Last thing I'm saying about ND football this year - missing from Jack Swarbrick's announcement to retain Charlie Weis for another year was removing Notre Dame's name from bowl game consideration. This decision should be made on principle by the university, not Charlie. The "it's valuable practice time for the young guys" argument is hooey when clearly that same practice time saw the team regress during the course of the season. In any sport, it's worthless and counter-productive to practice and drum into a player's head the wrong thing. If a tennis player hit forehands on a ball machine for 3 hours a day, but used the wrong grip, footwork and stroke technique, the swing will eventually need to be deconstructed and re-learned through better coaching. It's delusional to think that just because you "practice", it makes you better. The same applies to football. If the O-line couldn't block anyone consistently all season, what's going to change with three more weeks? The same wrong message only stunts the growth of the team. Give the players a break to clear their head and come back fresh in the spring with new coaches teaching and drilling the right stuff. Are the players going to be motivated to play in a 3rd tier bowl game, knowing they blew their chance at a 2nd tier game? If Charlie couldn't get the players ready to beat Syracuse on Senior Day, what makes you think they'll be amped to beat the tar out of Rice in the Texas Bowl? DECLINE ALL INVITATIONS!
Moving on to a coach who does have his program moving in the right direction, basketball season has started. Campus should unleash the negative energy accumulated on the gridiron and make this a season to remember for Mike Brey's Top 10 ballers. The team is 6-1 with the only blemish to #1 North Carolina, who make everyone they play look like a JV squad. On the heels of their strong showing in the Maui Invitational with wins over Indiana and Texas, the team has one more test this weekend against Ohio State followed by three gift-wrapped victories before Christmas. Big East play kicks off Dec. 31st in Chicago against DePaul. To recognize the school record for 19 3-pointers in a game, I'll throw some early season impressions at you, naturally, in threes.
What we have Learned
1. This team has "dancing shoes." The games against the Longhorns and Tar Heels proved they belong on the same court with the best teams in the country. The 15-point deficit to UNC is the closest anyone has come, and this was with a sick Harangody only playing 27 minutes. Heck, Luke might have been playing at 50% as he went straight from the hospital to the arena. Were they to play UNC again, we'd be a different team with Gody at full strength.
2. More scoring threats. In The Mongoose's absence, the team is finding new ways (and people) to score. Look no further than Ryan Ayers scoring 19 and 35 in back-to-back career performances. It's very encouraging to see other guys step into the spotlight and assert themselves. It will be important to have the ability to spread the floor with multiple options, creating more space for Tory and Gody to operate.
3. Ty Lawson is on a different level than Tory Jackson. Tory gambled a little too much playing against one of the premier PGs in the country, and got burned. It was a humbling experience, but a learning experience all the same. Tory's competitive fire will drive him to become a better defender.
1. Let It Rain. Like it or not, this team has a heavy reliance on shooting from downtown. McAlarney's limitless range, Ayers developing confidence and Zeller's smooth stroke are all weapons. Even Tory knocks down the open 3 when he's feeling it. If teams don't extend their defense, they will pay for it.
2. Ball Control. The stat that jumped out to me from the Texas game was 6 turnovers in the entire game. That's pretty incredible. Following that with only 8 TO's against UNC shows great team concentration and solid execution of the game plan. They play within themselves very well. That will be pivotal in Big East play.
3. Chemistry. This might be their biggest strength in tough games. There's a great camaraderie among all the players. They truly want to win for each other. They also know each other's games inside and out, which will prove invaluable in clutch situations.
1. Free Throw Shooting. Surprisingly, the team is shooting 60% from the charity stripe. McAlarney needs to find ways to get to the line and drive off ball fakes. Tory, Hillesland and Zeller are all shaky at the line. Even Harangody has been inconsistent early on. This needs to improve - no excuses.
2. Defense. Nothing new as Brey's focus has been more on outscoring teams rather than not allowing them to score. Though they are effective creating turnovers, especially steals, they still can't lock teams down on a given possession. We'll know more about their defensive capabilities once conference play starts.
3. Rebounding. Looks like Rob Kurz' biggest impact hasn't been substituted yet. Against Texas and UNC, they were -19 in rebounding margin. The Big East will feast on us if we don't bring a lunch pail attitude to hitting the boards. We may not be as physically gifted as many of the teams on the schedule, but the fundamentals of boxing out and positioning need to be executed if they want to win the rebounding edge. This needs to be a team commitment to rebounding. Harangody can't do it himself.
Most Invaluable Player
1. Tory Jackson - the little engine that makes everything happen. Tory plays with his heart on his jersey. When he's in the zone, we're nearly unstoppable. He wills himself to the basket, sets up teammates, hits clutch shots, and wreaks havoc on defense. His play is infectious. I contend he's the most unappreciated player in the Big East. His due is coming.
2. Kyle McAlarney- It took a couple games to heat up, but now that he has, look out below. K-Mac can singlehandedly keep us in games with his streak shooting. His scoring output in the last 5 games: 18, 19, 39, 32, 27. Not bad for the "2nd option." It's imperative, though, that Kyle develops a mid-range game to draw some fouls and opposition away from the bigs.
3. Luke Harangody - The guy with the biggest target on his back every time ND steps on the court, The Mongoose needs to be sure he plays within his comfort zone. He's most effective when he lets the game come to him - offensive rebounds and putbacks, short range 'Gody hooks, quick mid-range jumpers and beating his man down the floor for easy buckets. Oh yeah, and 40-foot bankshots. When he forces the action, like he did in the 1st half of last year's first game against UConn, his impact becomes obsolete.
1. Zach Hillesland - his all-court ability is integral to the flow of our offense and disrupting the opposition. He's gaining confidence in his mid-range shooting, though I'd prefer if he just drove to the hoop. His offensive impact is best in the open court, while his defensive assignments are the lynchpin for defensive success.
2. Luke Zeller - The wily veteran needs to use his experience and smarts to make an impact on games. He's dangerous drifting out beyond the arc and knocking down open looks. He'll be counted on to hit a number of momentum changing shots this season. But his greatest need is to become a true banger down low. He got to watch Rob Kurz in action, now he needs to emulate him. If we can count on 7-9 points and 6-8 rebounds a night from Zeller, we'll be in good shape.
3. Carleton Scott/Tyrone Nash - Nash played sparingly and Scott redshirted last year. Both are long and capable of good things on offense. They have yet to be tested on the defensive side, though. As Brey works them into the rotation, we may find surprising results from each. Scott could be counted on as another energy guy with his high-flying ability while Nash could become a tough scorer with his deft lefty touch. There isn't much of a book on either for teams to game plan for, so we may surprise teams with their production.
What to Look Forward To
1. Setting the Big East record for consecutive home victories. The Grim Reaper might as well have been welcoming the team bus the last two years as Brey has led two straight seasons of undefeated league play. The streak stands at 18 games, 3 shy of the record. The first two home games won't be easy, with Georgetown and a scrappy Seton Hall. Get by those roadblocks and a Saturday night showdown with UConn is on tap for January 24th. The Leprechaun Legion will be deafening. Harangody vs. Thabeet. What a matchup!
2. February 7, 2009. The team travels to LA again to battle UCLA in Pauley Pavilion. A super matchup that gives the team much needed tournament experience against a different style of opponent in a new venue. Ben Howland's teams are always prepared, so this will mimic better than anything a Sweet 16 type game.
3. Big East Tournament, March 10-14, 2009 - Historically, the Irish have laid stink bombs in MSG. Two years ago, it looked like they were turning the corner with a tough win over Syracuse followed by a thrilling defeat at the hands of eventual champ Georgetown. But they followed up that success with a 1st game exit to Marquette. If the team plays up to their potential, the BET could be a fitting send-off for McAlarney and a precursor to a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.