Saturday, February 02, 2008

Irish Hoops Continues to Protect the House

After a while, a streak takes on a certain mythic quality, becoming something everybody associated with it wants to protect at all costs. A team and its streak become inseparable after awhile, a common theme inspiring everybody to dig down and say, "Don't be the ones who let it end."

After hard-fought victories Thursday and this evening, Notre Dame baksetball clearly is riding one such streak, a home-court run that the players have grown fiercely protective of. Having already passed the record for consecutive Joyce Center victories (32 in a row) the Irish now have the overall school mark (set at the old Fieldhouse between 1943 & 1948) within their reach, though it would have to wait until early next season. Of course, they still have to win their final four home dates to keep the dream alive, three of which will be a major challenge - #17 Marquette visits next Saturday, #18 Pittsburgh on Feb. 21st, and Syracuse three days later. St. John's, currently tied for last in the conference with South Florida, wraps up the home slate on March 5th.

The major story in the two most recent conference victories was unquestionably Luke Harangody. The 6'8" sophomore from Schererville, IN continues to take his game to another level the deeper the Irish get into the Big East slate, and in Thursday night's 81-74 overtime win against Providence he poured in 31 points and 14 rebounds, then followed up with 29 & 14 during tonight's 89-80 victory over DePaul. The Irish haven't had a player make double-doubles look so effortless since Troy Murphy, and Luke picked up some deserved recognition earlier in the week by becoming one of the 30 Midseason Candidates for both the Naismith Trophy & John R. Wooden Awards, despite not being on the preseason watch list for either.

A year ago he was a young freshman who relied mainly on his size alone in dominating high school; this year he's coupled than with a slimmer frame and pure strength. Averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game (24 & 12 in conference play), there's no longer any question that he's the physical inside presence the Irish lacked not so long ago, when they were consistently out-rebounded and out-hustled, falling back on a barrage of three-pointers to stay in games and failing down the stretch in back-to-back years to lock up an NCAA Tournament bid. Not that they still can't relapse into a chucking up one triple too many, but Harangody's place on the floor is a pretty solid safe-guard against that. To put his leap from year one to year two in perspective: already, with 10 games still to play, he's scored more points than in 30 contests last season.

The encouraging thing for an Irish fan (and scary thought for the rest of the Big East) is that there's still room for improvement in Harangody's game. Specifically, he's had trouble contending with players who match/exceed him size-wise, his two biggest struggles this season coming against UConn's 7-footer Hasheem Thabeet, who recorded 10 blocks in a game the Irish prevailed in thanks to Kyle McAlarney, and Georgetown's seasoned vet Roy Hibbert. While Luke's especially dangerous as a big man with soft hands, capable of pulling back for jumpers and nailing free throws, he'll move into yet another level entirely once armed with the confidence and experience to back a player like Thabeet or Hibbert under the basket and just impose his will. Let us exercise restraint, since after all it's only February 2nd and there's plenty of Big East (and, hopefully, Tournament) games to play, but there's no question Harangody's play right now should be drawing the attention of NBA scouts. It's unlikely he'd jump after two years of college ball considering he still has some big things to work on, but if he remains on a tear and the Irish make some noise in the tournament, there's little reason to think he wouldn't be tempted.

With Harangody leading the charge up front, one of the biggest question marks for the Irish was how things would shape up in the backcourt, and how quickly. After a rough beginning, things have been going pretty smooth under the leadership of Kyle McAlarney. The Staten Island native looked a step behind when the year began, completely understandable for a player who'd not seen game action for 10 months. By the time the calendar switched to 2008, Mac was back (to steal a favored phrase from a current political candidate). A 32-point star turn against Connecticut which included a sterling 6/7 from three-point range opened the new year with a bang, and he was equally deadly a week ago when the Irish finally broke through with a road victory against then-#18 Villanova, dropping 30 points (5/8 on three-pointers).

McAlarney's 15 points per game have been important for more than just for the obvious reasons, since his role as the main scorer at the guard position leaves Tory Jackson free to handle the ball before dropping off to more polished scoring threats like Harangody, Mac, and senior forward Rob Kurz. It's not that Jackson can't drop in a scoring outburst - remember last season's 21-point show against Marquette? But when the Irish offense is running at peak efficiency, Jackson's the last man on the floor being counted on for points and the first man being counted on to create chances. For the year Tory's averaged 6 assists and 2 steals per game, perfectly complementing the backcourt shooting of McAlarney and junior Ryan Ayers (48% on three-pointers this year) with his energy and assertiveness handling the ball. He made what's got to be considered the heads-up play of the year on Thursday night in a tie game with seconds to play, racing from the baseline to the top of the key and stealing a Providence pass to preserve a chance at overtime; his legend would've grown considerably had the 35-foot prayer he lofted at the buzzer gone in, being dead-on but a tad short.

As they head into the closing stretch of conference play, the biggest positive for Mike Brey's 8th squad is how quickly they picked themselves up after a disappointing start to the season in the Virgin Islands. They've also quietly been building a nice resume leading up to the NCAAs, with quality wins over UConn at home, Villanova on the road, Kansas State on a neutral floor, and a "good loss" to a much-improved Baylor team during the Paradise Jam tournament. Sitting at 16-4 (6-2), they'll have several more chances to make a statement with three big home games left plus road dates against Louisville and UConn. In the strictest analysis of what it will take to sew up an NCAA bid, the magic number is most likely five - 20+ wins to go with an 11-win campaign in a tough conference, along with defeating Michael Beasley on a neutral court ought to be enough to reach the tournament. But with the way the Irish have been playing, there's plenty of reason to think they can do much more than just secure an invite to the Big Dance.

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