March 09, 2011

Buffet of Irish Goodies: Mardi Gras Edition

Plenty of ground to cover in a remarkable couple of weeks for Irish athletics.

First things first, Mike Brey deserves a standing applause for the job he's done this season.  So take a moment, stand up from your CPU and acknowledge the Mock with a hearty three cheers clap.

Ahh, that's better.  This season has felt like a dream where we keep pinching ourselves to snap back to the reality that's been ND basketball for 20+ years.  Except the team keeps rolling and is picking up momentum.  Even as the wins mounted against the upper echelon of the BEast, my stubborn reflex of expecting the other shoe to drop persisted.  But now I'm coming around to the fact that the 2010-2011 Irish squad should be judged on their own merits and not compared to past disappointments.  We've been watching legitimately one of the top teams in the country.  This team is really good!!  Start believing.  There's more noise to make.

With a reliance on team more than any other school in the country, Brey has done the unthinkable and positioned the Irish for a tantalizing #1 or #2 seed in the Big Dance.  Alright, I have to pinch myself again...a #1 seed wouldn't shock anyone?!  How in the name of Matt Gotsch did we get here?!

Nobody in their wildest dreams could have predicted this, and we certainly didn't come close in our season preview.  While I was confident the team would be dancing come March, I didn't think we'd be picking our partner, so to speak.  We got hung up on the athletic potential of other schools without giving enough credit to a tight core group who know each other's games inside and out and are willing to scrap, claw and gut their way to victory after victory.  From all accounts, the team is hell bent on advancing to the conference final in MSG, a feat that would be a program first.  Why doubt anything from this group now?

I can't see any way the selection committee can seed ND lower than a #2, which should be good enough to land the coveted Chicago pod.  Matchups are always the deciding factor in March, but playing two games in a quasi-home atmosphere should propel them to the 2nd weekend for the first time since 2003 when Torin Francis and Chris Thomas led the team to victories over Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Illinois.  That's a long freaking hiatus from making any sort of bracket commotion - hence the reluctance to wholeheartedly buy into the Mike Brey method.

But give the Mock his due (and he has, by Yahoo and the Big East today!).  He's finally struck upon the right balance of players who know their roles and can all do multiple things well.  Hansbrough has been a revelation, galvanizing the team as a lightning rod leader and gutsy clutch scorer.  He completely deserved being named POY over Kemba Walker.  Abromaitis fills the Brey "lean-on-him-to-a-fault" streak shooter, but Tim does much more as an active rebounder and a smart presence at all times.  Carleton Scott prowls the paint on defense and does a little bit of everything on offense.  He's also never afraid to shoot and knock down buckets in crucial situations.  Ty Nash brings a savvy "old man at the Y" flair to his post game.  He uses his butt better than any Irish player since Harold Swanagan.  Nash's improvement at the FT line has been a huge lift as he's not a liability at the end of games.  Scott Martin is capable of athletic plays when you least expect.  Eric Atkins is used as a change of pace guard and Cooley logs lumbering minutes and has shown more than enough capacity to bang and produce on both ends.

We'll check in with the team later in the week, but confidence is brimming in these parts.  Keep proving to the non-believers out there.

Power 10 - Most Dangerous Tourney Teams
1. Duke - Still have to go through the defending champs with two excellent playmakers on the inside and outside.

2. Ohio State - Solid senior nucleus complemented by the immovable freshman force in the middle.  If Diebler keeps up his NBA Jam "On Fire" routine, they'll be dancing in the streets of Columbus.

3. Kansas - Guard play is suspect, but they've been an absolute machine this season.

4. Pittsburgh - One of these years Jamie Dixon will make the leap.  The Panthers are the definition of tough.  Not a team you want to face.

5. North Carolina - Out of nowhere, Roy Williams turned this squad into the ACC champs.  I'm a little leery of the reliance on two freshman, but if you're good, you're good.

6. Purdue - Maybe the best 1-2 punch in the game with Johnson and Moore.

7. Notre Dame - It's crazy that this may be too low.

8. Wisconsin - Completely throttled by a revenge-seeking OSU at home on Sunday, but Bo Ryan works wonders and has two great players to lean on.

9. Kansas State - Jake Pullen can absolutely pull a Puckett and invite the Wildcats to jump on his back.  They're finding their team rhythm at the right time.  Maybe I should pick a 3rd Big East team here, like Syracuse, but the power of Pullen frightens me more than anything Cuse or Jimmer can do.

10. Butler - Representative of every Cinderella that opened the floodgates for every mid-major (Gonzaga, BYU, San Diego State, George Mason, VCU, etc.) to say why not us.  Well, Butler is back and returns much of the team that made everyone's heart skip three beats.  Seeing their name on the other side of the bracket is the last thing any coach or fanbase wants to see.

A Real Hoot
This headline would be much different if the basketball team had announced a 3-game series with Temple instead of football.  So be it.  Schedule news is always worthy of dissection on these pages.  The Owls were finally rising from the eternal grave of their moribund program with the Golden touch of Miami's new head coach.  Looks like the momentum should continue with up and coming former Florida coordinator Steve Adazzio finally getting his turn at head coach.

I wouldn't put this matchup on the level of Western Michigan's "buy" game, even though both schools hail from the MAC.  It serves a dual purpose of keeping the East Coast in the rotation for a barnstorming tour stop (which has been pretty successful so far, according to an excellent and insightful Swarbrick interview by SBT's Eric Hansen) and primes the pump of the Pennsylvania recruiting pipeline.  Look past the fact that Philly is a basketball town, though Brey could reap some spillover benefits.  Would I trade this 3-game series for a similar deal with someone like Clemson, NC State or Georgia Tech?  In a heart beat.  But it's nothing for ND Nation to wring their hands over.

Early Commits to Football Class of 2012 
Lost in the hullabaloo surrounding the basketball team has been Brian Kelly's first two verbal commitments for 2012.  California CB Tee Shepard (video) made the first splash in the recruiting pool, jilting USC and other top schools, to join the trending #NDdefenserules.  Shepard knows the secondary is up for grabs and will ample chance to push for playing time from the start.  Some guys have names built for their position.  Tee Shepard has a great ring to it for a disruptive defensive back (Lito Shepard might have something to do with that).  Whether he ultimately plays safety or corner, it's a solid first step out of the gate for the Irish.  And we didn't have to wait too long for the #2 commit as Dayton-area Taylor Decker made it official this week.  Decker has a huge frame at 6'9'', 265 lbs. and projects to be an OT.  Paul Longo's got to be licking his chops to start molding him into a physical specimen.  Love his candid thoughts about being so decisive in the process.  When it feels right, why wait?  He recognizes the good thing happening on campus and wants to be a part of it.  More power to both of these individuals.  Let's see this snowball.