and fifth in field-goal percentage. 

It will be a tall task for the Huskies' backcourt combination of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier, who are both young and still coming into their own, to keep their counterparts from dictating the pace. 

If they can take away one—or even wishfully thinking both—of the Irish guards, then the Huskies will have a chance.

But Notre Dame isn't built on just one, or even two or three star players. They receive contributions from everyone on the floor and in near equal amounts.

The biggest matchup problem may well come in the form of 6'9" senior forward Jack Cooley. 

Cooley averages a double-double with over 15 points and 11 rebounds a game, and UConn doesn't have many players who can match up well with him.

He's tough, he's physical and he fights for the ball.

For a team that ranks an absolutely dismal 279th in the nation in rebounding, this is a huge advantage that Mike Brey's team can exploit. 

Good luck to UConn forward DeAndre Daniels, who has some potential but not the size to win the battle down low, if he draws that assignment.

On paper there is simply no aspect of this game where the Huskies possess an advantage. 

Given all the turmoil, turnover and adversity they have encountered early in the season you can't have asked for a better start. 

They hold a win over then-No. 14 Michigan State to start the season and were very competitive in close losses to nationally-ranked New Mexico and NC State.

They've split their first two Big East games and really could be undefeated in the conference, beating DePaul at home and losing in controversial fashion at Marquette.

Reality tells us that this is a rebuilding year for UConn that will be fraught with ups and downs. Their goal for once is not a national title since they are not eligible for postseason play due to academic issues. Rather what the Huskies must strive for is simply growth.

For Kevin Ollie and his staff, the early returns have been positive and his fierce competitiveness is something his team will do well to adopt. 

But the degree of difficulty for the Huskies is about to go up dramatically with this road trip to Notre Dame and it won't get much easier after that. Following their game against the Irish, they have a home tilt against No. 3 Louisville and then a road trip to Pitt.

The Irish are the winners of 12 straight since dropping an overtime game to St. Joseph's, and they own impressive wins over Kentucky and at Cincinnati. 

For at least the time being these two teams are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The traditional roles have been reversed, with Notre Dame having high aspirations and UConn looking to rebuild.

You can't count out Kevin Ollie and his team, but at this stage this stretch might just be too hard for them.