Saturday, November 29, 2008

This is The End

Not a proud moment. There are no feelings. Only sadness.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Post Mortem: North Carolina 102, Notre Dame 87

The Tar Heel faithful at the Lahaina Civic Center chanted "Just like football!" as the final seconds ticked away. Just like football? Not so fast, my friends.

When Notre Dame and UNC met on the gridiron in early October, the game was a tale of two halves - one where Notre Dame played like a confident, maturing team and one where they collapsed on top of themselves, unable to correct their own mistakes in time for the Heels to steal a 29-24 victory which (despite what we all wanted to believe at the time) has done the team far more harm than good. In football, Notre Dame was an equal, if not superior team, and self-destructed.

On the basketball court? Different story. The eighth-ranked Irish were clearly out-manned, out-gunned, and out-muscled. Their only hope was to figure out a way to out-shoot the absurdly talented North Carolina squad, and Kyle McAlarney certainly would be willing to take on any two Heels in a game of H-O-R-S-E. McAlarney's 10 3-pointers broke his own school record set against Syracuse last year, but there was only so much he could do in the final 7 minutes as the entire Carolina two-deep literally shot the lights out of the gym on the Valley Isle.

To the two big questions posed in our recap of the Texas game:

Would the Irish be able to match UNC's speed? Oh, how to put this delicately: no. Ty Lawson ran like he had a jet booster on his sneakers, but that's the type of player he is, putting up a career high in assists (11) to go with 22 points. During the first two games of the tournament we marveled at how rapid Tory Jackson was progressing as a point guard, but tonight he and the rest of the Irish had a front row seat for what the definition of "elite" guard play is. That's why there's no shame in a gutty performance that ended with a 15 point loss. Doesn't matter if it's the Final Four, Maui, or on the moon: UNC is simply too good and too deep to be overcome by anything other than an absolutely flawless performance out of their opponent (and a few key unforced errors on their own part). Neither happened, but there was no dishonor in the way Notre Dame performed. They just didn't stack up all the way like Carolina did.

Would Tyler Hansbrough play/would he be 100%? Yes to the first, but by his and Roy Williams' estimation, 'Psycho T' (or as I will call him from now on, "Ben Hansbrough's older brother") was only at 75% health. If 34 points on 13-of-19 was a three-quarters effort, I pity the folks in the ACC who will have to deal with him once he reaches full strength. Luke Harangody had a tough day at the office both defending and being defended by the Player of the Year, and a daylong bout with the flu certainly couldn't have helped matters. The way Hansbrough was shooting in the first half though, he'd probably have put up the same numbers against the NBA All-Stars.

The postscript on this 25th Maui Invitational should read as follows: Notre Dame found out what kind of team they are (pretty good, but a notch below truly elite) and got a great early litmus test on what kind of team they might yet become. Hearing afterwards how their best player played the championship game hours after being hooked to an IV, and seeing some great development and confidence from some of the key role players the Irish will need this season (Luke Zeller and Ryan Ayers top the list) leaves an Irish fan feeling that this upper echelon ranking might not be such a fluke. The Irish have already gone toe-to-toe with the nation's best. Now bring on the Big East.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Maui Invitational Championship

Tip off! Go Irish! Beat #1 Tarheels!

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 81, Texas 80

I'm not sure what I'm more excited about: #8 Notre Dame's victory over #7 Texas today, or the fact that we found out where Bill Raftery will be after tomorrow's game.

So if you happen to be reading this Bill, here's hoping we meet up for a beer after tomorrow's championship game of the EA Sports Maui Invitational. The Irish crashed the party in Hawai'i with clutch offense (though not necessarily clutch free-throw shooting) and defensive discipline that put a huge plus on their NCAA resume before a title shot versus consensus #1 North Carolina.

Going strictly by the stat sheet, this was a performance typical of Notre Dame last season: domination by Luke Harangody (29 points, 12 rebounds) while riding an early hot hand from long range (Kyle McAlarney hit on five of six three-pointers to start the game), then surviving a furious charge from the opponent at the end of the game. Having said all that, the Notre Dame team that took the floor tonight was far different from the one that seemed to be feeling it's way throughout the early stages of 2007. For reference, during last season's island tournament trip, the Irish let not one but two late leads slip away in going 1-2 during the Paradise Jam. This season, even with the blaze of glory AJ Abrams was in down the stretch and their own weakness at the free throw line, the Irish refused to cave (and refused to stop attacking the rim even as they built a lead in the closing minutes, another welcome change).

It would've been nice to be better from the free throw line and put the game on ice earlier (the Irish finished only 10-of-21, granting them an odd distinction of making more three pointers than free throws) but a win is still a win. More significantly, it was a win that quelled a lot of concerns about if this Irish squad could play against other squads bestowed with preseason hype. College basketball is an even bigger crapshoot than football as far as the rankings go, beyond one or two obvious choices (like tomorrow night's opponent, the Tar Heels). Most observers of Irish hoops would've told you this was nice, solid team, probably Top 20. But strong enough and athletic enough to merit being in the Top 10? That would've been a hard sell before seeing how they went toe-to-toe with Texas.

Now comes a new and far stiffer challenge, against a North Carolina team so beset by injuries that "they'll only have 8 NBA players on the team instead of 10" as Kentucky's Billy Gillespie put it. Can the Irish hope to match up with UNC's speed after a grueling semi-final while the Heels have been on cruise control since they landed in Maui, outscoring their opponents by better than 30 points per game? Will reigning national Player of the Year Tyler Hansborough be at 100%? All your questions will be answered tomorrow evening.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Maui Tip-off, Part 2

Ben Crenshaw is in the house. Other than that, Go Irish! Beat Longhorns!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 88, Indiana 50

I don't know what was more surprising: the sudden assertiveness of Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller, or that a University of Indiana basketball team could look as inept as they did today. Of course, perhaps this edition of the Hoosiers deserves a special dispensation considering the crater they have to crawl out of. As I left the Lahaina Civic Center, I was convinced that Tom Crean would have the IU ship pointed in the right direction before long - after all, in NCAA basketball, dramatic turnarounds can be gained with just one or two key players, and Indiana certainly has the draw to get that type of talent. Couple that with the fact that a supremely inexperienced team is already buying into Crean's hard-nosed style of play, and good things are on the horizon for IU. But enough about Notre Dame's opponent.

The storyline emerging from today's 88-50 beatdown of Indiana in the opening round of the Maui Invitational can be boiled to one simple fact: Tory Jackson is everything for this team that Chris Thomas never was. In terms of raw physical talent, Thomas was probably the superior player; however, Jackson has a keen understanding of his physical gifts (underrated, in our opinion) and liabilities, and always has his focus on how to mix those into a system that benefits the team. Perhaps Thomas was a stronger shooter with the ability to drop 35, but TJ's athleticism on defense and his ability to spread the ball does wonders for the overall team. More than anything, it's his leadership abilities on the floor that trump anything we've seen in Notre Dame basketball since the heady days of Matt Carroll - and probably going back even further to David Rivers. A year ago the sluggish beginning of today's game might have spelled a close contest, but Jackson simply refused to allow Indiana to hang around.

While the Saginaw, MI native's stellar play is probably the top headline for an Irish fan, not to be lost in the shuffle was the presence of the "other" Zeller. You know, the one who was Indiana's Mr. Basketball yet hasn't done more than be an occasional hot hand off the bench in three collegiate seasons. With his younger, far mor touted brother shelved for the year due to a broken wrist, Luke played out there like a guy determined to carry on the family name. We at Section 29 openly wondered who would step up to fill the statistical and physical void left by Rob Kurz after last season - and the play of both Zeller and sophomore Tyrone Nash today was the type of performance that proved the Irish have answers to the loss of a valuable senior leader. Zeller's statline today - 10 points and 11 rebounds in 21 minutes - showed an ability to fill one of the key holes not only in the big picture, and was a great example of a veteran stepping up when given the opportunity, as two quick fouls on Zach Hillesland dictated a lot of early playing time for Zeller and Nash.

As noted above, Ryan Ayers deserves a Maui Mai Tai for his solid 5-of-7 performance - more than accuracy, what stood out was his aggressiveness towards the hoop and deft touch from long range. While his defenders were significantly overmatched, seeing Ayers with a green-light in his head is a welcomed sight. He was absolutely fearless in attacking the rim off missed shots and stepping into open looks while IU tried to key on Notre Dame's other threats. Additional kudos should be paid to Kyle McAlarney, who broke out of his early season shooting slump to knock down six three pointers.

Finally, and before looking ahead to Texas, it is safe to say that this will be the only ND hoops blog of the season which follows a 38 point Irish victory but does not mention Luke Harangody until the sixth paragraph. Nonetheless, Harangody was easily the most physical player on the floor today, his best contributions coming on the defensive end while scoring 14 points against unending double teams. Most people would tell you that Notre Dame won't be able to overcome games where their best player isn't among the team leaders in points or rebounds - yet Jackson led the way with 21 points (five Irishmen reached double figures), while Zeller pulled down 11 boards along with Jackson and Ayers getting five apiece. If ND can continue to develop an identity that forces teams to pay attention well beyond the reigning Big East Player of the Year, Irish fans will be smiling during other, far more significant tournaments late in the season.

As for the Longhorns, this is a great opportunity for the Irish in a "measuring stick" type of game, similar to the Alabama game two years ago. The key matchup is Tory Jackson vs. AJ Abrams. The UT floor general has been hot from long range (he was 4-of-7 from that distance against St. Joe's in the game preceding the Irish in Maui) and prides himself on relentless defense. Texas prefers a three guard lineup, with Damion James as the swingman into the front court along with center Dexter Pittman and forward Matt Hill. It'll be strength on strength tomorrow afternoon with the Irish's up-tempo offense against the superb athleticism of Texas' defense. ND scores 82 points per game, Texas allows only 46. The team that controls the tempo wins, and that'll be keyed by who wins the battle of Jackson and Abrams. Should be a lot of fun - we'll be there.

Time for Tip-Off!

Dateline Maui. Go Irish! Beat Hoosiers!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

When the Levee Breaks

If there's one thing I've learned in the past two weeks, it's this: despite having a general appreciation for their place in rock history, I never fully understood how awesome a band Led Zeppelin was.

Apologies for the little non-sequitir. It's just that in light of the two most recent performances by the Notre Dame football team, I find myself grasping desperately at something positive to get through the day. And thanks to the introduction of Channel 39 on XM Satellite Radio (all Zeppelin, all the time) I find myself immersed in the hard-charging, never-dull sounds of a bygone era that puts all modern attempts at emulation to shame. I could also achieve this by listening to old tapes of Lindsey Nelson recapping Notre Dame football games, but as I said before I'm trying to keep my will to live.

It's not a big mystery at this point. One game could be treated as an anomaly; a couple games can be lumped together on either the positive side or negative side of anybody's ledger if you spin hard and long enough. Charlie Weis has coached Notre Dame for 48 games now, and to use his own words, "You are what your record says you are." Charlie Weis is 28-20 with almost certainly one, if not two, more losses to be tacked onto that ledger. It's the definition of mediocrity.

This is not something I write with a sense of pride. I know of no Notre Dame fan who actively hoped for Weis to fail, but of course in hindsight everybody is running to claim that they knew what one of the sages at Blue-Gray Sky knew in December of '04: that Weis, while a sharp coordinator and a "Notre Dame man", was an Outback Steakhouse in the land of Ruth's Chris. Better coaches existed then, and certainly better coaches exist now. Notre Dame once again learned the hard way about what happens when you make a huge investment in somebody who's only head coaching experience is at the high school level. Those who fail to learn history...something something.

At this particular juncture, I just pause to remember the words of Page and Plant: "When the levee breaks, Mama, you've got to go." And when you can't beat a 2-8 team with a lame duck coach on your home field, on Senior Day, with a New Year's Day bowl bid (however unmerited) still within your grasp, when you've got players admitting afterwards that somehow the 2-8 team wanted "it" more than them...that's the levee breaking.

Escape to Maui (Wowie)

If you have come over for a profanity-laced tirade over the Syracuse tackle
football game, you will have to wait a day or so. Right now we're
waiting on our plane to escape to the islands for the Maui Invitational

Notre Dame: Because Basketball is Just Around the Corner.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Never Say Die?

There will be a moment for cool, logical analysis later. Obviously you want to win, but it's never good when a "win" feels a lot more like a loss. And if there's any desire to improve, the coaches and players are gonna ride themselves like they did lose rather than feel content that they had just enough of a cushion to survive a mountain of incompetence in the final 2:30. I'm speechless.

There is probably only one game in the history of organized sport with a crazier, more f&*ked up final 3 minutes than that one. Here it is, enjoy. For reference, Plano East is trailing 41-17 in the Texas HS state championship with 3 minutes to play (note also that, as far as I can tell, there was competent officiating in this game):

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why We Fight

Every year, even this one with the Irish football program in a very fragile state and (for the second straight season) the weaker record between the two teams, we get treated to another round of peanut gallery comments on why Notre Dame bothers playing the service academies. Specifically why the Irish bother with Navy, a team they've beaten 43 out of 44 times and are 70-10-1 against all-time. We hear the chuckles about how ND must be angling for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. But specifically when it comes to Navy, there's a deeper and much more significant reason why the series continues to this day. Here's an excerpt from one of the more compelling write-ups on that topic, which appeared in USA Today just before the 2004 game:
The man in the office overlooking the golden dome understands the renewal at Giants Stadium involves far more than the streaks of annual meetings. It is about blue and gold from sideline to sideline and essential, mutual support during periods of vulnerability, influences that have directed thousands of young lives, including his.

The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame for 35 years before his retirement in 1987 and a leader in American higher education for longer than that, defined the place Navy holds in the history of his school.

"All I can say is without the Navy during the war, this institution would have gotten down to a few hundred students," Hesburgh said during a conversation on campus this fall. "Instead of that, we were almost twice our normal size during the war, and we were able to contribute something to the Navy."

During World War II, as Notre Dame's enrollment dropped to Depression-era size, the Navy's decision to establish a Navy College Training Program on the South Bend campus in July 1943 provided much-needed economic relief and a surge of energy.

During the Vietnam era, as college administrations elsewhere restricted or abolished ROTC programs, Hesburgh's insistence preserved the Navy presence on campus.

"We said they're going to stay on campus," Hesburgh recalled. "This is their home, too. They're here, and they're welcome and they're going to stay here.

"If there's any relationship that we have in athletics that has really held up over the years, it's the Navy," he said. "People said, 'Well, Navy has a terrible team,' and I said, 'I hate to be winning all the time, but there were days when they won back in the glory days.' It has always been cordial."
Of course, in the following years since this article appeared some interesting new chapters have been written in the rivalry, especially for those on the Navy side in 2007. But the next time somebody wants to put down this series as another lame attempt by Notre Dame to schedule an easy win, you might want to suggest this history lesson.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Shaq for All Seasons

Due to work obligations, I did not see more than about a 10 minutes slice of tonight's game in the middle of the second quarter. From the sound of many throughout the internet and phone, it seems like I didn't miss much. I've actively sought out other members of the board here to provide a recap that would be rooted in actual observation of the game, but they all angrily hung up on me (testy bunch).

So I figured we might as well begin to close out the week with some good news - the recruiting front, where on Friday Notre Dame picked up it's 17th overall commitment for the class of 2009, and likely the final one from an offensive standpoint. This was no tack-on either: WR Shaquelle Evans of Inglewood, CA, a consensus Top 100 player, rated with four stars by Rivals and Scout. The 6'2, 200-pound playmaker was actually a dreaded "soft verbal" to USC before visiting South Bend for the Purdue game and absolutely falling in love with the place:
"Yeah, on my official visit there, I could tell right away that I belonged at Notre Dame," Evans said. "It just felt like home for me and I always told myself that I wasn't going to commit to a school just because of how good the program was or how close to home it was, it was always going to be where I felt the most comfortable.

"I really bonded well with everyone at Notre Dame, players and coaches. I loved the campus and I like the area as well. Some people were saying there's not much to do there socially but I'm not a big party person anyway so it was just a perfect fit for me."

Such is the presence Notre Dame still has, and has had, under Charlie Weis. Once again they waltzed into USC's backyard and secured the services of a player Pete Carroll and his staff targeted for their own - it's also worth noting that Evans' announcement came at the end of press conference where he formally accepted an invitation to San Antonio for the U.S. Army All-American game. Fellow Irish commits Zeke Motta, Cierre Wood, Tyler Stockton, & Chris Watt will be there as well. It wasn't so long ago that Notre Dame would've been lucky to secure the pledge of just one participant in Tom Lemming's annual infomercial/football game.

Where the futures market is concerned, this regime differs greatly from its two predecessors. But out on the football field during the last two weeks, where the real measure of success lies, plenty has been done to unravel any progress, and make that distinction moot. Nobody denies that recruiting proficiency is a major currency for a program and its head coach. It's what makes college football the ultimate "pay-in-advance" business. A big part of the reason coaches like Nick Saban, Carroll, and Urban Meyer are where they are is because they out-hustle everybody from February through August so they can have the strongest team possible starting every September. Charlie Weis has stayed with them stride for stride in each of his four years on the job in that derby. Unfortunately, it's looking like the "Monopoly Money" of recruiting is the only thing allowing him to stave off bankruptcy.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Post Mortem: Pittsburgh 36, Notre Dame 33 (4 OT)

Oh boy.

As a general rule here at the blog, we try to avoid linking Bill Simmons (except for Pat, who has some heretofore unexplained affection for the Boston Sports Guy). But after a moment like today, we do pause and give thanks for one of Bill's incredibly rare but meaningful contributions to sports fandom: The Levels of Losing. Why do I bring this up? Because Notre Dame's loss to Pittsburgh today definitely climbed into the highest echelon of Bill's pain evaluation level.

Today brought us Level III - The Stomach Punch:
Any roller-coaster game that ends with (A) an opponent making a pivotal (sometimes improbable) play or (B) one of your guys failing in the clutch. ... Usually ends with fans filing out after the game in stunned disbelief, if they can even move at all. ... Always haunting, sometimes scarring. ... There are degrees to The Stomach Punch Game, depending on the situation. ... For instance, it's hard to top Cleveland's Earnest Byner fumbling against Denver when he was about two yards and 0.2 seconds away from sending the Browns to the Super Bowl.
Thankfully no Super Bowl trip was on the line. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was based on a blind sample of most message board listings on NDNation, but this was a very average 5-2 Notre Dame team taking on a very average 5-2 Pittsburgh team. It was also the kind of game where the Irish had no trouble doing just enough to make sure they gave the game away.

Last week's riddle was, "Honestly, how good do you have to be to dominate Washington?" This week was, "How do you outgain a team, win the turnover battle 3-0, have your unreliable kicker nail four straight field goals, commit fewer penalties than your opponent, do better on third downs than your opponent, get more sacks than your opponent, more first downs than your opponent, hold a 14-point lead at half and still manage to lose the game?" If you look at the box score, not one single stat jumps out at you as an explaination of the result. There wasn't one glaring deficiency in either team's ledger - which probably explains why it took four overtimes to settle the matter. Let's look at each facet of the game for the two squads:

Rushing Offenses: Popular opinion running rampant on the message boards seems to be that Pittsburgh ran wild the entire day without even token resistance while Notre Dame couldn't get forward progress on the ground to save it's life. The stats paint a different picture: an effective, though hardly dominant Pitt game plan which emphasiszed running the ball over and over again, reflected in 47 runs for 178 total yards. I expected it to look as drastic on the scoresheet as it seemed to be on the field, but the truth was Pitt rushed for a good-enough-but-hardly-overwhelming 3.8 yards per carry - and that figure was boosted by getting to play four overtime periods. The Irish toted the ball 39 times but for an anemic 2.9/ypc.

Passing Offenses: Pitt was playing with second string quarterback Pat Bostick most of the day, but also mixed in third stringer Kevan Smith early in the game. Bostick's "long" completion of the day was three-yard pass to the flat on fourth-down, after which a basic failure to tackle on the part of Terrail Lambert turned it into a 37-yard gain. I'd have to double check the game film, but it seemed like whenever Bostick threw the ball over 12 yards it got either (a) dropped or (b) intercepted by Raeshon McNeil (he had two on the day as Pitt's QB threw three picks, two in the second half). On the ND side of things, Jimmy Clausen had another on-again/off-again day, finishing only 23-of-44 for 271 yards with 3 TDs, though no interceptions. That doesn't mean he played an error-free game, but credit him for staying away from the big mistakes that could've swung the outcome long before Conor Lee and Brandon Walker did.

Special Teams: Pitt forced the big miscue of the day with a blocked punt to set up their first points of the day, and Eric Maust misfired another one off the side of his foot, but neither team made much noise in the kicking and return games. As for placekicking, Brandon Walker shouldered what most would've considered an impossible load for im, being asked three different times to come up big with a kick to keep the Irish in the game, and he delivered. It was finally in the fourth overtime, kicking from the left side of the field, that he pushed it just a bit too far and opened the door for Pittsburgh. People who point the finger of blame at him for this loss are people who simply aren't paying attention.

Defenses: The Irish won the turnover battle with 3 interceptions of Bostick. Pitt in the second half was able to consistently come after Clausen with only three down lineman, but it wasn't hard for them to look dominating considering their offense held onto the ball for 10:51 in the third quarter alone. When Pitt needed to stop the Irish in the 4th quarter after tying the game, Clausen moved the ball at will, chewing up five minutes of clock and pushing the Irish back in front by a touchdown. From that point on the Panthers defense seemed to have their way, aided in part by a long chain of strange playcalls, particularly in the overtime period. It's worth noting however that the situation where Notre Dame really struggled to get into the endzone during the OTs - had second and goal at the 3 in the first session - is precisely where it really f&*kin' stinks to be down to two scholarship tight ends, both freshman who aren't even close to being polished blockers yet.

In breaking another unspoken cardinal rule, at this point I have to deputize Brian Hamilton into my assessment of the game:
It was two somewhat better-than-average teams engaged in an entertaining taffy pull. It was not, as Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt proclaimed, a game in which "legends are made," unless becoming the new Monsters of the Middling qualifies.

That, however, may be Notre Dame's reason to grieve: The Irish (5-3) thought they were beyond losing to teams like Pittsburgh (6-2), especially when Pitt is down to a backup quarterback and trails by two touchdowns at halftime at Notre Dame Stadium.

Only, they're not. Still.
Tough to take positives from any loss, especially one the Irish seemed to be thoroughly in control of before pretty much failing to do anything right in the second half. That's twice in a span of four weeks. It wasn't a game Pitt deserved to win, but rather a game the Irish ultimately deserved to lose. That's why it hurts right up there with the famous "Stomach Punches" Mr. Simmons likes to wax on about.