Noie: UCLA hoops series only about today for Notre Dame
Preserved through black and white photos and some grainy, non-high definition video stashed on YouTube, it once was the premier rivalry in college basketball.
It was a series with games without peer in those days. Those glory days.
It was Midwest versus West. It was Dwight Clay rising and firing a jumper for the ages from the corner. It was Bill Walton doing as he pleased in the low post, but not in the final seconds of THAT game. It was Digger Phelps and that green carnation in his lapel. It was John Wooden and that rolled program in his hands.
It was the 405 Freeway and the Indiana Toll Road. It was the sun of SoCal and the perma-cloud of South Bend. It was national television at both campus sites — the old Joyce Center and the older Pauley Pavilion before each tired venue stepped into this century with multi-million dollar renovations.
It was Notre Dame.
It was UCLA.
It was must-see television years before college basketball became must-see television. Phelps helped change all that, convincing media mogul Eddie Einhorn to put the annual affair on something called TVS. The broadcast went national. So would the Notre Dame name. In hoops.
The nation learned a lot about the Irish. They watched Clay hit that shot to snap UCLA’s 88-game win streak. They watched Walton and many a teammate breeze through their college careers with one loss, maybe two. They watched the Irish and Bruins play in Indiana. They watched the Bruins and the Irish play in Southern California.
It was college basketball at its regular-season best.
On Saturday at Purcell Pavilion, the rivalry returns when the teams meet for the 50th time. Seemingly as homage to those long-gone glory days, ABC will televise the game. Wait, ABC? How long has it been since ABC’s been in the building on campus for college basketball? Ten years? Fifteen?
It’s almost as if this one will play on a black-and-white television stashed in the corner of the kitchen, one of three available channels giving the game to a national audience.
Phelps is scheduled to swing by the ABC table for a visit, but he may never leave. Security might need to be summoned. Walton will be there as well. Fortunately, play-by-play man Dave Pasch, the consummate pro between two guys who operate off their own agendas, isn’t being paid by the word. If he was, Pasch might not have enough money for the flight to Phoenix, where he’ll work his usual duties Sunday as the play-by-play voice of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
Who knows exactly what we’re going to get with Phelps and Walton on the call. Last December, with Pasch and Walton at Pauley and Phelps phoning in from his home near campus, the former Bruin center wondered on the air if the former Irish coach was dead.
Phelps assured him otherwise. Walton still wasn’t convinced. Still might not be Saturday. That’s just Walton.
Notre Dame (7-3) may go on a shooting/scoring run Saturday, and Phelps will be running through the final 3:22 of the 1974 game. UCLA (7-3) might go on a run of its own, only Walton might be wandering through a story about riding his bicycle up the California coast. Or mentioning something about the Pac-12 being the Conference of Champions. Or wondering who the guy (Pasch) is at the TV table.
Pasch will do his best to keep everything on track, but likely won’t succeed. The broadcast will go myriad directions. For Phelps and Walton, it isn’t as much about the present as it is about the past. Their past.
Irish coach Mike Brey understands the history. He understands what the day and the series all mean. He understands what it means to Phelps and Walton. He understands that it won’t be anywhere near a “normal” telecast. Phelps and Walton will banter, but not necessarily about what’s unfolding on the floor.
Brey embraces all of it. He mentioned to UCLA coach Mick Cronin, one of the closest friends he has in this business, as much in a text earlier this week.
“They won’t even know if we played, who won, who played well,” Brey said only half-joking. “They’re going to talk about all kinds of stuff. They’re not even going to talk about the game.”
Shortly after his team played their best game to date — Tuesday’s 39-point victory over Detroit Mercy — Brey attempted to talk of the UCLA series history. Senior guard T.J. Gibbs jumped up and ended that session. He didn’t want to hear about 1974. He didn’t want to hear about snapping the 88-game win streak. He’s heard enough about all of it from Phelps the last four years.
“To the (heck) with that,” Gibbs told the room about the UCLA big picture. “We owe these guys.”
Owe them after the last meeting last December in Pauley. With his team down by 11 at halftime, Brey thought they might lose by 25. With a minute to go, Brey thought they just might steal one. By the time the horn sounded, it was about picking up the pieces after a Kris Wilkes 3-pointer beat the buzzer and the Irish, 65-62.
It was a brutal red-eye charter flight home.
“Last year was a tough game for us,” Gibbs said. “We were right there.”
Right there, but maybe not mature enough or experienced enough or focused enough to figure out how to finish. This year has to be a different story for a Notre Dame team that could use a win over a Power Five program. It’s going to be a challenge, in every way that Tuesday’s game wasn’t. UCLA’s going to contest shots. UCLA’s going to battle for loose balls. UCLA’s going to compete. UCLA’s going to guard.
That’s what Cronin’s teams did at Cincinnati. That’s what the Bruins now do.
Are the Irish experienced enough and focused enough to push through that and play their game? A game that Gibbs insisted has to be at “A” level. Maybe A+.
“This is a huge step for us, whether it’s a conference game or not,” Gibbs said. “We just gotta play with confidence with each other and that we trust each other … just keep it rolling for now.”
That would be something to talk about.
WHO: Notre Dame (7-3) vs. UCLA (7-3).
WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).
WHEN: Saturday at 3 p.m.
TICKETS: Some available.
RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).
ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI
NOTING: UCLA has been idle since Sunday’s 81-62 home victory over Denver. Redshirt sophomore power forward Cody Riley scored 21 points with 11 rebounds and freshman swingman Jaime Jacquez Jr., added 16 points, six rebounds and four assists. … The Bruins have won three of four with the loss to No. 16 Michigan State. … This is UCLA’s first true road game. … Redshirt freshman guard Tyger Campbell played three years at LaLumiere School in LaPorte, where he helped the Lakers win the 2017 national championship. Averaging 7.9 points, 2.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 28.7 minutes, Campbell missed his freshman season last year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, suffered in preseason practice. He originally committed to play at DePaul. … Shaquille O’Neal’s son, Shareef, is a redshirt freshman reserve forward for the Bruins. He’s averaging 2.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 10.9 minutes after missing his freshman season following open-heart surgery. … UCLA returns two starters from last year’s team that finished 17-16 overall, 9-9 and seventh place in the Pac-12. The Bruins were picked this preseason to finish eighth in the league. … Coach Mick Cronin is in his first season at UCLA after 16 at Cincinnati, where he led the Bearcats to nine-straight NCAA tournament appearances. … UCLA leads the all-time series 29-20. Notre Dame is 12-11 at home. … This is UCLA’s first visit to South Bend since an 84-73 Irish victory on Dec. 19, 2009. … This closes out a two-game series between the teams. ... Notre Dame is coming off a 39-point victory Tuesday over Detroit Mercy. The Irish set season highs for points (110), field goal percentage (59.4), 3-point field goal percentage (51.3) 3-point baskets (20) and assists (33). The 33 assists tied the school record and set the Purcell Pavilion record. … Irish power forward John Mooney has a double double for points and rebounds in seven of nine games played this season. He leads the ACC and the nation in rebounding (13.2).
QUOTING: “It’s an awesome day and it brings back a lot of memories. It’s an honor to be a part of it. We’ll come back to that series every couple of years.”
— Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on playing UCLA.