Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Reeling in the Years

One of the soft-pedaled complaints about Charlie Weis that turned into a dull roar last season was that he was, if not out-and-out alienating older alumni, taking no steps to soothe their ego and remind them all how important they were. Whether some of the changes and additions made in this offseason were specifically designed to placate those critics is not our business, but certainly Weis has positioned himself to be more accessible and treat ND football as more of a share-the-glory operation. For starters, Weis hired a "Assistant for Head Football Coach Relations" (read - PR spin doctor!) and coordinated with Chuck Lennon for a mini-barnstorm of ND Alumni Clubs (scheduled trips so far: Chicago, April 4; Virginia Beach, April 23; Ocala, FL & Memphis, both April 24; Louisville, May 1; Houston & Portland, both May 7; Ventura County & Los Angeles, both May 8; Madison, WI & Naperville, IL, both May 14).

For the fourth straight year, Weis will have a special place of honor reserved for past Irish football luminaries to serve as honorary coaches in the Blue-Gold game. Previous participants included Joe Theismann, Joe Montana, Chris Zorich, Tim Brown, Jerome Bettis, Mike & Bob Golic, Rocket Ismail, Lou Holtz, and Ara Parseghian. Making a point to expand his horizons inside the Irish alumni circle, Weis specifically sought to include a representative from each of the past six decades when filling out the honorary coach card. A quick read on each:

1950s: Jim Morse. Better known to contemporary Domers for his contributions which helped build The Coleman Morse Center (affectionately known to us as CoMo and home of the free blue Powerade...except during Lent), Morse was a three-time letter winner from '54-'56, serving as team captain his senior year. His generosity also furnished the Morse Recruiting Lounge which sits on the second floor of the Gug.

1960s: Terry Hanratty. One of the less-heralded but still very well known quarterbacks from western Pennsylvania, Hanratty was a three-year starter for Parseghian who led the Irish to their 8th national championship in 1966; his injury late in the epic contest versus Michigan State was the deciding factor in Ara's choice to play for the tie with backup Coley O'Brien. Hanratty finished in the Top 10 of the Heisman voting three times and went on to play seven seasons for the Steelers, mostly backing up Terry Bradshaw.

1970s: Terry Eurick. A little bit of cronyism to be sure, as Weis invited his fellow '78er and Flanner roommate to partake over a host of other great choices from the superfly decade. Eurick (pictured above on the cover of SI after Notre Dame's Cotton Bowl win against #1 Texas) might not have been a star of that era, but his selection as captain for the 1977 championship team underscored the importance of all those "glue" guys who fill in around the stars to build a contender. Current players, take heed.

1980s: Allen Pinkett. At first I wasn't sure if this is supposed to be a tip of the hand that Pinkett won't be having a conflict with his Irish radio gig, but it has since occurred to me that the broadcasting of the Blue-Gold game has always been a local affiliate affair, not to mention as job for the boys at WVFI. Stay tuned on if Don Criqui & Pinkett, the record-holder for rushing yards in a season, will be back as the voices of Irish football now that Notre Dame has dropped Westwood One and partnered with ISP.

1990s: Bryant Young. A consensus All-American as a senior in 1993, Young recently retired from the San Francisco 49ers after an illustrious career which included NFL Rookie of the Year honors ('94), Comeback Player of the Year ('99, after a vicious leg injury), four All-Pro selections, and the San Fran record for sacks (89.5).

2000s: Apparently the first choice was Justin Tuck, recent Super Bowl hero and Giants pass rusher, but JT was too busy preparing for his wedding and the Irish were glad to take a raincheck. Fear not, for Generation Y will be ably represented by Ryan Grant, who just completed a bona-fide meteoric rise during the second half of the NFL season with the Green Bay Packers, topping off the year with a franchise record 201 rushing yards in the Divisional win over Seattle.

Lastly, yet another alum is coming back into the program on a full-time basis: Kinnon Tatum, Class of '97, will join Weis' staff as the intern to the Offensive Graduate Assistant. Tatum, who was one of the Notre Dame players involved in the Kim Dunbar case, played linebacker from '93-'96 and is best remembered for this:

What a hit. Can't hurt to have a guy like that around to coach up the next Irish generation. Other notebook material from Wednesday's first practice session:
  • Aches and pains: Several players competing for an open spot(s) in the starting lineup were hobbled by injuries and non-sport medical problems, meaning they won't be at full strength this spring but will participate in practices: Ian Williams (left ankle infection), Michael Turkovich (appendectomy, currently recovering), Robby Parris (sports hernia) will all be somewhat limited, while junior linebacker/end John Ryan will miss the spring after suffering a sports hernia on top of a right shoulder surgery he had just days after the '07 season ended.
  • Depth chart tweaks: Luke Schmidt will primarily get a look at tight end this spring, but it's not a full-fledged position switch (yet, anyway). Ryan & fellow junior Mo Richardson are listed back at defensive end after being moved to outside linebacker last spring. Sam Young is back at right tackle, moved to left last year because of a lingering right wrist problem, while Paul Duncan returns to left tackle.
  • Numbers: The team managers didn't need to leave departing senior jerseys unattended for long. Early enrollee Trevor Robinson assumed John Sullivan's #78, while Sean Cwynar now holds the #98 of Trevor Laws. Among current players, the only known switch so far is Harrison Smith exchanging Rocky Boiman's #30 for Ambrose Wooden's #22. I don't want to prematurely judge Mr. Smith's intention, but I think he's trading down as far as lineage goes.
  • America's Pastime: Evan Sharpley leads the Irish baseball team in home runs and was just named Big East Player of the Week after launching four bombs in three games. Eric Maust tossed 8 shutout innings in a win over Georgetown this weekend. Golden Tate is, on any given day, the third starting outfielder, though not solidly in the top three yet. For now, "all three know that there are days where they are definitely going to be in football, and there's days they are definitely going to be in baseball with baseball taking the upper hand until we get to April 10", Weis said. April 10th marks the first of consecutive weekend roadtrips for the baseball team. At this point, it sure looks like Dave Schrage will want to have all three two-sporters at his disposal, which might mean missing the final six football practices, not to mention the April 19th Blue-Gold game.

As Always, Hope Springs Eternal

A year ago it seemed a lot simpler. The Irish were going to come into spring practice and do a nice, methodical self-inventory of their strengths and weaknesses, emphasizing what worked during a 10-3 2006 season and plotting out how to fix what went wrong. There would be a healthy, spirited competition for the de-facto leadership position at quarterback, while the defense quickly moved past the bad taste of the USC and LSU games with a plainer, more aggressive attack under Corwin Brown. Then the young Irish would take that carefully cultivated base into fall camp, steeling themselves for a tough opening slate of games that would leave them better positioned for long-term success, win or lose.

In hindsight...why did we think it was going to be so simple? At least followers of the Irish program know better heading into this 2008 preseason, which opened today with the first of two non-pads workouts and a full-scale press briefing from Charlie Weis. The head man seemed a little more clipped today than in past appearances, in more of a rush to answer the first set of burning questions from the press and then move on to the business of coaching his team. has both video and the full transcript, but here's the opening shots from Weis as he moves into an absolutely pivotal fourth year:

On top goals for the spring sessions...
The obvious objective that everyone could see is we need to improve fundamentally and technically across the board. There's one position that's exempt from that which is, you know, once again, not to be redundant but just stating the obvious. Other issues that are of equal importance to us. We felt the team didn't have much confidence as we went through last year for a number of reasons, but we're working on confidence as one of the goals of this spring, confidence/swagger.
How'd the offseason training program go?
There's some obvious improvement physically and there's some subtle ones. Let's start with the subtle ones. David Bruton, for example, we just finished testing as we finished the off season program and his measurables are off the chart. I mean, his weight is a pound or two different, maybe a pound or two lighter but his body fat is like three and a half and he's vertical jumping 41 and a half. He's in phenomenal shape. He's not alone. There's a couple of those guys...A couple of people in the off season, it was very important that we got some weight gain and strength without succumbing to having additional body fat. For example, Jimmy Clausen, last year, started off at 194 and he's walking in at 212 for the first day of training camp. That is obviously a significant gain. His body fat is status quo but has a lot more lean muscle. That's pretty much the same. Dan Wenger last year started at 282 and he's at 300 now. Sam Young started at 309, dropped to 287 by the end of the year and he's at 330 right now. So we have had some people that have gotten themselves without sacrificing increased body fat, just adding a lot of lean muscle and putting themselves in a lot better position to compete.
For the moment you're a little thin on the defensive line...
The way we are looking at it is we have a whole bunch of defensive linemen coming in the summertime. So this is the opportunity for them to make a statement and to put themselves in a position to say whether or not we can count on them or not.

What's going to happen, all of a sudden it gets to be summertime and we get those [guys] -- Sean Cwynar is already here -- but you get another bunch of players, an infusion of guys coming in here and we want to see how quickly we can integrate them into our system and get a good look at them. So I think that right now is a time when the guys want as many reps as they could possibly get to try to stake a claim for these depth charts that we like to leave the spring with.
Aside from figuring how to not go 3-9, what will be a noticeable change for the players?
Well, I think that the players are definitely going to feel a very, very great sense of urgency, similar to the first year I got here. There's going to be a great sense of urgency and the coaches are on board, the players are on board. This isn't something that's going to be unique and is going to catch them off guard because one of the things by me being around these guys a heck of a lot more in this off season time, it's given me an opportunity to let them know and say, look, fellas, I can talk to you and be buddy buddy all you want, but when we get on the field, it just doesn't work that way. The job that coaches have are to push players to get them to play better.

Because they understand that you have two sides, not one side, you're just not going to be on them all the time, I think that they already know what the expectations are as far as what the tempo is going to have to be in practice because we all know that there isn't one area of the team that you could say that you were satisfied with from last year, not one. And they all the players are on board on that, too. So this isn't going to catch anyone off guard.
How exactly do you go about "coaching" swagger & confidence?
You make plays. Make plays leads to confidence. Confidence leads to swagger.

If you don't make any plays, how can you build any confidence? And if you don't have any confidence, how can you make any swagger? So the first thing you have to do is make plays. It starts with making plays. Swagger is something that you evolve to. Confidence is something that comes after you start making plays.

A guy like David Bruton who used to just be a special teams gunner and one of the better ones, at that, now is one of our best players on our team, okay, and it happened because he started making plays. The minute you start making plays, you start getting some confident, now it's taken some time but now he's got swagger, but we've got to get more guys to get to Step B and Step C.
That last parsing wasn't included because of some earth-shattering revelation, but more for the humorous connotations the phrase "Make Plays!" will always have to any Notre Dame fan. Just observing Weis' overall tone and making some feeble attempts to read between the lines, his approach this season in terms of player development will harken back to his first year, when the overarching tone was, "C'mon fellas, you're actually NOT as s&*%y as everybody says you are." That could wind up being all for the good - less obsession with schematics, more concentration on the motivation and building-block philosophy that eventually leads to success. Phrased another way: get them to believe they can play at the highest level before skipping straight ahead to gameplanning with the oversized expectation that they will. It was very encouraging to see Weis laud Bruton on several occasions and here's hoping David's career trajectory (plus his tireless offseason work ethic; Weis made a specific point of comparing Bruton with Trevor Laws as a player who plain wills himself toward greatness) serves as inspiration going forward.

Now, while it's fun to depth-chart engineer and speculate about how so-and-so showed off "crazy improvement" and "increased intensity" and all the other cute coaching cliches (Weis already invoked "flipping the switch" in today's presser), last season and all the others before it ought to bring out the harsh reminder that few sporting periods have a worse hype-to-results ratio than college football spring practice (MLB Spring Training is all-time undisputed champ in this category). But it sure can't hurt to approach this time as a moment not to hype up a player as sure-fire All-Americans, but to instill the confidence and swagger that has them thinking and acting like one.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Is It Time to Forget About Brey?

It is if you're using this weekend's performance against Washington State in the round of 32 as the sole, end-all-be-all criteria.

Notre Dame's disheartening 61-41 loss to Tony Bennet and the Cougars added an abrupt, discomforting thud to the end of what was by all other standards a tremendous season. Coming in, Notre Dame was faced with the prospect of replacing their two captains and leading scorers from a year ago, figuring out how to make their backcourt work with a player who hadn't played a live game in 10 months, bringing a young team back off the mat mentally from a discouraging postseason performance the previous year, and navigating the absurdly tough Big East conference, a conference Mike Brey's peers deemed so tough the Irish would finish 9th.

Brey responded with one of his best coaching performances, developing Luke Harangody into the Big East Player of the Year and deftly managing the Irish's frenetic pace of basketball for a 14-4 conference record, good for a share of second place. But unlike football, where the postseason is (with basically one exception) a glorified footnote, a basketball season is always remembered by how, and under what circumstances, it ended.

This is one coda the Irish won't reflect on fondly.

After dispatching George Mason with a sly mix of their breakneck transition game and methodical half-court offense, Brey felt the Irish were ready for the ultimate clash in styles: their up-tempo manner of ball distribution that led the nation in assists against Washington State's ridiculously disciplined man-to-man/zone hybrid. Whichever team controlled the tempo of the game was going to win, and the tempo would be dictated by whichever team held firm against frustration. On both counts, the Cougars won via knockout.

The familiar knee-jerk reactions came quickly afterward: "Why the hell can't Brey teach some court discipline? Why don't we have more focus and passion on defense? Why are we so unathletic? Why do we do nothing but take long-range jumpers? Why can't Brey toughen these kids up with a hard non-conference schedule?"

There were a lot of things about the Irish performance Saturday, both on the court and from the bench, that left plenty to be desired. But I'm not convinced it wasn't 'simply' a case of two excellent teams, each with a strength polar opposite of the other, just going at it. That's the beauty and the curse of the NCAA Tournament - no matter who you are, no matter what your pedigree, if you draw a matchup that takes you out of your comfort zone, you're in trouble. Sometimes you can do everything right and still get sent packing because the other team, or even just one guy on the other team, refuses to let it be otherwise.

If you doubt this, consider what happened yesterday to the Beast of the Big East and trendy Final Four pick Georgetown. The Hoyas shot 63 percent for the game and led by as much as 17 against Davidson, but once Stephen Curry caught fire there was no stopping him. Watch the highlight reel - several of Curry's shots in the second half come as he challenges three GU defenders and just shoves the ball towards the hoop, praying it'll go in. An exasperated John Thompson III said it best after the game: "For the most part he had guys all over him and the ball was going in anyway."

Bringing this back around to the Notre Dame-Washington State post mortem, there's no denying that WSU's utter dominance of the game's tempo harkens back to (and reflects poorly on) the prep and execution of the Irish coaching staff. Maybe instead of directing (or at least letting) his team to haphazardly force the issue, something which was painfully represented by several attempts from Zach Hillesland and Harangody (of all people) to go the entire length of the floor for a bakset, Brey and his staff should've been preparing a slow-down style of their own offense. Particularly in the second half, as it seemed like each Irish player took turns running full-speed toward the brick wall known as the Cougar defense, it was obvious that no matter how hard the Irish pressed, WSU was not going to let them elevate the pace. Shouldn't Brey have seen that ahead of time in the tape and statistics regarding the third-best defensive team in the nation?

Yes, he should've. The curious thing is that, to this observer's eye, trying to get Notre Dame ready for this brand of basketball game was exactly what Brey did against George Mason. A lot of people felt the Irish got passive once they opened a lead Thursday and should've really laid the hammer down, but Brey seemed content to rein in his own players. He seemed to hint afterwards that it was partly intentional with an eye towards the next opponent, saying "We never want to play slow, but we can if we have to." On Friday it was more direct: "I think that's what tomorrow is for us: playing slow, playing fast, recognizing when it's becoming more halfcourt, and being smart about it." Despite all that, once tip-off came the Irish seemed unable to recognize what the whole Pac-10 now knows: playing against Tony Bennett's defense is akin to keeping up a tennis volley with a brick wall - the rally only goes as long as you don't make a mistake. The wall isn't going to make one. Once the Irish couldn't get any player on a Curry-like streak of luck & will - they went a measly 3/17 from 3-point land, by far their worst performance of the season from long range, to go with their worst point total and worst overall shooting performance since Brey became coach - the Cougar faithful were booking tickets to Charlotte and a date with top-ranked North Carolina.

So, what's the verdict on Mike Brey? Is he a coaching overacheiver who's learned much from the pratfalls of the Chris Thomas Era, becoming more confident and calculative than ever as he directs a program which often gets treated like a little brother by its own athletic department? Or has he hit his coaching ceiling, establishing himself as a great representative but unlikely to recruit and develop the kind of team that can be a year-in, year-out threat in the NCAA Tournament? I think that before any hasty rush to judgment on that front, Notre Dame basketball fans need to remember this: in the 8 years prior to his hiring, the Irish were a combined 110-124 with no NCAA berths. Since Brey's arrival the program has been 167-86 with 5 NCAA trips.

You could argue that Matt Doherty, who with a 22-15, NIT Runners-Up season in 1999-00 greatly improved the overall pre-Brey ledger, would have had similar results had North Carolina not resorted to it's 11th choice in finding a replacement for Bill Gunthridge, and conclude that Brey hasn't really done much to elevate the program. The problem with that is that it's just wrong to use what a former coach "might've probably" done against his successor. Here's what Brey has done: restored credibility to Notre Dame's basketball program, graduated every player who completed his eligibility in a Fighting Irish uniform, won consecutive Coach of the Year awards in the Big East, and currently has a team that's trending upward, returning 7 of its top 8 scorers and a bevy of upperclassmen leadership. Even with considerable talent being retained though, the Irish do have to rediscover themselves after losing Rob Kurz, who's on and off-court presence over the past three years cannot be underestimated. It will not be as simple as sending Luke Zeller or Tim Abromaitis out there and saying, "Go put up 13 points a game and serve as the team's emotional anchor".

Brey and the Irish are also due for a stern non-conference test this November when they play in the Maui Invitational before facing an as-always loaded Big East which should feature at least nine Tournament-caliber teams. A lot of truth will be told concerning Brey after not this season, but next, because he's now heading down a road he's traveled once before. Five years ago he led another Irish squad on a solid, somewhat surprising run that ended with a Sweet 16 berth, and returned that team's leading scorer (Thomas) plus two freshman who showed tremendous upside (Torin Francis & Chris Quinn), a number of solid role-player types (Torrian Jones, Jordan Cornette, Rick Cornett, Tom Timmermans) and brought in Colin Falls and Russell Carter. The Irish faded down the stretch of that follow-up campaign and wound up in the NIT, the first of three consecutive wilts under bubble pressure that had a good number of people calling for Brey's ouster. There was more than one moment when those '03-'05 Irish teams could've used the steady influence of a Matt Carroll or a David Graves, a leadership void Thomas seemed unable to fill and Brey seemed powerless to solve. That should be less of a problem this time around considering the strong credentials of the returning seniors (Kyle McAlarney, Hillesland, Zeller, and Ryan Ayers) and juniors (Harangody & Tory Jackson). But there are no guarantees, not in the tournament or anything else in college basketball, a fact Brey was keen to acknowledge when questioned after Saturday's defeat:
I don't think you can ever count on [getting better]. One of the things is, 'Is everybody's head going to be the same?' This group has been fabulous. I think maybe we had two bad practices all year. I just told them that in the locker room. They've been unbelievable. It's a great class to teach every day. But you know, guys change. Are we gonna still chase it as a group? You're right, [Kurz is] a big loss right there. The little things [he does], the screening. The dirty work. The defense. You just don't plug in and move on.
Spoken like a coach who already experienced once the perils of not controlling a team led by seniors who just figured they'd show up and be even better. Like a coach who's ready to make sure history doesn't repeat itself. Time will tell, Irish basketball fans. Time will tell.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Survive and Advance

"I tip my hat to their defense."

If you were told that quote was going to be the defining postgame comment of Thursday night's Notre Dame-George Mason tilt, chances are you'd be thinking, 'Well, Mike Brey's team blew it again'. Falling in love with its own offensive prowess, they clearly suffered from having no fallback plan when teams figure out how to tie up their streak shooters.

Except this time, it was Mason senior leader Folarin Campbell praising the clampdown effort after going 1-of-12 from the field in a 68-50 Irish victory. It was Brey's fourth first-round win in five NCAA berths with the Irish, and after a blistering start the Irish settled in and played against type as they sent the 2006 Final Four participants home early.

The hot opening was nothing surprising - the Irish drained six of their first nine shots from 3-point territory and raced to a 23-7 edge less than 8 minutes into the contest. It was at that point that a number of CBS affiliates pulled the plug on what looked like a blowout in the making and put up Wisconsin v. Cal State-Fullerton, much to the chagrin on Irish faithful in Chicago, Cincinnati, Charlotte, and other cities in the Midwest and Northeast. Those who stay tuned didn't see much from that point out, as the Irish were content to trade baskets with a team of average shooters and key in on the one player with the range to make some of the big momentum turning shots (Campbell). The end result was not all that special, as long as you are in the camp that thinks an NCAA tournament victory by double-digits over a team with two Final Four veterans should be placed in the "unimpressive" category.

As expected, there was only so much each team could do against the other's big man - Will Thomas & Luke Harangody each had a commanding presence in the game. Thomas scored 25 points for the Patriots, while Harangody dropped his 18th double-double of the seasons with 18 points and 14 rebounds. The key again for the Irish was backcourt play - Notre Dame's rose to make shots and play aggressive (Kyle McAlarney had 15 points, while Tory Jackson collected 8 rebounds) while Mason couldn't never get anybody but Thomas untracked. With the Irish keying on Campbell with a rotating duo of Zach Hillesland and Ryan Ayers, the four Mason starters other than Thomas made one field goal each. All told they shot just 33% from the floor. And it wasn't only that they were laying bricks, it was an aggressive, dare-I-say defense first gameplan that made the difference. Hillesland in particular stood out, grabbing 11 rebounds and 3 steals, while Rob Kurz (who head-scratchingly managed to foul out) had four blocked shots.

There were indeed some nits to pick, such as why the Irish felt content to slow the game down when they clearly were poised to run Mason out of the building UCLA vs. Mississippi Valley State-style. Brey said afterwards that he's expecting tomorrow's matchup with Washington State to follow a similar pattern, which could be dangerous considering Wazzu's ability from 3-point with players like Derrick Low and Taylor Rochestie. But while the Cougars have a better step-back-and-hit-it cache than the Patriots, they play terrific defense - 3rd nationally in points allowed at 57.1 per opponent, and display great discipline on the other end of the floor with an average of 10 turnovers per game (third fewest nationally).

It may not be flashy, but Tony Bennett's style of basketball preaches fundamentals and discipline, and usually leads to the Cougars wearing out opponents with their own mistakes; in the first-round matchup against Winthrop, WSU turned a tie-game at halftime into a 71-40 rout by dominating the glass and nailing one high-percentage shot after another. Aron Baynes, at 6-10 Wazzu's top interior player, was a perfect 9-of-9 from the field, while the Eagles couldn't buy a basket with a team performance of 4-of-24 in the second half. The quick-take preview: Notre Dame's got one of the best shooting lineups the Cougars have seen all season, while WSU is one of the most aggressive, disciplined teams on the defensive end that the Irish will have played this year. Clearly, something must give, and if the Irish get quality production from some of their non-headliners like Kurz and Hillesland again, look for them to dance on to the Sweet 16. Like the Mason contest, ND-WSU probably won't go into the books as an instant classic no matter who wins, but like the classics from earlier today (Drake v. Western Kentucky, UConn v. San Diego) proved, the blessed NCAA Tournament, unlike it's insane and indecisive cousin known as the BCS, isn't about impressing sports writers or talk radio blowhards. It's about one thing: survive and advance.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Five Spot

Notre Dame didn't draw the toughest possible pod for the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament, but they certainly didn't get a boring one, nor an easy one. We'll leave speculation on any potential plotlines and strategy for the hypothetical matchup with the Winthrop/Washington State winner for a future post. For now though, the fifth-seeded Irish must prepare for battle with 12th-seeded George Mason, CAA champions and no strangers to long-shot tourney success.

Here's the number one thing to know about the matchup: there are six players in the NCAA Tournament that average 15 points and 10 rebounds per game, and two of them will be on the floor tomorrow night in Denver. For the Irish, it's Luke Harangody, for GMU it's Will Thomas, the bruising senior who went toe-to-toe with UConn (when they had a frontline of Rudy Gay & Josh Boone, along with Hilton Armstrong) in the Elite 8 two years ago. Thomas put up 19 points and 12 rebounds over 44 minutes in the overtime victory that clinched Mason's Final Four berth, the second 11-seed ever to advance that far.

A more complete breakdown of each squad's strengths and weaknesses can be found over on SportsNation, where the excellent Irish blog Rakes of Mallow has round tables with both George Mason Basketball and The CAA: Life as a Mid-Major. The overall theme is quite simple: statistically, Notre Dame is a much stronger shooting team than the Patriots. They distribute, they score, and they can be fatal from three-point land: the Irish lead the nation in assists (18.9 per game), rank sixth in 3-pt. accuracy (41.6%) and 18th in total scoring at 80.6 points per game. Mason isn't as prolific with 69.2 points per, and while they shoot slightly better overall (they rate a 46.9% compared to ND's 45.9), Jim Larranaga's crew shoots only 35% from beyond the arc. If the Irish are on with their shots, particularly from long-range, they'll be a tough beat for the Mid-Major that Could.

But as anybody who observed the '06 run could tell you, George Mason is a middie in name only. The Patriots play big-time basketball and aren't in awe of anybody, led by a pair of seniors (Thomas and Folarin Campbell) who were big contributors on a Final Four run that took out Michigan State, North Carolina, & UConn. This season they pushed Villanova to the limit and beat South Carolina, & Kansas State, withstanding 30 points from Michael Beasley in a rare shootout win, 87-77. One of the wild-card factors will be how George Mason deals with a return to the tournament as a known quantity - they can't pretend that some people out there are expecting another head-turning run. Will they let that act as a burden or see it as liberating?

For Notre Dame, despite all the platitudes rightly placed on Harangody, the reality is he's rarely been the key behind an Irish win this season. Don't misinterpret that - Notre Dame couldn't hope to be anywhere close to where they are without him. But while some would tell you that last Thursday's game versus Marquette provided the gameplan to beat the Irish (double and even triple Harangody, force him to press, get him in foul trouble) the real key is in the backcourt. Notre Dame has lost seven games this season, and Kyle McAlarney was almost invisible in nearly all of them. In the two losses to Baylor and Georgia Tech in the Virgin Islands, he shot a combined 4/19 for 10 points. In the two blowout losses early in Big East play to Georgetown and Marquette, he scored 8 and 10 respectively and the Irish got dumped on even with a massive game by Harangody against MU (29 points). Against UConn Harangody dropped 32 and against Louisville 40, and in both games McAlarney was 3/14 and 4/14 from the field respectively. While the Big East Player of the Year is sure to draw plenty of attention, Larranaga would do well to note that bottling Notre Dame's backcourt has been key to their demise.

Notre Dame arrives at this tournament exuding confidence because they feel (not without cause) that they can score with anybody. But the belief that they'll just keep making shots only carries them so far, as has been evidenced several times in the second half of Big East play when substantial leads wilted late in the second half before a big play or two sealed victory. You don't generally keep that kind of luck in the NCAAs. In that sense, Mason will be one of the toughest opponents ND has faced all season, since they're fully aware of their own limitations and compensate with a tenacious brand of defense which (yes, Bill Raftery) mixes zone with man-to-man principles. This is no cake-walk and it comes with all the familiar history of the NCAA Tournament that at least one 12 beats a five every year. But if the Irish backcourt holds serve, look for an advance to meet the winner of Winthrop/WSU.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

New York, New York

...the city so nice, they named it twice. The other name is Manhattan.
-- Michael Scott

Hopefully the Irish basketball team isn't quite as star-struck as Pat's favorite character from The Office when they hit the floor tonight at Madison Square Garden. An exceptional 14-4 record in Big East play sewed up a first-round bye and the #3 seed for Mike Brey's team, who will face Marquette for the third time this season after a home-and-home split with the Team Formerly Known as the Warriors (MU took the Bradley Center meeting 92-66, Notre Dame returned the favor at the Joyce Center 86-83, a game made close by virtue of 10 points from Dominic James in the final 2:17).

In a year full of sporting surprises good and bad in NDNation, it's nice for the basketball team to have been such a pleasant one, punctuated yesterday with the announcement of Mike Brey as Big East Coach of the Year (for the second straight season, joining Lou Carnesecca and PJ Carlisemo as the only back-to-back winners) and sophomore forward Luke Harangody as Player of the Year. The 6'8" Schererville, IN native led the league in rebounding and scoring, the first player to do so since Troy Murphy, who was also the last Irish player to win the award and the last player to win the award multiple times (he took it home as a sophomore in 2000 and then repeated, after which he turned pro). Joining Harangody as a First Team All-Big East selection was Kyle McAlarney, completing a remarkable year for the Staten Island product that featured well-documented off-court issue, one that seemed to assure that he would never play for the Irish again. K-Mac proved everybody wrong. While it's great to see well-deserved honors laid upon two of the Irish's big stars, it was also somewhat disappointing to see that Rob Kurz & Tory Jackson failed to garner even honorable mention status.

Back to Harnagody for a moment, with stellar play comes plenty of press, and now the national media is starting to tune in to the 'Gody who exists off the court. Already with a more than passing resemblance to Murphy when he's dominating the low post, 'Gody too has a personality all his own. Murph, of course, gained notoriety not just for ranking in the national top 10 in rebounding and scoring, but also for writing REDRUM on his sneakers (fans of The Shining will get the reference) and joking as he approached the free throw line that he couldn't wait to get to the Steak'N'Shake. This week's Sports Illustrated had a great feature article on the man alternatively known as Bamm-Bamm or LFH (guess what the F stands for), complete with wonderful side notes about his merry prankster ways. As always, it's the human element we appreciate the most, as SI relayed Luke's penchant for falling down, Chevy Chase-style, "just to break up the monotony." Like every calling card though, it has its downside and proves that not even the Great 'Gody is immune from the occasional moment of self-consciousness:
On an after-midnight run to a nearby IHOP in December, some teammates dared Harangody to approach a table of girls, say a line from A Night at the Roxbury (" 'Sup? You from out of town?") and then fall. He chickened out in mid-sentence, beelined into the men's bathroom, accidentally slamming open a loose door in the process, "and then walked back to the table, where we were dying laughing, in like two seconds," says Zach Hillesland. All-Access has the full-court press on for this week's escape to New York, as well as highlight reels dedicated to both McAlarney and Harangody.

And, of course, there's this:

Enjoy tonight's game. Go Irish.