Thursday, January 15, 2009

Into the Breach

The 13th-ranked Men's Basketball team kicked off one of the more grueling stretches in program history on Monday night with an 87-73 loss (in overtime) to #20 Louisville. Starting with that game and moving down to February 12th, when the Irish host the Cardinals in South Bend, Mike Brey's veteran lineup will play 7 ranked opponents in 8 games:
Jan 12th - @ #20 Louisville - L, 87-73
Jan 17th - @ #8 Syracuse
Jan 24th - #4 Connecticut
Jan 26th - #14 Marquette
Jan 31st - @ #1 Pittsburgh
Feb 4th - @ Cincinnati
Feb 7th - @ #9 UCLA
Feb 12th - #20 Louisville
One of the keys for the Irish over this month is how they handle adversity during the constant back-and-forth, game-within-the-game battles that typify the Big East. Monday night's tilt in Louisville was a good example, as the two squads each traded runs throughout the first 30 minutes. A younger Notre Dame team probably wouldn't have stood up to some of those 9-0 spurts the Cardinals went on and let the game spiral out of control, but for the first 3/4 of the game they had an answer for everything the Cards threw at them.

Unfortunately, Monday's game also highlighted what has long been stated as a staple of the Mike Brey era at Notre Dame - the inability to close out a tough win, particularly on the road. After Luke Harangody hit a free throw to complete a three-point play with 5:35 left, the Irish didn't score again in regulation. Coming out of a timeout with 24 seconds to play and the ball in their hands, the Irish couldn't manage to get a shot off for the win in regulation. Then in overtime, exhausted after playing nearly the entire game without reinforcements (Harangody played all 45 minutes, Kyle McAlarney 44, Tory Jackson 43, & Ryan Ayers 39) the Irish got outscored 16-2.

With such a withering slate in front of them, these depth issues have to be confronted sooner as opposed to later. I try to avoid reading the tea leaves, but it seems like playing time for Jonathon Peoples and Tyrone Nash vanished overnight once the Irish reached the conference slate. If Brey's really that confident that a six-man rotation can get it done, then I suppose I want whatever he's having. There's a fine line between trusting your veterans and leaving them out to dry, and Brey is definitely flirting with it when he reduces his bench down to Luke Zeller...and nobody else. After both Peoples and Nash played 10+ minutes during the loss at St. John's, all but one minute has been logged by juniors and seniors, and with exception of Zeller it's been pretty much a starter's only affair. In Monday's overtime loss, Peoples made a brief (and forgettable) appearance spelling Jackson which included getting stuffed on a shot attempt as well as committing two turnovers.

The question I find myself asking is this - could it just be happenstance that Nash and Peoples have seen thier minutes drastically cut at the first sign of trouble in the New Year? This is a long-standing pattern - Brey loosens the lineups throughout non-conference play, then rigidly falls into a six, possibly seven, man rotation come January. And while this Irish team is a Top 20 unit even with their six-man rotation, they could be something even better if they started mingling a little depth and versatility. As presently constructed, they present challenges to their opponent for sure, but challenges that aren't hard to overcome. The reason the Irish lost at Madison Square Garden wasn't because some of the youngsters cost the Irish, it was because the Red Storm were bound and determined to keep McAlarney in check, which they did in holding him to 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting. It may only be mid-January but you've got to come up with ways to keep your key guys fresh - McAlarney alone has already played the full 40 minutes six times this seasons, and played fewer than 30 just once. Trading some minutes with Peoples and Jackson as the backcourt and doing more to rotate in Nash (plus a little Carleton Scott, maybe?) up front will keep teams away from the simple "stop one and stop their whole team" defense employed by SJU.

How the Irish emerge from this slate will go a long way to determining their NCAA Tournament fate. If they can protect their home court and then find a way to steal at least one of the road games, they'll be locked in and preparing to spend the month of February improving their seed. But they could go out and play solid basketball only to drop five, six, or even (gasp) seven in a row - such is the quality of their opponents. That would leave them scrambling and likely needing a big flourish in the back end of their conference schedule in order to make the NCAA field. I don't think Irish basketball fans have any reason to worry about Selection Sunday nerves...yet. As I mentioned to Thomas the other day, I will be very surprised if the champion of the Big East has fewer than four losses. The conference is not only just that good, but once again home court is everything - take for example Georgetown, whom Notre Dame just beat last Monday, returning home to defeat #8 Syracuse, who host the Irish some 48 hours from now in the bitter cold of upstate New York. Once more, into the breach, indeed.

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