Digger is a Wimp!
Well, that cheer is not quite back in Westwood, but some will be longing for it. Legendary Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps built his career on wins over UCLA, particularly one that stopped the UCLA Bruins’ record 88-game winning streak.
The Bruins’ record streak was, amazingly, bookended by defeats to the Fighting Irish, including a 71-70 setback on Jan. 19, 1974, that marked UCLA’s first loss in nearly three years. Along the way, the Bruins had broken the previous record of 60 consecutive victories with a win in South Bend, Ind.
UCLA leads the series 28-20, though Notre Dame won the last meeting in December 2009 on the Fighting Irish’s home court.
There is no “pure evil” of Digger Phelps on the sideline today, but the person who recently called Digger that— Bill Walton—will be calling the game for ESPN. Walton was the starting center on that team that lost to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to snap the 88-game win streak.
While there is no equivalent to Bill Walton, who was the top college player three years in a row, on this UCLA team, Jaylen Hands is fast becoming something many did not expect. From the official UCLA release:
Sophomore Jaylen Hands has entered the weekend as the Pac-12’s leader in total assists (50) and assists per game (6.3). The 6-foot-3 guard from San Diego registered a career-high 11 assists in the Bruins’ victory against Hawai’i (Nov. 28) and followed that game with a 10-assist effort last Sunday night against Loyola Marymount (Dec. 2). Hands became UCLA’s first player since then-freshman Lonzo Ball in 2017 to have back-to-back games with at least 10 assists.
It will be interesting to see if Hands can keep his own streak going as the competition steps up in class a bit. Notre Dame is ranked #57 in the Kenpom rankings. To be clear, this is more of a meh Notre Dame team having lost to #129 Radford and #39 Oklahoma giving them a 6-2 record which is identical to UCLA. The difference, of course, is that UCLA’s losses have come to North Carolina and Michigan State, which are #7 and #9, respectively, in the Kenpom rankings.
Notre Dame would be UCLA’s best win of the season, but it is another one they could and should win, especially since the game is in Westwood.
Notre Dame is led by 6’3” Junior Guard T.J. Gibbs. At 35% from the field and an awful 29% from three and 69% from the free throw line, Gibbs is not shooting well this year. This is a bit surprising since last year he shot 40% from three and 84% from the line. He shoots a lot from both, shooting 6.5 threes and 4.5 free throws a game. He went 0-7 from three against Radford and was one of the reasons they lost that game. He has been shooting much better recently (10-22 from three) after a horrid start and UCLA is more likely to see the good shooting Gibbs than the 29% shooting Gibbs.
The glue guy for Notre Dame is 6’6” Californian Rex Pflueger. Rex is also shooting horribly right now with 33/31% splits. Unlike Gibbs, this is not surprising in that he only shot 31.7% from three last year. He is also a “pass first” guy as he leads Notre Dame in assists and is second in rebounding. He also leads the Irish in turnovers. Pflueger will be an interesting matchup as he is listed as a guard but is also an inside player and the designated defender, winning the ND defensive player of the year the last two years. If he has to cover Cody Riley, Cody should eat him up.
The alternative to cover Riley is 6’6” D.J. Harvey. Harvey has had injury issues and has been limited in minutes. That said, he lit up Illinois for 19 points earlier this year and is potentially a star. If Wilkes is matched up on Harvey, he can’t fall asleep. Regardless of matchups, Riley will have a very big advantage inside.
The fourth starter is 6’3” freshman Prentiss Hubb. Hubb was a top 40 recruit until he got hurt. Like Harvery, he has a lot of potential and some injury questions. He is also shooting poorly from three at just 29%,
The final starter is 6’9” junior center John Mooney. Mooney can shoot, hitting 54% from the field and 50% from three. The latter is not a fluke as he is 8-16 on the year. Last season, he shot 42% from three on 74 attempts. He is also Notre Dame’s leading rebounder. He will give the Bruins some matchup problems as he will probably be able to draw Moses Brown away from the basket.
That said, that is a small problem. UCLA is better across the board than Notre Dame. The Bruins average more points, almost 4 more rebounds, 2 more assists, etc. And, then, there are the bench match-ups. The Fighting Irish start small but can bring some bigs off the bench.
6’11” Connecticut transfer Juwan Durham may be an interesting player against the Bruins. Durham is a guy who plays close to the basket player and who shoots 68% from the field with no three-point attempts. He is averaging 2.6 blocks a game in just 12 minutes per game. How many minutes will he against the tall Bruins?
At 6’10”, Nate Laszewski is another big but, unlike Durham, he loves to play outside. He is shooting 3.5 threes per game in just 16 minutes per game.
Freshman Dane Goodwin is a 6’6” guard who provides some depth for the Irish.
While Notre Dame has some athletes at UCLA’s level, that comes with an asterisk as many of them are overcoming injuries. Notre Dame has some height, but it’s coming from the bench. So far, this Notre Dame team has not been good from three, but the Irish have the potential if the Bruins give them too many open looks.
This is not the match-up it was in the 70s but, as then, UCLA should win and it will be upsetting if they don’t.