November 17, 2010

WeIs Roundtable: ND Basketball Preview (Part 2)

Hope you enjoyed yesterday's discussion.  Now it's time for some ND Basketball predictions.

Most Valuable Player

Matt: Ben Hansbrough

Until Eric Atkins is ready to take over at the point, Ben will serve as the point guard.  Brey loves his veterans – his ‘men’ – and BH fits the bill.  He can do a little bit of everything, and quietly shot over 41% on three’s last year while everyone focused on Abro and Gody’s offensive exploits.  He’s a smart defender, has enough size to hold his own in the Big East, and I look to Ben to fill the leadership void left by Tory as the floor general. 

Mike:  Carleton Scott

While Tim Abromaitis is the team’s best bet to make one of the All Big East Teams this year and other players are more offensively challenged, Carleton Scott will be the most important, and hence valuable, player this season.  If recent history is a reliable guide, we can expect the Irish to execute at a high level on offense.  To finish at or near the top of the Big East standings, however, Notre Dame must be proficient at defense and rebounding.  Scott, who excelled in both of those areas last year, is the type of athlete that Notre Dame has sorely lacked in prior years, so his continued development is vital to this team.

Jimmy: Ben Hansbrough

You could argue a case for four guys here (five if Eric Atkins has a Chris Thomas-esque impact as a frosh, minus the primadonna act).  Abro will be the points leader.  Carleton Scott is the rebounding/blocks savant with a penchant for the dramatic play, ala Ryan Humphrey.  Scott Martin, an unknown commodity, might be the "most talented" player on the roster if you listen to what the coaches say.  Then there's Ben Hansbrough.

He may not lead the team in any categories, but Hansbrough should be the glue guy for this unheralded collection of players.  He'll be counted on to handle PG duties while Atkins assimilates to the role, along with knocking down open looks, spreading the ball around from his 1/2 position, play solid defense, crash the boards with aplomb and fill the Dutch Boy hustle sheet every night.  His versatility will make him indispensable to the team's success.  

Most Improved Player

Matt: Ty Nash

This looks to be a two man competition between Nash and Scott, but I think that Nash is really going to impress people with his newfound game.  For starters, he worked a ton on his free throw shooting, so look for that mark to improve from his 60% last year (Through two games he is at 79%).  Without Gody around, Nash will be the alpha dog on the boards, and the emergence of Scott as a shot blocking threat will only help the post defense.  Finally, Nash has an element of versatility to his game, as evidenced last year by his part time role of press-breaker.  He can handle the rock fluidly, and with the loss of Tory, Nash may find himself playing the point-forward role more this year.  Last year Nash averaged 8 and 5 – this year I think he ups that to 13 and 8.

Mike:  Ty Nash

Nash, like Carleton Scott, displayed flashes of brilliance last year, particularly in the rebounding department.  With an extra year of experience and offseason preparation, Nash should have developed an expanded arsenal of low post moves that will allow him to become a much needed scoring threat in the paint.  In addition, I expect the senior captain to become a more vocal leader of this team, as well as an important source of toughness and rebounding.  Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but continued improvement at the charity stripe would be nice too.

Jimmy: Ty Nash

If his first two games are any indication of what to expect from the big man in his final year, he may have already wrapped up this award.  The career 57% free throw shooter has already started 15-19 (79%) from the stripe in the first two games, a marked improvement with bigger ramifications.  If Nash reliably hits his FTs, he immediately becomes a post option in close games instead of an offense-defense substitute.  His developmental process has taken longer than most fans would've liked (thanks in large part to Brey's aversion to giving Nash minutes his first couple seasons), but he's saving his best for last.  Already a steady low-post defender who knows how to use his big frame, Nash will build on his strengths and put together an all-around solid campaign now that he's playing 25-30 minutes/game.  The Ty Nash- Carl Scott tandem will surprise a lot of teams this year.  Scott already enjoyed his breakthrough improvement late last season upon cracking the starting lineup and averaging a 10/8 over 9 games.  

Season Prediction

Matt: 21-9 regular season (11-7 conference)
6th in Big East, Quarters of Big East Tournament, 1st round of NCAA Tournament

Ultimately, I believe that this year’s ND squad will be a lot of fun to watch.  Personally, I had gotten a little tired of the Harangody show.  There was no denying his brilliance at times, but it never was truly team basketball, and I think the talents of other guys on the roster often took a backseat to getting Gody his points.  This year, we have the mystery and potential of Scott Martin, the breaking in of a new point guard, the athleticism of Carlton Scott, the multitude of big Big East bodies to throw at opponents…it really will be a different team. 

On top of all the roster upheaval, there is actually a schedule to get excited about for once!  In Kentucky!  Gonzaga at home!  Georgia and the possibility of Temple in a holiday tourney.  Those are exciting games and will be true tests.  Mike Brey, God bless him, will never stop loading up on the Chicago States and Liberty’s of the world, but at least we can get a real feel for this team’s strengths and weaknesses before diving into Big East play. 

A few thoughts about individual players.  I think Abro will continue to struggle.  The cat’s out of the bag on his game now.  Can he adjust into more than just a three point shooter?  I’m skeptical.  Scott Martin will be a David Graves type player, filling in the stat sheet on a nightly basis.  Carlton Scott will be the first legitimate Big East athlete that ND has had in….a long time.  Eric Atkins will have everyone forgetting about Tory Jackson by March.  Jack Cooley will emerge as an effective banger down low, and with his crewcut, the memory of the Mongoose will live on.  Hansbrough will be the glue guy – hitting big shots, breaking the press, playing tough defense.   Give credit to Brey, he has put together a roster that meshes very well.  It’s early in the year, but already roles are coming into focus on the team, and I am hopeful that the rotation will go deeper than only six or seven men. 

As for the schedule, let’s say ND goes 9-2 in nonconference with losses to Temple and Kentucky.  The start to the Big East season is brutal with home games against Georgetown and UConn sandwiched around a trip to the Carrier Dome.  Maybe two losses there.  But really, the overall schedule could be a lot worse, as the Irish only play Nova, Pitt and Syracuse once, while repeating against St. John’s, UConn and Marquette.  I’ll say the Irish go 11-7 in the Big East with losses to Georgetown, at Syracuse, at Marquette, at St. Johns, at Pitt, at West Virginia and to Villanova.  The back half of the Big East schedule is a lot easier, and that is where ND is going to have to make its run. 
Add all of that up, and it amounts to yet another year on the bubble.  Of course it’s impossible to predict what the matchup will be in the tournaments, both Big East and NCAA, but my faith in the Irish to perform in March is not strong given recent history. 

Mike:  20-10 regular season (11-7 conference)
6th in Big East, Quarters of Big East Tournament, 1st Round of NCAA Tournament

Although I usually view Notre Dame football and basketball with a jaundiced eye, I truly believe that this year’s squad can have a special year.  As an initial matter, John Gasaway at Basketball Prospectus, no other conference has suffered as much attrition as the Big East, so there is a prime opportunity for the Irish to contend for the league crown.  Moreover, the challenging non-conference schedule should allow the Irish to be more battle tested by the time they enter conference play.

From a talent and leadership standpoint, the pieces are in place for ND.  Obviously, it is somewhat scary to rely primarily on a true freshman point guard, but Eric Atkins should benefit greatly from being surrounded by plenty of veterans, several of whom (Hansbrough, Martin, Abromaitis) can handle the scoring load.  Furthermore, this team has a nice mix of talented players in the backcourt and frontcourt, as well as decent depth, assuming that Brey decides to use his bench for once.  More importantly, the Irish should be characteristically strong on offense and, with the loss of Luke Harangody, improved on defense.  Psychologically, Brey’s teams seem to perform better when expectations are low, so the 7th place projection in the coaches’ poll can serve as motivation for this team.

In light of the foregoing, I would love to pick this team to finish among the top of the league, reach the conference finals and advance beyond the Sweet Sixteen.  Until I see it happen under Mike Brey, however, I remain a skeptic.

Jimmy: 19-11 regular season (10-8 conference)
7th in Big East, Semis of Big East Tournament, 2nd Round of NCAA Tournament

After re-acquainting myself with the roster and perusing the schedule, I'm fairly optimistic about this season's potential.  For whatever reason, Mike Brey squads fare better the less anyone expects them to.  This year fits that description perfectly as most national pundits expect the Irish to struggle trying to replace their terrific twosome.  An adjustment is expected, but the team should find an identity by the time December rolls around. 

Known for loading up on cupcakes with the most frosting, Brey's non-conference scheduling typically causes plenty of head scratching.  By my count, there's three schools of faith to prepare a team year in and year out.  1) Load up with a murderer's row of competition as a true test of your team's abilities, sacrificing early losses for experience and sharpening skills for tourney time.  Tom Izzo demonstrates this scheduling principle better than anyone - and look where his team's ended up 3 of the last 4 years.  2) Strike a balance between a few top notch games (“double boosts”), a glut of decent mid-majors (“smart buys”)  and a couple bottom feeders (“stupid buys”).  It’s no secret that finding middle of the road schools who will turn in winning records from 2nd tier conferences (think MAC, MWC, A-10, MVC) is RPI gold.  3) The path of least resistance, which happens to be Brey's scheduling preference.  Sure, there’s a few high caliber teams hiding the fact that the rest of the non-conference slate is a veritable pu-pu platter.  Problem is, this hurts the team doubly as it poses little team challenge and acts as an RPI anchor come Selection Sunday. 

This year, the non-conference dozen is actually more palatable than others in recent memory, thanks to dates with Kentucky and Gonzaga, plus three solid matchups in the Old Spice Classic.  But the other 7 schools are gawd awful, closing things out with a true Christmas present in the form of Maryland-Baltimore County on Dec. 22nd.  Is that really an accredited college team or a YMCA Rec League All-Stars?  

It's one thing to schedule winnable games.  It's another to scrape the bottom of the barrel for said "buy" wins.  It’s a “stupid buy” in every sense.  I refuse to believe that if ND reached out to schools like Dayton, Creighton, Drexel, UAB, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Ball State that they’re not salivating to sign a deal to work on whatever terms ND sets.  Substitute half of those aforementioned schools on any year's schedule and it drastically improves the competition and RPI windfall.  It's not rocket science.  (Out of curiosity, I looked up all 10 years worth of data for Brey’s non-conference tendencies.  The results are telling.  Check back for a more in-depth review shortly). 

The schedule is what it is and Brey likes to beef up on wins because they're much harder to come by in the BEast, especially now with 18 conference games.  Paradoxically, Brey's best attribute is his consistent Big East record.  Only twice in 10 years has the team had a losing conference record, quite an achievement.  The schedule makers were fairly kind to the Irish with Home and Home matchups with a down UConn, St. John's (a year or two away from being fully rejuvenated by Steve Lavin) and Marquette.  Even with all the attrition and terrific talent that exited the BEast, there's still a number of solid to very good teams.  

Where are the losses?  Don’t think the Irish win the Old Spice Classic.  There’s one loss in there somewhere.  Kentucky and Gonzaga are tall orders, but good measuring sticks.  The 1-2 punch of Georgetown and ‘Cuse to start the Beast schedule will be a rude awakening coming off the third exhibition game.  Road games at Marquette, West Virginia, Pitt and UConn would be eye-opening wins, but losses in my book now.  There’s always room for a bad night, which I think will come in the form of either @ Providence or home to a frisky Seton Hall.  And a home loss to Villanova brings us to 11. 

It will be a fun season as it feels like a fresh start with plenty of new talent gelling before our eyes.  Still not confident enough in Brey to get past the first weekend of March Madness.  I hope I’m dead wrong, just like my Utah doomsday prediction. 

Final Four Picks

Michigan State – In Izzo I Trust
Duke – In Coach K and Kyrie Irving I Trust
Syracuse – In Jimmy B and Kris Joseph I trust
Ohio State – In Jared Sullinger and David Lighty I Trust

Michigan State (they should rename the Final Four the Tom Izzo Invitational)

Michigan State
Ohio State

1st Team All-Americans

Jacob Pullen, Kansas State
Durell Summers, Michigan State
Kyle Singler, Duke
Harrison Barnes, UNC
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

Kyle Singler, Duke
JaJuan Johnson, Purdue
Kalin Lucas, Michigan State
Jimmer Fredette, Brigham Young
Austin Freeman, Georgetown

Jake Pullen, Kansas State
Austin Freeman, Georgetown
Kyle Singler, Duke
JaJuan Johnson, Purdue
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

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