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Huskies are in the zone

Coach Jim Calhoun considers playing zone for any extended time a sign of weakness.

He's all about taking personal responsibility, and gritty man-to-man defense fits his personality.

So that's why it was so surprising to see UConn switch to zone for about the last 15 minutes of Friday's overtime win over South Florida.

The zone saved the Huskies.

Their newfound defensive friend may come in handy again during a challenging two-game road trip that begins tonight against Big East foe Notre Dame at 7 at the Joyce Center. They visit No. 12 Texas on Saturday.

UConn (11-1, 1-1) dropped from No. 4 to No. 8 in Monday's Associated Press Top 25 and Notre Dame (12-2, 1-1) moved up one spot to No. 14 despite losing at Syracuse (70-58) Saturday.

The Fighting Irish are especially difficult to beat at home, going 9-0 this season. Just ask No. 9 Georgetown, which suffered a 69-55 defeat in South Bend on Dec. 29.

They're experienced - four senior starters - and run a balanced attack. They're lethal at home, scoring 87 points per game. Tim Abromaitis, a former Farmington standout and son of ex-Husky Jim Abromaitis, leads the way with 16.3 points per game. But starter Carleton Scott, the team's third-leading scorer (11.9 pts), is out with a hamstring injury.

Concerns over depth, inexperience and interior defense led Calhoun to make zone a viable option this season. He pointed out that some freshmen lack strength to be reliable man-to-man defenders.

"We've worked on it a lot more than you would think, this year particularly," Calhoun said after Friday's win over USF. "You saw it a couple of times in exhibitions. You saw us throw it in there a little bit.

"But we have really worked hard. You see it worked (Friday). The kids got hungry in it because they could get out and disrupt plays and then get back and protect."

The Huskies run a form of the 2-3 zone, according to Calhoun.

Guards Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier are pests at the top of the zone. They use their quickness to cut off passing lanes and contest shooters. Jeremy Lamb's long arms make him a natural to patrol the wing, while Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith are active inside.

UConn is less likely to be overmatched inside, as has been the case at times this season.

"It's really almost a 1-3-1 in shape," Calhoun said. "It's a little different. We bring out wings up much higher so we get to the 3-point shooters and stop people from penetrating."

Despite the zone's success against South Florida, don't expect Calhoun to fall in love with it. And if UConn switches to zone tonight and Notre Dame hits a couple of 3-pointers - the Irish are a dangerous perimeter shooting team - Calhoun will likely abort the move.

Without a strong defensive effort, the Huskies will likely continue their road woes. Since the beginning of last season, they're 2-8 in Big East away games, losing their road opener this season, 78-63 at Pittsburgh on Dec. 27.

Their last trip to South Bend was memorable for all the wrong reasons. They turned in a listless performance March 3, suffering a 58-50 loss to a Notre Dame team playing without injured star Luke Harangody and all but ending their NCAA tournament hopes.

g.keefe@theday.com

NO. 8 UCONN VS. NO. 14 NOTRE DAME

Location: Joyce Center, South Bend, Ind.

Tip-off: 7 p.m. (SNY)

Records: UConn 11-1, 1-1 Big East; Notre Dame 12-2, 1-1

Last game: UConn beat South Florida, 66-61 (OT), Dec. 31; Notre Dame lost at Syracuse, 70-58, Jan. 1.

Probable starters: UConn, 6-1 jr. guard Kemba Walker (26.7 pts, 5.0 rebs, 3.8 assists), 6-5 fr. guard Jeremy Lamb (7.7 pts, 4.9 rebs), 6-8 fr. forward Roscoe Smith (6.7 pts, 6.0 rebs), 6-9 so. center Alex Oriakhi (11.3 pts, 8.6 rebs, 2.3 blocks)

Notre Dame, 6-3 sr. guard Ben Hansbrough (15.2 pts, 4.0 assists), 6-2 fr. guard Eric Atkins (6.4 pts), 6-8 sr. forward Scott Martin (9.8 pts, 4.6 rebs), 6-8 sr. forward Tim Abromaitis (16.3 pts, 7.2 rebs), 6-8 sr. forward Tyrone Nash (10.1 pts, 6.3 rebs)

Noteworthy: Second true road game for Huskies who lost at No. 6 Pittsburgh (78-63) Dec. 27. … Fighting Irish tough at home, winning 32 of last 37 Big East games. Upset No. 9 Georgetown (69-55) Dec. 29.. … ND third in BE in rebound margin (8.3), 3-point field goal percentage (37.5), free throw percentage (74.3). Depth is an issue.. … Huskies second in nation in blocks (7.6). … UConn leads series, 16-7, splitting last season, losing 58-50 in South Bend. … Free throws: Oriakhi hit 71.9 percent (23-for-32) in last seven games after starting season 9-for-20 (45). … Walker scored at least 20 points in 11 straight games, third-longest streak in school history. … ND coach Mike Brey needs one win to become sixth coach in Big East history with 100 league wins. … Injuries: ND starter Carleton Scott (hamstring), team's third leading scorer, out indefinitely. ... Up next: UConn visits No. 12 Texas Saturday.

- Gavin Keefe

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