Consider it an early Christmas present for traditionalists who rue the effects of conference realignment.
UCLA versus Notre Dame, a rivalry that used to be as savory as holiday ham, will be renewed. The teams were part of each other’s schedules from 1966 to 1995, playing twice a season over one 13-year stretch.
Then along came the Grinch who stole the series, otherwise known as the Big East Conference. Notre Dame’s move away from being an independent, along with the desire of both schools to schedule other high-profile opponents, led to the demise of the rivalry.
When the teams meet Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion, it will be for only the fifth time since 1995. UCLA coach Steve Alford said he wanted the Fighting Irish back on the schedule for a variety of reasons, including the rich history of the rivalry.
Alford also mentioned seeking a good fit for a home-and-home series that involved travel across the country. Notre Dame, now in the Atlantic Coast Conference, qualifies because it’s a major-conference opponent that bears stylistic similarities to UCLA that go beyond the teams’ identical 6-2 records. Like the Bruins, the Fighting Irish rely on motion offense and primarily man-to-man-defense.
“We’ll get a good litmus test of where we are,” Alford said.
UCLA sophomore guard Chris Smith also got a pop quiz when he spoke with reporters earlier this week.
When Smith brought up Notre Dame having ended UCLA’s winning streak that still stands as the longest in the history of men’s college basketball, he was asked how many games it was.
“Eighty-eight, right?” Smith said without hesitation.
Phew. He was correct. 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
Alford grew up with a working knowledge of UCLA-Notre Dame, having been a part of Indiana-Notre Dame in the 1980s as a star shooting guard for the Hoosiers.
“When you look at ending a streak and a week later, you know, avenging that,” Alford said, referring to the Bruins bashing the Fighting Irish by 19 points at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 26, 1974, “you pay attention to that and you see that.”
Alford said he didn’t expect his players to have as much of a sense of the rivalry given the realities of their generation.
“If it doesn’t show up on a video game,” Alford said, “then they may struggle knowing the history of those things.”
The current Bruins may not recognize the names Austin Carr and Digger Phelps, but several are familiar with at least one Notre Dame player, having either played against or watched senior guard Rex Pflueger when he starred for Mater Dei High in Santa Ana. Pflueger preceded UCLA freshman guard Jules Bernard on the same club team, the Compton Magic.
“I know a little bit about his game,” Bernard said of a player averaging 7.5 points and a team-leading 3.6 assists per game. “He can shoot pretty well, he has pretty good athleticism.”
The feeling-out between UCLA and Notre Dame won’t end this weekend; the teams are scheduled to play again next season in South Bend. But first could come a throwback feel Saturday, at least in terms of atmosphere.
“I assume it’s going to be a very packed game,” Bernard said, “so we’re just going to try to show what we can do.”
vs. Notre Dame
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Pauley Pavilion
On the air: TV: ESPN2; Radio: 1150.
Update: Junior guard T.J. Gibbs is averaging a team-high 14.3 points for the Fighting Irish, whose best victory has come over Illinois and whose losses have come to Radford and Oklahoma. Notre Dame has made only 31.1% of its three-pointers.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch