January 26, 2009

ND Hoops against Marquette - Gotta Stop the Bleeding

Tough game on Saturday. While we certainly didn’t play our best game, I thought UConn was far and away the better team. Not sure where I stand on UConn compared to the other elite teams, but I definitely underestimated them. They are a little disjointed offensively, but their defense is suffocating. And Thabeet in the middle is the most intimidating presence in the league. Having him down there gives their wing guys all sorts of freedom to cheat and take chances to come up with deflections and steals. I haven’t checked the stats, but it seemed like they had a ton of steals against us. I gotta hand it to them for getting it done in a tough environment (the ND crowd was phenomenal and definitely brought their "A" game; hopefully that made an impression for the football recruits in attendance).

The one thing UConn probably needs to figure out is who is going to be their “the man” in crunch time. Is it Adrien?? Is it Price?? Is it Dyson?? Is it Thabeet?? I think they need a little more of a hierarchy in terms of who they go to for critical buckets. It seems like they still haven’t figured that out yet, so they spend the first half of the game trying to determine who’s hot. I don’t know if that’s the blueprint for a deep tournament run though.

As for the Irish, the blueprint for how to beat us might as well be passed around various locker rooms in the Big East, and yet we still haven’t made any adjustments (or maybe we’re just not capable of it. We feed off our offense, so teams are going all out to take away our offense with the same game plan every week:

1) Put your best defender on MacAlarney and have him chase KMac through screens all game long with other guys coming out on switches to take away open looks from three
2) Let Harangody get his points but try to keep him away from the basket where he can get a lot of “energy points” (put backs, tip ins, plays where he keeps the ball alive); we feed off his energy, and keeping him on the perimeter takes that away; plus, there’s no one inside to rebound
3) Force the rest of the guys to beat you

It’s a pretty simple formula, and we don’t seem to have an answer for it at the moment. Part of the problem is that our two “alpha dogs” have limitations (size, athleticism) that make them susceptible to a good game plan, but the bigger problem is that the other guys on this team are giving us absolutely nothing. Hillesland was awful on Saturday. Just completely out of his league. He hasn’t gotten a lick better since last year, and nothing good ever seems to come out of him having the ball in his hands. And Ayers is just not consistent enough to be a 30-35 minute player in the Big East. How many games has Ayers had where he’ll play 35 minutes and give us 1 board and 1 assist?? If he’s not shooting well, he gives us nothing. And he couldn’t hit at all against UConn. Nothing against Ayers or Hillesland (who have both been nice contributors for us in their careers), but they are not 30-35 minute players in the Big East. Maybe in the MAC, but not against UConn. Tory Jackson has had some tough matchups in the league so far, but it would be nice to see him find more opportunities to drive and dish or create something off the dribble.

One thing I’ve heard a number of times from basketball coaches and announcers is that having a lot of seniors can either be the greatest thing in the world or the worst thing in the world. If you have a group of hungry seniors who continue to get better, they can be the leaders that you need to get your team to another level. But the downside to having a bunch of seniors can be complacency and familiarity. Ayers, Mac, Zeller, and Hillesland have been key players on our teams for three years now. None of them are really any appreciably better now than they were last year or the year before, so there is a level of familiarity with them. The other teams in the Big East know these guys and their games and how to guard them and play against them. If you aren’t getting better, then you’re getting worse because teams have scouted you for so many years. We saw it in 2004 a with the Chris Thomas/Jordan Cornette teams. Neither of them got any better, and teams adjusted and figured out how to beat us. This current group of seniors has gone stale for whatever reason.

That’s where Mike Brey comes into the equation. I will readily admit to being a Mike Brey apologist, but he deserves some criticism for not recognizing that complacency could become a problem for a team that has had the same core of guys for the last three years. It seems like Brey thought he could trot out his guys again this year and all would be fine. The reality is that we probably needed to introduce some new blood into the rotation just to keep teams honest and give them some extra things to game plan for. Someone like Tyrone Nash could have come in and given us a rebounding/slashing element that teams would have to look out for. Right now, everyone is just sitting on the “shut down KMac” strategy and we’ve done nothing to adjust. The mark of a good coach is to prepare for this type of thing BEFORE the season and in the early stages of the nonconference. We are probably going to make some changes for the Marquette game, but we’re going to be dusting off Tyrone Nash after he’s sat on the bench for half the year already. It would have been a better idea to get him into the flow of the season months ago.

We’ve been a marked team all year, and we haven’t handled it well. With our recent success and Harangody’s reputation as a stud, everyone is “up” for the ND game now. We aren’t sneaking up on anybody. Brey’s goal before the season should have been to prepare us for that type of scenario by making us a more well-rounded team that can beat people in ways other than lights-out three point shooting. It would have been nice if we could occasionally win a game with our defense once in awhile. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that, and we are now even more dependent on how well we shoot from the outside.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not down on Brey as a coach, and I think he will learn from this season if it continues to be a disappointment. Next year might turn out to be "the year" for the Harangody era with Hansborough and Martin coming on board for all we know. But I do think he’ll need to tweak some things in the future. Brey’s system works great if the players logging the heavy minutes are equipped to run it, but it breaks down if parts start getting exposed and we don’t have a backup plan. When Brey made the decision to go with his 2 juniors and 4 seniors exclusively in the nonconference, he didn’t allow for the possibility that some of these seniors wouldn’t be able to carry their weight and that underclassmen might be needed to give the team a new look and some fresh blood.

Ayers was a 20-25 minute a game guy last year. That’s really what he should be playing again this year unless he’s hot from the outside. Same for Hillesland. Instead of just bumping up their minutes to 30-35 right out of the chute, Brey really should have experimented with 15-20 minutes for Nash and even Carl Scott in the nonconference just to see how things shook out before conference play. If Ayers steps up and plays well, then go with him for 30 minutes in conference play. But if he falters, you have some insurance because you got minutes for Nash and Scott.

I’m glad to see that Nash is probably going to get more minutes. I actually think a case could be made for him starting at the 4. We need someone who can get boards down low because Hillesland can’t do it. The “four out one in” thing is not working. UConn controlled the glass on every possession.

I definitely think Marquette is now a must win game tonight. With three losses in a row and Pitt up next, we have to stop the bleeding at some point. If we lose tonight to Marquette, we’re in some real big trouble. If we come out of the Pitt game at 3-6 in the conference with games still left at UConn and WVU, we’ll be LUCKY to be on the NCAA bubble in March. The schedule gets easier in the second half, but we have some things working against us for an at-large bid. Our RPI has plummeted, and now sits at 77. If we end up at 9-9, I don’t think we’ll be in unless we do damage in the BET (which has not exactly been our forte). Even 10-8 would probably have us sweating heavily just hoping to get in since we’d be somewhere in the 7-9 range in our own league.

One positive thought. Marquette’s coaching staff has only had one day to drill the “shut down KMac” blueprint into the brains of their players, so maybe we can catch them napping early in the game. Plus, if we make some lineup changes, we could throw them off a bit. Marquette is a good team with a lot of experience, but I’m not sure they are THAT good. I watched them against Providence, and they didn’t have quite the same edge that they’ve had in the past. Everyone has sort of lumped them in with Pitt and UConn and Louisville lately, but I think that is a little premature.

I don’t want to sound all gloom and doom. Being 3-4 in the league is not a death blow by any means, and we’ve lost to three of the four best teams in the league. All we’ve established so far is that we aren’t one of the elite teams in the Big East, but there are still going to be anywhere from 7 to 9 teams from the Big East going to the NCAA Tournament. We haven’t played much of that meaty middle yet (other than a game against Georgetown that we won), so tonight is a good chance to see where we stand against that group. There are still plenty of opportunities to get some big wins at home and steal a couple games on the road and get ourselves right back in good shape for the NCAA Tournament. The bottom line though is that you have to win games, and a loss tonight would put us in real jeopardy.


Matt said...

Time to pull the plug on the seniors. There is no reason that Nash and Scott shouldn't be logging some meaninful minutes. Enough of K-Mac for 40 minutes a night. Hillesland and Ayers should be in the 20 minute range.

I feel really bad for Harangody. The guy is the best player in the country and nobody can do anything to help him.

Jeremy and Mike - you guys were right. Brey can't keep trotting out these unathletic lineups. We're showing up to these Big East fights with a pocket knife while everyone else has an AK 47. It's time to recruit a few neck tattoos. Enough with the 'system guys.' I've finally seen the light after seeing all of the athleticism on Marquette. It's one thing if teams like UConn have freak athletes - we're not quite sure if Thabeet can speak and read English - so guys like that aren't getting in to ND. But if Marquette has guys like McNeal and Hayward - why not ND?

Mike said...

The seniors, save for KMac, provide absolutely nothing on either end. Even when Ayers is shooting well, he doesn't shoot enough. Hillesland provides nothing offensively and Zeller is softer than Charmin. They all seem like nice guys, but that's basically the problem. We always have a "nice" team, rather than a bunch of mean dudes who want to step on throats and dominate.

When has Brey ever recruited a player in the mold of Jerel McNeal (i.e., athletic slasher and great defender who plays with a dogged determination to succeed)? I was watching a random game earlier this year and one of the announcers mentioned that he asked several Big East coaches why the league is so difficult. In response, each coach opined that the league is full of mentally tough players who developed their edge by growing up in places like New York, New Jersey and Philly. Notre Dame has none of those guys and I'm not convinced that we can't recruit them. We are, after all, a tradition-rich program and there are plenty of guys who would be drawn to the academic side. Hell, Ron Artest damn near went to Notre Dame.

In the meantime, Brey must get some more athleticism on the floor. We will likely get waxed by Pitt, so why not use the opportunity to experiment with lineup combinations and get guys like Nash and Scott some valuable experience against the best team in the conference?

There's literally nothing more depressing in sports than having your team make the NIT, but it's looking very likely.