Monday, January 26, 2009

When the Streak is Over

Looking at Notre Dame's upcoming schedule two Monday afternoons ago, a friend remarked, "They're in trouble". I responded that they ought to be alright as long as they could defend their home court, as that would mean three quality wins in an insanely tough league. And what if they don't, he asked. "Well," I replied, "then they'll be in trouble."

After tonight's discouraging 71-64 loss to #8 Marquette, the Irish aren't merely in trouble - they're on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament less than three weeks removed from being ranked in the Top 10. To look at this glass as still-half-full, if the season were to end right now, Notre Dame would undoubtedly have one of the strongest arguments among fringe contenders considering the schedule they've played inside the conference and out, plus the fact that they have nailed down wins against Georgetown & Texas while pushing Louisville to overtime and taking UConn and Marquette to the final minutes. The flip side, of course, is that all three of those losses (not to mention a Syracuse game that turned from a 5-point contest into a 19-point loss during the final six minutes) were games the Irish had a chance to win; they couldn't close the deal even once. At some point you're no longer a good team that's missing breaks - you're just a mediocre one that can't finish (see Notre Dame's '05-'06 season). Plus, this was not supposed to be a team that was sweating out making the NCAAs come February.

The numerous opportunities lost had to be the most frustrating part of this weekend's double-dip, a two-game skid that snapped a 45-game winning streak at the Joyce Center. In both the 69-61 loss to #3 Connecticut as well as Monday's rivalry game with Marquette (especially the primetime tilt with UConn), the Irish weren't undone by anything out of the ordinary coming from their opponent. They simply could not make open shots that were there to be made. Kyle McAlarney dropped in three 3-pointers in the first five minutes aginst the Huskies, then missed 15 straight shots. What was more maddening was that unlike in tonight's Marquette game, when the Golden Eagles played splendid defense by rotating their speedy guards to drape a defender on him all night, Kyle was looking at the basket free and uncontested a bunch of times. None of them went in.

The same fate befell Ryan Ayers and Zach Hillesland, who were a combined 2-of-15 for 4 points against UConn, which prompted Mike Brey to shuffle the deck and pull them from the starting lineup for Monday. It worked as far as getting some stronger production out of the players who replaced them - Jonathon Peoples in particular answered with a pair of big 3-pointers to finish with 8 points, as did Luke Zeller with 8 points and 8 rebounds. The switch did nothing to stop the tailspin of the two senior captains however, who "outdid" themselves by combining to go 0-for-10 in their new role as reserves (Hillesland left the Maqruette game with an ankle injury in the second half and did not return, though Brey suggested that the ankle alone wasn't the reason he didn't play the final 13 minutes).

Nobody's mistaking Notre Dame for a "deep" team, in the way a few select ones like North Carolina are with four to five NBA lottery picks on their two-deep. But earlier in the season they were getting quality production from all seven players in their normal rotation as well as star-making turns from Harangody and McAlarney. Luke's still getting the attention as he continues to put up Player of the Year-type performances game after game, because that's what kind of player he is. But everybody needs a supporting cast and right now he doesn't have one. Is it fatigue alone that's causing a lot of misses on shots we've seen them make before? Possibly. For comparison, let's look at the Big East's top two teams in UConn and Pittsburgh. They both have 8 players who average at least 10 minutes per game; Notre Dame has 7. Far more significantly, Notre Dame alone has four players who average more than 30 minutes per game; Pitt and UConn put together have just three (Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet for the Huskies, Levance Fields for the Panthers).

So now we have the good news/bad news proposition. Bad news first: things are not going to get any easier. First the Irish have to play in Pittsburgh on Saturday, where it'll be interesting to see the matchup of Harangody and Dejaun Blair. Then they have three days off before going to Cincinnati, and while Cincy may not be part of the Big East's top shelf, they were still good enough to hang around against Xavier & UConn. They've also accomplished what Notre Dame could not with a win at St. John's (though that was aided by the Red Storm's best player, DJ Kennedy, getting ejected from the game). After Cincy it's off to Westwood on Saturday morning (seriously: tip-off's at 10 AM Pacific) against UCLA, then back home to face Louisville on Thursday February 12th. All told it will mean having played 6 games against teams in the Top 10 in three weeks, 7 against the Top 20 (UCLA is currently #16). It's an impressive stat to put on a resume for the Selection Committee - but you have to come up with some wins. Who you played is a factor, but it's who you can manage to beat that separates you from the NIT. Right now the Irish are sorely wanting in the latter category.

But remember, in every problem lies opportunity: sure they have to play Pitt, UCLA, and Louisville. Here's the good news for the Irish: snag a victory in one of those games and it'll go a long way towards helping them; if they could take two out of three and tack on a win versus Cincinnati, they'll get out of this stretch roughly intact and with the hardest part of the season behind them. I've seen the Bruins play - the Irish can hang with them. We already know they can match Louisville and they get the benefit of playing at home this time. And after the Cards leave they get to the more charitable portion of their conference schedule which includes South Florida, Rutgers, and another game against St. John's, plus Villanova, West Virginia, and Providence, three teams more on the Irish's level as teams that are 'pretty good, but with noticeable holes' - though two of those games are on the road (WVU and Providence).

In the immediate post mortem, there's only one conclusion: 'The Streak' may be over, but the battle has only just begun for the cagers. Here's hoping Kyle McAlarney and the boys and can rise to the challenge.

Digger Phelps and Bob Knight were laughing before Saturday night's game against Connecticut, the first time the basketball version of ESPN's popular "College Gameday" had traveled to South Bend.

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