With an outside shot at gaining the No. 1 seed for the Big East tournament, Notre Dame faces a difficult set of circumstances in its regular-season finale.
The eighth-ranked Fighting Irish have lost their last seven road games to No. 16 Connecticut, which will be honoring Kemba Walker and two seniors Saturday at Gampel Pavilion.Notre Dame (24-5, 13-4) needs a victory Saturday and a loss by No. 4 Pittsburgh to No. 19 Villanova to share the Big East crown with the Panthers. The Fighting Irish would be the top seed by virtue of a 56-51 win over Pitt on Jan. 24.Connecticut (19-10, 10-7), meanwhile, needs a win and some help to finish in the top half of the conference and earn a first-round bye instead of having to play its Big East tourney opener Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.In addition, the emotions will be high since Walker will be honored Saturday for senior day. The junior guard is scheduled to finish his degree this summer and plans to march in May graduation ceremonies.Walker is second in the Big East with a 22.8 scoring average and is projected by many as a first-round NBA draft pick. He has said he will make a decision about his future once the Huskies' season is complete.He'll get another chance to match up with another leading candidate for Big East player of the year honors in Ben Hansbrough, third in the conference with 18.3 points per game. Hansbrough had 30 points and 10 assists Monday in his final home game, a 93-72 rout of the Wildcats."I think if ever a year would justify being co-player of year, this would be the year," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "We have 11 teams surging toward the NCAA tournament, we have 16 teams in our league, which means we have a lot of good players."Hansbrough scored 21 points while Walker had 19 in the Irish's 73-70 home win Jan. 4. Notre Dame had a more balanced attack with four starters reaching double figures compared to two for UConn."Their freshmen were really kind of freshmen still when we played them and that was an advantage for us," Brey said. "They're not freshmen anymore."The Irish have not won at UConn since a 75-70 victory in 1999-2000 -- a season before Brey took over.This contest also has special meaning for Notre Dame senior Tim Abromaitis, who struggled for eight points in an 82-70 road loss to the Huskies last season in his first game in his home state. Abromaitis scored 19 points in the January meeting, and made nine 3-pointers for 30 points in Monday's win."He's put the jersey on a bunch of times now and he's over the coming home thing," Brey said. "So I don't think that's a factor."The Huskies have dropped three of four after Wednesday's 65-56 loss at West Virginia. They are shooting 39.5 percent in that stretch after hitting 37.3 percent against the Mountaineers and getting outrebounded 34-30."They out-toughed us," coach Jim Calhoun said. "We needed to play physically inside and get some rebounds. We made some very poor choices on offense and we didn't do a good job the whole game of taking away their post play."The Irish made 20 3-pointers Monday and are shooting a Big East-best 39.1 percent from beyond the arc.