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.

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