Are you ready for some hardwood?! As this roller coaster Year 1 of the Brian Kelly Era winds down, the infant basketball season provides a fresh canvas to extrapolate on what the seasonmay bring. The WeIs braintrust convened to discuss the 2010-2011 season, to be rolled out in two installments - (1) relevant topics and (2) season predictions.
1) Who Will Be Missed More - Luke Harangody or Tory Jackson?
Mike: Jackson, without question. Although Harangody was a unique and gifted scoring threat and a capable rebounder, his defense was, to be polite, awful. Notre Dame has enough playmakers to pick up the slack offensively and the team will benefit from improved interior defense. Jackson, on the other hand, will be missed badly, and not only because ND will be forced to rely heavily on a true freshman at point guard this year. Tory showed a special knack for putting the team on his back when things weren’t going well and I do not see anyone on the current roster who shares that ability.
Jimmy: Make no mistake, there's a significant production void with The Mongoose's graduation. The school's only player with 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds (he’s 2nd all-time in both categories) could be counted on to "get his" nearly every night. That said, Gody wasn't exactly a stalwart defender, to put it mildly. And the offense sometimes fell into ruts as he forced entirely too many poor shots. I know its borderline blasphemous to disparage and minimize the impact of an NBA draft pick and a 4-year leader. Luuuuke is one of my top 10 favorite ND players ever. His lunch pail attitude, ability to score in the funkiest manner and knack for rising to the occasion were tremendous. But the question is who will be missed more this year, Tory or Gody. And my answer is Tory.
The Warrior was everything you would want in a 4-year true point guard. The team ebbed and flowed with his play more than anyone else. When Gody posted his typical 26 and 12, Tory would quietly have 13 pts, 7 assists and 7 boards, with a huge steal or block sprinkled in. After the bitter taste Chris Thomas' "leadership" left in everyone's mouth, Tory was Listerine for the soul. You could tell it was all team, all the time for him.
As an added bonus to any home game if you knew where to look, Tory's family always sat behind the bench and never shied from dancing in the aisles or yelling words of encouragement at #2. It was easy to see where he got the joy and passion he played with.
Taking my small bromance out of the equation and looking objectively at the roster composition, it's a helluva lot tougher to fill the shoes of a 4-year PG with little experience behind him than at PF. Both will be missed, but I’m sure I’ll find myself pining for Tory much more as the season progresses.
2) Is the “Burn Offense” here to stay?
Mike: Not a chance. As indicated in my response below, this squad has plenty of gifted offensive players that should mesh together quite well. The pieces are in place for a return to traditional Irish basketball under Mike Brey, i.e., a relatively up-tempo style with an emphasis on sharing the ball and knocking down threes.
Jimmy: Just when we though Mike Brey was heading towards a calamitous finish to the season with his best player hurt, the Mock reinvented the entire look and feel to his team by switching gears to the Burn Offense. Instead of the up-tempo, if-we-can't-stop-you-we'll-outscore-you style, Brey opted for a methodical, plodding flow predicated on taking advantage of opponent mistakes and open looks created by effective spacing and ball movement. Lo and behold, they became an efficient possession-centric team that dictated play. Whether it was the personnel or the slower temp saving their legs (or a combination of both), the defense, in turn, became scrappier and more stingy. The result? A 6-game win streak, including surprise wins over Marquette, UConn, Georgetown and Pitt (twice!) that propelled the team into the Big Dance. We'll leave what happened in the tournament out of this discussion for now.
Has Brey been saving this change of pace style all this time in his back pocket for an emergency situation? Did it happen organically in practice with the leadership of a veteran floor general? Did Tinkerbell sprinkle common sense pixie dust into the basketball offices? I wish I knew the answer to all of these, and I'm not discounting the last question's potential veracity.
Until Brey finds what he’s looking for at the PG spot, the Burn should be employed as it spreads responsibility to all 5 players. Last season’s small sample size indicates the team is better off operating on both sides through the Burn. Now, what should happen isn’t the reality our head coach lives in. Will Brey suddenly change 20 years of reliable patterns of coaching? Highly unlikely. I’m sure the offense of old will be back for the better part of this season. Brey is a bit stubborn and wants to win “his way” instead of evolving and ditching his traditional methods for a formula that works. At some point, the Burn will resurface, though more out of desperation than design.
So to answer the question is the Burn Offense here to stay with one word, no.
3) Team Strengths
Mike: Offensive Efficiency and Senior Leadership
Throughout the ups and downs of the Brey era, the one constant has been Notre Dame’s ability to score points in bunches. With a roster full of skilled passers, shooters and scorers, this year should be no different. The loss of Luke Harangody may seem to be significant at first blush, but the surrounding players, who often became relegated to spectators when Harangody touched the ball, should be able to fill the void.
Jimmy: Veteran Experience
ND is the polar opposite of Kentucky. Whereas the Wildcats must reload their roster yearly because of the allure of the NBA, ND rarely shares the concern of losing its best early. And perish the thought that multiple players would bolt early. Even with the loss of four-year mega-contributors in Jackson and Harangody, the roster is still stocked with experienced players who have years of familiarity in the system. Such veteran savvy will be leaned upon to hopefully make a Sweet 16 trip for the first time since 2003.
4) Biggest Weakness
Some things never change, huh? Carleton Scott will finally give the Irish a shot blocking threat inside, but this team still appears to lack length and quickness on the perimeter, particularly when compared to its conference brethren. Accordingly, the emergence of several consistent rebounders is paramount.
Jimmy: Offensive Closer
Total team athleticism aside (which can’t be fixed this year), a gaping void left by Luke and Tory is a go-to player when the team needs a bucket(s) down the stretch. Gody was an alpha dog offensive beast, while Tory never shied away from big pressure situations. Plan A and Plan B are gone – what now? Abromaitis is the best shooter, but he faded fast last year and has to rebuild his confidence. Carleton Scott might be the de factor option, building on his clutch 3 that sent the Marquette game to OT. He’s athletic enough to create shots in the post or perimeter. Hansbrough has the bloodlines to be a go-to guy, but he’s not the same interior presence as 6-inches taller older bro. Scott Martin is the wildcard unknown commodity as he hasn’t played the college game for 2 years. He’s receiving some good buzz for his offensive talents.
I’ll be very curious to see what Brey draws up for close contests. Until someone emerges, this is an Achilles heel that may be the difference in 5-6 games. How’s that bubble feeling?
5) State of the Program
Mike: Same As It Ever Was
After a lopsided loss to Syracuse that I had the misfortune of attending in 2009, I wrote an article on this blog regarding Notre Dame’s lack of commitment to excellence in basketball as it relates to Mike Brey’s future at ND. From the time of that article until the Georgetown game last year, which I also attended, it appeared that the program was hopelessly mired in mediocrity. In fact, I wrote letters to John Jenkins and Jack Swarbrick to express my disgust with the state of the program and to suggest multiple solutions. Still waiting for Savvy Jack to write me back.
Anyway, last year’s late turnaround was encouraging and Brey certainly must be commended for rallying the troops after the injury to Luke Harangody. Still, as is always the case with Notre Dame basketball, one step forward was matched by an immediate step back, as the disappointing loss to Old Dominion reinforced that Notre Dame is still far from the nation’s elite on the hardwood. As such, I expect another standard season under Brey: solid offense, weak defense, a big win or two, an early exit in the Big East tournament and an NIT berth or first round exit in the NCAA tournament.
It has become a bubble existence for Notre Dame basketball in year 11 of the Mike Brey Era. The average RPI rank over the last five years is a quasi-respectable, yet tenuous, 52 – very bubbalicious. Apparently the Mock thrives on the whimsy of a committee determining the fate of his hard work year in and year out. Needless to say, it’s a little maddening for the devoted fanbase who follows this little brother program as religiously as its gridiron counterpart.
We pretty much know what to expect at this point from the head coach - 3 scoops of vanilla & 2 scoops of chocolate leading a perimeter based offense that rides hot hands for scoring. Brey's teams have never been confused with lockdown defenses that impose their will without the ball. Much too often over the years, the team has been susceptible to allowing easy buckets in the paint. Once in a blue moon, a Mike Brey team surprises people with their athleticism. Brey has notorious substitution patterns, relying on a short bench for reasons only he knows.
Brey gets credit for waking the echoes of the hoops program, returning the team to the NCAA Tournament in his first 3 years - the first visit the Irish made since 1990 (thanks for the memories John McLeod). Those first three trips (2nd round in 2001, 2nd round in 2002 and Sweet 16 in 2003) equal the three best tourney finishes under Brey. The team has made three subsequent trips to March Madness, but have flamed out early in all three instances.
One significant step forward for the program is the recent, and long-awaited, Joyce Center renovation. Included in the more cozy environment is the installation of a jumbotron screen, which, from what I hear, is loud and confusingly displays the game action for those not-really-nose-bleed seats. I’ve embraced the pyrotechnic hip-hop intro for starting lineups. It’s fun for the players and fans. Give Brey credit for this technologic improvement as a necessary recruiting tool. Not that what ND does is better than other schools, but at least it’s something.
Basketball will always play second fiddle to football at ND. Once you get past that, there's still room for growth. Brey’s merits are praiseworthy, while his shortcomings continue to stunt the program from reaching higher on the apple tree. We have yet to see whether Swarbrick has bigger visions of grandeur to chase that opportunity or continue embracing the warm, fuzzy (and stagnant) feeling that Michael Brey's expansive assortment of mock turtles provides. For now, why don’t we throw in a Michael Bublé album and play some Trivial Pursuit with our lovable bubble team.