Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Evolution Will Be Televised

Most coaches, especially those in high-profile 'benchmark' positions within their sport, would tell you that their most important game is "the next one". You are only as good as your most recent results. So what do you do when your most recent display was 3-9 campaign punctuated by two 38-0 blowouts, three in-season transfers, and record depths of ignominy?

Charlie Weis' first attempt at answering that question raised a few eyebrows - he was going to consult with Bill Belichick and the staff of the New England Patriots. How dare he, several media pundits tut-tutted, fail to see even in the middle of a 3-9 campaign that college is not the NFL, there is no correlation, and further insulating himself into the Orwellian world of Belichick will do little except hasten his demise. The arrogance! The audacity! Chicago Sun-Times columnist Greg Couch chimed in, "that just screams INTERN to me". In case you're wondering, yes, he did use the caps-lock feature in his column, which I guess is the level of writing one would expect from somebody who writes that Charlie Weis hasn't proven he can win with talent - pay no attention to that 19-6 record with the same talent Ty Willingham went 10-11 with - and that Weis isn't on the same level as Ron Zook...despite Weis' involvement in five Super Bowl berths, four SB rings, and two BCS bowls matched against Zook's one SB appearance and one BCS bowl. Over at CNN/SI Stewart Mandel scoffed, "Weis' continued adherence to an NFL approach is hurting the Irish immensely".

No word on how these two view the coaching friendship which has developed between Urban Meyer and Bill Belichick.

Anyway, when Weis came back to discuss non-recruiting matters with the media last Friday morning, he offered a peek at what the offseason tutorials - from Belichick, from some of his current players, from recent Notre Dame players, from former ND Athletics Director Gene Corrigan amid a host of others - had convinced him was necessary.

First the bombshell: effective immediately, the offensive game-planning and play-calling duties have been handed over to Mike Haywood, who's always been the offensive coordinator, albeit one with no real autonomy since every facet of the attack has been subject to Weis' approval. On the whole, the offensive staff now seems poised to have a greater degree of freedom to, as Weis phrased it, "[do] what they do, it's just that we're going to try to do it with the head coach less involved." Weis' public statements on when/if he would ever hand off the playcalling duties (falling as they did somewhere between 'when hell freezes over' and 'over my dead body') had long been a topic for debate even before last season's 3-9 debacle. But the cumulative effect of an offense running near dead last in every major statistical category brought the issue to a head, and Weis' response seems to punch a bit of a hole in the theory that he's an uncontrollable egomaniac who'll need to have his playbook ripped from his cold dead hands. Explaining how he ultimately visions the offensive staff in 2008, Weis replied:
I'm going to give them an opportunity to see if we can't be more expansive on our ideas, and I think that sometimes when you have a number of good coaches, sometimes they get stymied or stifled a little bit when you have a very domineering presence when the head coach is also involved in the offense. They know that I reserve the right to change some things, they know that I can interject things, but at the same time I want to give them an opportunity to do it, so that's what I'm going to do.
It didn't take long for the cynics to put a little deadspin on this decision too, with Chicago Tribune columnist Teddy Greenstein seeming to both praise and tweak Weis in the same breath: "
Dr. Phil would applaud Weis' willingness to change. Here's another prognosis: Notre Dame gave a 10-year contract extension, through 2015, to a coach who doesn't know who he is." So if nothing else, Weis' sweeping change just reaffirms what's been common fact from time immemorial: in the eyes of many knights of the keyboard, Notre Dame is damned if they do, damned harder if they don't.

There was, indeed, something about Weis' presentation that made it seem like it was as much about placating his critics as about issuing some substantial and badly-needed changes to his coaching philosophy. I should emphasize that is just seems that way. Weis is still very much the same person he was back when he stubbornly refused to hand over the playcaller's headset, still very adamant about Notre Dame football and his place in it, and when he faced the press after losing 38-0 to USC and said that the Irish were striving to one day be back at the level of the Trojans, vowing "I will work till the ends of the earth until that ends up happening", he wasn't just mouthing off. He truly is willing to do whatever it takes, including things he never saw himself having to do.

Now, of course, the plain (and fully logical) counterpoint to praising Weis' for his revelations is to acknowledge that a more seasoned head coach could have avoided these pratfalls, would've seen his own flaws and launched preemptive strikes against them (like getting a squad full of young players into the pads and knocking the snot out of each other back in spring drills, not waiting until week 4 of the season). That's all true, but why moan about what can't be undone? Yes, there was no reason for Notre Dame to be as bad as they were in 2007 - just like there was no reason for it in 1999 & 2001, as we've seen nearly every single starter from those teams move on to an NFL roster, and no reason for it in 2003 or 2004. Unlike recent flops though, the head coach coming out of the 2007 campaign would rather see Notre Dame prosper by whatever change is warranted than elect to "stay the course" with strategies that don't work and recruiting philosophies that border on out-and-out laziness.

Not to deemphasize Weis' openness to a "by-committee" approach on offense, but the thing which got a bit lost in the mix (and, in the opinion of this blogger, will go a lot further in determining if Weis can ultimately achieve greatness at the college level) was a very frank critique of himself and the truculent, Parcells-ian leadership style which has bristled plenty of people, even his own players, the wrong way. In the pros it's a lot easier to get away with; at the end of the day everybody's getting paid. It works to a degree with older collegiate players too, who've been through 2 or 3 years of living on their own and are mentally adjusted to the big, bad world which will hold them accountable for everything. But when it's a roster for of 17, 18, & 19-year old kids who are still in the throes of that awkward transition, Weis' gruff demeanor has sent some players into retreat (literally, it would seem, for players like Matt Carufel). This was something Weis acknowledged on Friday:
I think the biggest issue as I looked at this is if you're playing freshmen and sophomores, it's not the same as when you're playing juniors and seniors. The maturity level of the players is not the same.

So you can't take for granted that 18 and 19 year olds are the same as 21 and 22 year olds as far as how you can coach them and the maturity level. You know, I never looked at it from that perspective before. But if you think about it, a kid right out of high school is not the same as somebody who's been weathered for four years in the program.

So therefore as I look at it, we're going to be playing those kids, and a lot of those freshmen and sophomores that you played last year are really only in the program for the second or third year, might have only played for one year. And I just felt that too many times when a guy makes a mistake, the only thing they're concerned about is getting yelled at, versus when you make a mistake, being concerned about letting your team down.

So I'd like to move in the direction that if a guy made a mistake he was more concerned that he was letting his teammates down than worrying about the fear of is Weis going to yell at me. The fear of a kid, the younger guys, too many times they play with that mentality. So what do you do? You get it so that they know you better so if you yell at them they know that it's not personal.

On defense the change was less drastic in terms of shuffling responsibilities and more about shifting personnel. After Bill Lewis determined that he couldn't bring his full attention to a 45th season of coaching in the midst of two hip replacement surgeries, Weis quickly moved to bring in Jon Tenuta, stressing that Corwin Brown would retain total control over the defense but that Lewis' replacement had to be "an idea guy...a veteran coach is something that we need to replace with a veteran coach."

For reasons which have been covered on an exhaustive number of fellow blogs and subscription service sites, Tenuta's a fantastic choice, a perfect complement to the youthful energy of Brown with the same proven record and cerebral approach to defense that Lewis had. He's a great foil for Weis (and now Haywood) to go against in spring practice and fall camp; further, in what could be one of the biggest windfalls to his hiring: if John Latina and the offensive line can't learn to pick up a blitz while going against Tenuta's schemes every day of practice between now and the fall opener, then there truly is no hope for that group.

Other things Weis touched on during Friday's briefing:
  • Both Bartley Webb & Derrell Hand will no longer play football due to injuries, confirming what had been first speculated over a month ago. Both will remain at the University and on scholarship, though they will not count against the 85-man limit.
  • Weis confirmed Pat Kuntz's non-enrollment and Will Yeatman's dual suspension from football and lacrosse, but did not elaborate on either case, citing privacy laws (and basic 'you don't need to know everything' decency). He went on to say he was hopeful both would be back for the 2008 season.
  • Golden Tate, Evan Sharpley, and Eric Maust will all be full-time baseball players through spring break, at which point Weis will consult will Irish baseball coach Dave Schrage:
    At that point, if they're major factors, then I'll let them play a lot of baseball and a little football. If they're not major factors, it'll be just the opposite.
    Early prediction: Tate's athleticism makes him a good bet to be an everyday fixture in centerfield, while Maust is vying for a spot in the rotation, but Schrage would prefer him to be a bullpen asset. Sharpley is in the mix at third base, but unless he produces more with his bat (he was only 1-for-28 last season in limited duty), he'll spent most of the spring in pads.
  • When asked specifically about Dana Jacobsen:
    I'll just say three things, okay. I was both personally and professionally offended by her comments. And if the situation were reversed, and that were me saying them, two things would have happened. I would have been the lead story on SportsCenter, and I would have been fired. But other than that, the University has issued an official response, and I think it's best to leave it at that.
  • Given a recent AFCA vote to end spring recruiting by head coaches, Weis will use the extra time for another junior day (after the rapidly approaching one on February 24th) and to visit a number of Alumni club dinners in cities which received awards from the ND Alumni Association. This road trip was planned with perpetual roof-raiser Chuck Lennon, who had a typically understated reaction, according to Weis:
    He's all jacked up now. He's pumped, as you can imagine Chuck; he isn't a guy who lacks for adrenaline to start off with.
  • Weis didn't mince words when addressing special teams: "I screwed that up". Trying to make amends, Brian Polian has been reassigned to be the teams sole special teams coach, a recognition of the fact that last season's "every coach is helping out" scheme wasn't getting the job done. Polian will no longer be a linebackers coach, and his primary helper will be Weis himself, who first made his coaching bones in the NFL as a special teams assistant. Every coach needs a big-name consult, so here's Charlie's:
    I'm going to meet with Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, who I think has done the best job of anyone in the country on special teams. I've already set up an appointment with him. I don't know whether or not I'm bringing Brian or not at that time, but I know one thing: I've got to figure out a better way of getting special teams righted, and I think (Beamer's) done the best job of anyone I know in college football with special teams.
Now, despite all these significant changes, I don't think we're witnessing an episode of Extreme Makeover: Coach Edition. These are big departures for Weis to make, but necessary in his eyes in order to be a better head coach under circumstances that are, in fact, very different from what he dealt with in the NFL. Having said that, Weis isn't moving too far from his "what you see is what you get" persona. He's still going to chew players out, still going to push the envelope on offense, still going to be the guy everybody has to talk to for information. He's not morphing into Pete Carroll. I think he's tempered down the earlier indications that he'd rather be feared than loved in absence of being both, but there are a lot of people in and out of the program who held him in high regard before he went 3-9, and plenty of people who couldn't stand him during his very successful first two seasons and felt like 2007 was one giant Christmas present. Weis' changes aren't made to please them or anybody else; they've been made because he thinks it's in the best interest of the Notre Dame football program. It wasn't too long ago that coaching regimes in South Bend didn't care about changing for the sake of either.

Rome is not, and never was, burning as Weis fiddled. But nobody could deny they saw some disturbing smoke, so Weis is making some of the essential moves to put out any possibility of fire. Will they all click and turn Notre Dame around in the course of a single season? That's impossible to say - but Irish fans should at least feel very encouraged by the most recent news.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Results Are In

While the American political landscape was busying sorting itself out (or clouding itself back up, depending on your point of view) on Tuesday, college football's powerhouses and upstarts alike had a little delegate breakdown of their own today as months of hard work on the recruiting trail finally ended with National Signing Day. In sum the Irish added the letters-of-intent from 23 players in 17 states. A quick breakdown of the various analyst rankings for where the Irish ended up:

ESPN ranked the Irish at ninth, while giving a big boost to Clemson (ranked 10th, 12th, & 12th in the other services), which might signify nothing or could justify all the conspiracy theories regarding the Worldwide Leader's fetish for southern speed. Either way, Nick Saban makes a big splash in his first full-fledged recruiting swing for 'Bama, leading the Tide to a consensus overall #1 ranking with the Irish close behind.

Justifiably, this fourth recruiting class for Charlie Weis generated plenty of ink, particularly as many pundits tried to decipher how places like ND and Miami could pull in such stellar classes in the wake of abysmal seasons (the Irish, as we all know, went 3-9; their one-time archnemesis went 5-6, and that was with gimmes like Duke and FIU on the schedule). Yahoo/Rivals columnist Dan Wetzel tailed Weis in the predawn hours before the signatures rolled in:
[Weis has] never been afraid to "talk Jersey," to say and think bold, confident things. Some of it has left him up to mockery – "schematic advantage" anyone? Some has left him chasing self-imposed, sky-high expectations.

But it is also the mentality that has served him as an excellent recruiter, despite a background almost exclusively in the NFL. From the start, he's refused to accept the conventional wisdom that Notre Dame's serious admissions standards prohibit the signing of the kind of athlete needed to win.

"We need good kids who are not hypocritical about academics (and) who can play ball," he said. "We have to hit the trifecta. That doesn't mean they have to be magna cum laude, but not hypocritical about academics.

"That minimizes your list. But I'm not an excuse guy. Everyone said how tough it is, but that's not the case at all."

He just challenged his assistants to find those players. While this is certainly his best recruiting class, it is also his third consecutive strong one.

"To recruit at Notre Dame you have to be willing to go into any state in the country and lose," Weis said. "You have to go into California and beat the California schools. Go into Nebraska and beat the University of Nebraska, go into Ohio and beat Ohio State, go into Michigan and beat Michigan and Michigan State.

"But you've got to go in and fight that fight."
Over at ESPN, former Alabama coach Bill Curry weighed in by recounting his own recent sitdown with Charlie:
"Ideally, over time, we will develop to the point that we have roughly 21 players in each of the four classes, with an occasional fifth-year player under the right circumstances," Weis said. "That allows for the really gifted freshmen to play early, and the others time to develop. That way the freshmen can 'supplement' rather than 'supplant.' That is much healthier and more conducive to winning than what we were forced to do last year." In 2007, the Irish played 11 true freshmen.

I agreed, and asked how he was selling his product -- bad mistake if one is talking to Charlie Weis.

"We are not salesmen! We are representatives of Notre Dame -- starting with the head coach," said Weis. "We want to build relationships and let the facts speak to the prospects and parents. Here is Notre Dame, here is what we are: a great university of 8,200 students; a great education -- no Bubblegum 101; great winning tradition; a serious value system and a graduation rate of 100 percent for our football players."

When asked about all of the nightmare stories coaches tell about parents these days, Weis offered this surprise: "Getting the parents to want Notre Dame is easy. They have been wonderful. But this generation of student-athletes has never seen Notre Dame win big. They want to win, and we must show them that we will do that. The kids want to win!"
One of the interesting things about these two articles is how suddenly candid Weis seems to have become. Maybe it's the byproduct of a pre-established relationship with the media in question. Maybe it stems from the realization that after going 3-9 and getting throughly dressed down in the process, Weis realized there was nothing left to hide and nowhere to go but up.

Personally, I felt Weis' growth as a coach, and his staff's ability to develop players, took a big leap forward with the decision to go after (and, as fate would have it, hire) Jon Tenuta, a defensive coach who's every bit as gung-ho as Weis is and has the stat sheets proving a through dismantling of the Irish to boot. Weis did not broach that subject during his press conference today, but said he'll address the burning issues about players who may or may not be eligible (Pat Kuntz, Will Yeatman) and how/if the hierarchy of the coaching staff will change with Tenuta's addition at another press conference this Friday.

Speaking of today's press conference, just to get the business over and done with, one intrepid reporter had the courage to mention Omar Hunter by name and asked about what went down. Weis' response?
I'm not going to talk about somebody who's not on this 23 right here.
Guess that ends that affair.

In total the Irish banked 23 prospects, including Deion Walker, who stayed with the Irish despite a late push from Penn State, and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore of Weatherford, TX. Weis had actually mentioned the specifics of Moore's decision in the Curry article, though at the time he was not allowed to 'name names', such as it were:
I asked Weis about the disappointments he's faced on the recruiting trail.

Weis answered, "Oh yeah, we had one or two, but even that has turned to our advantage. We called the committed players to tell them about the defection, and they responded that we should let him go, that they didn't want the guy. So in a sense, they have already bonded.

"The biggest highlight for me, personally, is the great player from a distant place that decided to go to another school. Obviously, I can't say his name. As much as it hurt, I called him and wished him the very best. It turns out the Mom was in our corner, and the next night he called back and asked, 'You still got that scholarship?' When I said 'Yes I do,' he responded, 'Well, I came to my senses. I am coming to Notre Dame.' That was a great feeling that we had handled things the right way."
Weis' press conference recap of each prospect plus a brief bit of verbal ping-pong between him and the press corps is available here as part of UND.com's coverage of Signing Day; the ND Sports Properties boys also have assembled prep highlight packages of each member of the class here (you'll also find links to video Weis' press conference plus the ESPN-style 90-minute "Signing Day Special" hosted by Jack Nolan which featured Weis, Rob Ianello, plus NDSP regulars Reggie Brooks & Mirko Jurkovic).

All things considered, this day could've been a lot worse, and certainly would've been under the direction of any coach who doesn't believe in Notre Dame as strongly as the one currently holding the head office does. We throw a lot of obsession and adulation at 17 and 18-year old kids, many of whom will not develop into superstars despite all the predictions that they can't miss; others who were barely registering will go on to become All-Americans. While the Irish missed out a chance to add one last top player in Milton Knox, who resisted the constant text messaging from Dayne Crist, Jimmy Clausen, & Joseph Fauria to honor his commitment to UCLA, there's few reasons not to feel good about the future of Notre Dame football.

Okay, I can hear the skeptics out there. So to wrap up, another Recruiting Moment of Zen, courtesy Chicago linebacker (and official member of Notre Dame's class of 2012) Darius Fleming:
“I’ve read a lot of stuff. And I see people and they talk about us and how we’ve got to come in and do this and do that. We’ve got a lot of expectations...but I don’t think it should be a problem with us proving it. I think we’re going to come in and do just what people are expecting us to.”

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

One Day More

Tomorrow, the fax machine in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex will buzz early as committed recruits finally make it official with a signed letter-of-intent to attend and play football for the University of Notre Dame. We'd like to think Section 29 would be all you need to stay updated on any and all surprises (positive or negative) that might await, but as a former ND Sports Properties intern, I say we direct you to the professionals. UND.com will be launching the full-court press beginning at noon with Charlie Weis' press conference; he'll recap and toss superlatives on each of the (as of now) 23 commitments before taking questions that'll no doubt run a pretty wide gamut, from picking his brain about how well his "a commitment is a commitment" tour really worked, what really happened in the recruiting of Omar Hunter, how much he expects the incoming freshman to contribute immediately, and probably one or two questions on the following bits of news that broke over the previous week:
  • The surprise hire of Jon Tenuta, former defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech known for his mantra of "Blitz until your players can't feel their legs. Then, in the second quarter, keep blitzing." While such overly simplistic breakdowns of his style were good for a laugh over at Every Day Should Be Saturday, Tenuta does have a sharp mind known for confusing the heck out of college quarterbacks with creative (and yes, quite frequent) blitz packages. He was already a star within the Notre Dame community after two very strong defensive performances his Yellow Jacket defense put upon the Irish the past two years, allowing a total of 17 points, quickly and ruthlessly blowing up Weis' spread-option cocktail in the 2007 opener, and being the only team which did not allow a Brady Quinn touchdown pass in 2006.
  • The hire was announced in tandem with the resignation of coaching lifer Bill Lewis, who steps aside in order to get two hips replaced and eventually take up a position inside the ND athletics department on the community relations staff. One of the big unanswered questions sure to pop up tomorrow is how precisely the defensive staff will be organized - a year ago it was Corwin Brown as coordinator, Lewis as secondary coach & assistant head coach - defense, Brian Polian as linebackers coach, and Jappy Oliver as defensive line coach. While Oliver isn't likely to be shuffled anywhere, either Brown or Tenuta (who officially assumes Lewis' title as "Assistant Head Coach - Defense") figures to now be much closer to the the back 7 on a daily basis.
  • Less welcome news arrived earlier today with the announcement that Will Yeatman, the sophomore tight end most likely to seize a starting spot in the wake of John Carlson's graduation, has been "suspended indefinitely" for a "a violation of team policy", to quote Irish lacrosse coach Kevin Corrigan in a story posted at Irish Illustrated. The ND football office released a statement later, confirming Yeatman had been suspended from both sports, meaning the 5th-ranked lacrosse team will be without their leading scorer when the 2008 season opens next weekend at Loyola (MD), and that Yeatman is (for now) ineligible to participate in spring practices. So the $64,000 question (two of them, actually) was: what rule was broken? And for how long will Yeatman be out?
The South Bend Tribune quickly picked up on the answer to the first - Yeatman was cited by NDSP (that's the University-run police unit) on January 28th for operating while intoxicated. A similar incident occurred in Weis' first season as coach, when fullback Rashon Powers-Neal was cited while visiting his home in Minnesota. He was suspended indefinitely before the USC game and did not return to action the rest of the year. Yeatman's potential long-term absence deals another body-blow to a position searching to replace a top-notch graduated talent. The Irish will have only one scholarship tight end as things stand now for spring drills, freshman Mike Ragone - but barring a huge out-of-nowhere moment tomorrow will have the official commitments of two of the country's top freshman-to-be in Kyle Rudolph & Joseph Fauria. The depth-chart positioning is a secondary concern right now though; here's hoping Yeatman takes all appropriate measures to recognize the severity of that mistake and fulfill whichever obligations the university, lacrosse, and football teams expect in order to be reinstated.

For now, just sit back and breathe regular; in 10 hours the hair-pulling exercise that is high school recruiting will officially be over, before it starts back up again on Thursday in the push towards Signing Day, 2009. Again, while this list is still subject to last-minute changes of heart and the whims of impressionable 18-year olds everywhere, here is what tomorrow's official freshman roster should look like:

  • Dayne Crist (Sherman Oaks, CA -- Notre Dame High School)
  • Nathaniel Montana (Santa Rosa, CA -- Concord de la Salle HS; Note: Yes, he's related. And Nate will not sign a LOI as a scholarship prospect, but attend Notre Dame with preferred walk-on status. Good read on his story and his plans to blaze a trail different from that of his famous father here).
Running Back
  • Jonas Gray (Detroit, MI -- Detroit Country Day)
Wide Receiver
  • Michael Floyd (St. Paul, MN -- Cretin Derham Hall)
  • John Goodman (Ft. Wayne, IN -- Bishop Dwenger)
Tight End
  • Joseph Fauria (Encino, CA -- Crespi Carmelite)
  • Kyle Rudolph (Cincinnati, OH - Elder HS)
Offensive Line
  • Braxston Cave (Mishawaka, IN - Penn)
  • Lane Clelland (Owings Mills, MD - McDonogh)
  • Mike Golic, Jr. (West Hartford, CT - Northwest Catholic)
  • Trevor Robinson (Omaha, NE - Elkhorn)
Defensive Line
  • Sean Cwynar (Woodstock, IL - Marian Catholic)
  • Ethan Johnson (Portland, OR - Lincoln HS)
  • Brandon Newman (Louisville, KY - Pleasure Ridge Park HS)
  • Hafis Williams (Elizabeth, NJ - Elizabeth HS)
  • Steve Filer (Chicago, IL - Mt. Carmel)
  • Darius Fleming (Chicago, IL - St. Rita)
  • Anthony McDonald (Sherman Oaks, CA - Sherman Oaks Notre Dame)
  • David Posluszny (Aliquippa, PA - Hopewell)
  • Robert Blanton (Matthews, NC - Butler)
  • Jamoris Slaughter (Stone Mountain, GA - Tucker)
  • Dan McCarthy (Youngstown, OH - Cardinal Mooney)
Note that Cwynar and Robinson, while early-enrollees who've been at Notre Dame for a month already and will be part of spring drills, are just like any other recruit and must officially file the LOI tomorrow, at which point Weis will be free to comment on them and the other members of the class.

Discerning eyes will note that only 22 prospects are on this list, 21 public commitments in addition to Montana. There are two others who's name may or may not be on it when the dust finally settles. The first is Deion Walker, who told Rivals tonight that he has a LOI set for either Notre Dame, Tennessee, or Penn State, and that even though he announced his decision during last month's ESPN All-American game to be Irish, he's not yet made his final final decision and won't do so until the letter goes out tomorrow.

The second is defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, who's recruitment took yet another bizarre third-act twist when Tom Lemming reported the other day that, despite having re-committed to his original destination (Texas A&M) following a visit to South Bend, Moore is in actuality a Notre Dame commitment. Like Walker, you won't know where precisely Moore lands tomorrow until the letter physically arrives in some lucky coaches' fax bin, so he's not on the official list.

Lastly, upon concluding his press conference tomorrow afternoon and making a round of congratulatory phone calls, Weis will be awaiting word from one final prospect, running back Milton Knox of Lake Balboa, CA. Knox, a self-described Irish fan growing up, had committed to Karl Dorrell at UCLA very early on in the process before going on to a spectacular senior season, rushing for an absurd 39 touchdowns in leading Birmingham to the LA City Section title. He's also very close friends with both Crist and Fauria, who've been vocal about their personal efforts to get him into Notre Dame blue; in spite of all the good signs (that he's close buds with two top ND commits, that he took an official visit on the last available weekend, that he reported the ND student section at the DePaul basketball game was chanting his name and asking for his autograph), the pull of his original commitment to the hometown Bruins could prove too strong. If you have FSN West, tune in at 4 PM West Coast time to see his announcement, while trying to block out the memories of the last time a highly-touted running back from southern California was picking between Notre Dame and other schools live on TV.

Breathe regular, folks. This time tomorrow, it'll all be over.

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.