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March 25, 2009

NIT Preview: Kentucky @ Notre Dame

After much speculation as to when the final game in the old Athletic & Convocation Center would be played, tonight's the night. Definitely. No doubt about it.

Notre Dame will close the Joyce Center-also known as the ACC (or Austin Carr Coliseum back in the day)-Wednesday night when the Irish (20-14) host Kentucky (22-13). The winner advances to Madison Square Garden in New York City for the National Invitation Tournament Final Four.

Tip-off is slated for 7:00 p.m. EST.

Both considered underachievers during the 2008-09 season, Notre Dame and Kentucky show a noticeable difference in age. Whereas the Irish sport four seniors, All-American junior Luke Harangody and three-year starting junior Tory Jackson, the Wildcats have just one senior listed among the 18 players on their roster and four underclassmen in their eight-man rotation.

Like the Irish, Kentucky boasts a star in 6-foot-4 junior Jodie Meeks, who led the Southeastern Conference in scoring with a 23.8 average. Meeks was held to 16 points in Kentucky's 65-63 victory over Creighton at the Qwest Center in Omaha where 16,984 screaming Bluejays fans couldn't prevent the Wildcats from advancing.

But it was Meeks who scored the basket and converted the free throw with 0.6 seconds remaining that gave the Wildcats their second NIT victory following a 70-60 win over UNLV.

For the Wildcats, it's pretty much a two-man show, which is something the Irish can relate to in 2008-09. Whereas Harangody and Kyle McAlarney have been the usual one-two punch for the Irish, Meeks teams with 6-foot-9, 235-pound sophomore Patrick Patterson (17.9 ppg., 9.4 rpg.) to form what Kentucky fans like to call Rhythm & Bruise.

Meeks has detonated a few times this season, including a 54-point rampage at Tennessee, 46 against Appalachian State, 45 at Arkansas, and 39 against Virginia Military Institute.

Finding a third scorer, however, is often difficult for the Wildcats. Six-foot-nine junior Perry Stevenson is the next highest scorer at just 7.7 points per game (and 5.9 rpg.). A pair of 6-foot-7 players-junior Ramon Harris and freshman Darius Miller-combine for 11 points and seven rebounds while 6-foot-6 freshman DeAndre Liggins (4.3 ppg.), 6-foot-3 junior Michael Porter (4.1 ppg.) and 6-foot-10, 265-pound sophomore Josh Harrellson toss in another 11 points per game.

But it remains mainly the Meeks-Patterson show. Meeks has made 112 three-pointers while no other Wildcat has more than 31 (Porter). Stevenson contributed 13 points and 10 rebounds against Creighton when Patterson landed in first-half foul trouble, which was a positive sign for Kentucky.

Patterson shoots 60.6 percent from the field while Stevenson is at 54.8. Meeks is a 90 percent shooter from the free-throw line with just 23 misses in 230 attempts. Miller shoots 80.4 percent from the line.

The biggest news out of Lexington, however, is the job status of second-year head coach Billy Gillispie, who went 12-4 in the SEC last year before fizzling against Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The malaise carried over into the 2008-09 season when the Wildcats opened with a home loss against Virginia Military Institute, 111-103. Kentucky seemed to be atoning for its slow start by winning the first five games in SEC competition, including road victories over Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

But the Wildcats would go on to lose eight of their last 11 conference games, and lost to LSU in the second round of the SEC tournament after a victory over Mississippi. The late-season collapse landed the Wildcats in the NIT and Gillispie squarely on the hot seat with a 40-26 overall record.

As often as the names Meeks and Patterson appear in the headlines these days in Lexington, the names Barnhart and Lee are just as prominent. Mitch Barnhart is Kentucky's athletics director and Todd Lee is the university's president. They will decide Gillispie's fate upon the conclusion of the Wildcats' NIT run.

Does the run continue after tonight? Not if the Irish use their home court advantage, where they have won 51 of their last 54. Nearly twice as many fans that showed up for the NIT games with UAB (2,039) and New Mexico (3,013) are expected with all Notre Dame, St. Mary's College and Holy Cross College students admitted free.

Kentucky boasts more athleticism and length than Notre Dame. But the Irish-provided they get scoring balance from Ryan Ayers, Jackson et al-should have one last run in them on their beloved Joyce Center floor.

Notre Dame and Kentucky have had four common opponents. The Irish were 2-4 against West Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and Louisville while the Wildcats were a combined 2-2 against those four opponents with victories over the Mountaineers and the Hoosiers.

Kentucky has defeated Notre Dame 10 straight. In fact, the Irish have not beaten the Wildcats at the Joyce Center since March 5, 1990. But that is ancient history.

Notre Dame takes Kentucky's best shot, but closes the old Joyce Center in style with a hard-fought victory and a trip to the big city to face Penn State (25-11), which advanced to the Garden with a victory over Florida Tuesday.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 3
Prister's Prediction: Notre Dame 71, Kentucky 65
Season record: 25-9 straight up; 11-16 vs. points



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