Thursday, March 08, 2007

Orange Crushed


Hey kids, it's Notre Dame basketball! Playing deep into a tournament - in March!

This 2006-07 season can't be considered a total stunner, because quite frankly the past two years have been defined by underachievement from Mike Brey and the Irish. They squandered away a slate full of quality wins with a late-season collapse against lesser foes in 2005, then couldn't find a way to finish a game last season despite having an NBA-caliber point guard and pretty much the same cast that they have now, minus Torin Francis and plus Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson.

So the scars of the past two seasons have given way to a new, healthier Irish basketball squad that realistically shouldn't be this good (at least, if you believe pre-season Big East polls). The real revelation has been Russell Carter, who stepped up with increased minutes this season and assumed his role as "The Man" early in his senior campaign. On the flip side, fellow senior Colin Falls was derided during most of his first three-seasons as a one-shot, 3-point bombing pony. Which is basically what he was and he didn't exactly run away from that this season, but he has taken the time to actually explore the concept of dribbling to the basket and mixing in a layup or two. The temptation might be there to compare him with Matt Carroll, but Carroll was (and is) a much more polished player - and also wasn't a total liability on defense.

The real challenge emerged for this squad came after Kyle McAlarney, the spark-plug from Staten Island with the thick accent to match, got arrested for possession of marijuana and subsequently dismissed from school for the semester. That shifted the burden onto untested frosh Tory Jackson to run the Irish show - and after finding his bearings and splitting a lot of minutes with fellow first year Jonathon Peoples, Jackson confidently guided the team to an 11-5 conference record and played a major role in late season conquests of DePaul and Marquette.

Watching the closing seconds of today's 89-83 victory over Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament gives me pause, making me recall an informal roundtable that occurred among the Notre Dame beat writers on the media bus traveling through New Orleans during Sugar Bowl week. The consensus at the time was that Notre Dame, with its wonderful track record of close game performances under Brey and a freshman point guard would have trouble staying afloat in the hardest hitting conference, let along make the NCAA Tournament.

Say, wasn't that Tory Jackson dropping a double-double on Marquette? Luke Harangody hanging 20 on 'Cuse not once but twice? You know what they say - he who laughs last, laughs best.

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