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.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Change Partners

The gears have been turning for several weeks on the Notre Dame coaching front, prodded by both factors real and imagined. Example of the real: facing the dismal reality of a 10-15 record the past two years. Example of the imagined:
By the way, one of my Bucs peeps tells me that the word around the Bucs is that Gruden could be going to Notre Dame to replace Charlie Weis. Sounds a little farfetched, but as the theory goes: The school will buy out Weis as soon as he signs his recruiting class, in two or three weeks, and hire Gruden. Heard from someone close to the Notre Dame program that there's a weird vibe around the football offices. Hmmm.
This Jon Gruden thing needs to be put to rest. It's like the ghost of Hamlet's father, appearing out of the mist in the woods every couple of years just to prove he's still there, whether you like it or not. And could the NY Daily News possibly expand on the idea of what constitutes a "weird vibe"? Of course not, because then they'd actually have to back up the assertion with something resembling the facts. It's not to say that Charlie Weis is above scrutiny, or that Gruden shouldn't be considered if/when the time comes to find a new head football coach at Notre Dame, but these wild conspiracy theories about how his hiring under the Dome is imminent have somehow not managed to die in the last eight years. It boggles the mind.

In the last 10 days though, wrapping around the annual convention of college football coaches in Nashville, there were a couple of seismic shifts on the Notre Dame staff:

John Latina resigned/terminated, Frank Verducci hired as his replacement

As was the case with Jappy Oliver, the official word on Notre Dame's embattled offensive line coach was that he "resigned to pursue other opportunities". Face-saving tactics aside, the writing was on the wall regarding why a change was taking place, and nobody seemed to know it more than Latina:
Latina said in a phone interview Wednesday night the decision to leave Notre Dame was a mutual one.

"It's a mutual thing. It is what it is, right," Latina said. "This is what is going on. I enjoyed my four years here, learned a lot being here and loved it. Notre Dame is an awesome place.

"Right now, coach is going to go in a different direction and it's as simple as that."

Latina said, though, the decision to leave South Bend was not a surprise to him. Notre Dame struggled on the offensive line the past two seasons. In 2007, the Irish allowed a then-NCAA record 58 sacks and gained 75.2 yards on the ground a game. The Irish improved statistically in 2008 -- allowing [22] sacks and gaining 109.69 yards a game on the ground -- but were still far away from an elite unit.

"I've been in it 30 years," Latina said. "Any time things don't go as well as you want it, no matter where you are, those things can happen. It's the nature of the game and a business.

"I've enjoyed my four years here, loved it here and it was great for me. Now, it's time to look for another thing."

The Irish quickly did an about-face and introduced Latina's replacement, another coaching veteran in Frank Verducci. Most recently of the NFL's Cleveland Browns, Verducci has floated around the pro ranks since 1999, from Cincinnati to Dallas to Buffalo before spending the past two years under Romeo Crennel. Prior to that he's spent 18 years in college, the majority of it in the Big Ten at Iowa and Northwestern. Verducci's title in the Dawg Pound was "Offensive Assistant Coach", which according to ND's press release entails "assisting the offensive coordinator in framing the run game, presenting the weekly opponent scouting report to the offense and installing Friday's game plan to the offensive unit. Verducci assisted the play caller on game day's with situational offense and was responsible for clock management."

Taking it at face value, the Verducci hire is once again a dip into the familiar for Weis, as he has a lot of acumen with the zone blocking schemes Weis prefers. Verducci also would seem like a person comfortable in the nominal "offensive coordinator" role that Mike Haywood sometimes awkwardly handled during his time in South Bend. There hasn't been a lot of rumbling about a potential OC hire, which leads me to think that Weis might simply be dropping the charade and taking full charge of the offense without a go-between. There could still be some movement in that category though, so let's call it 'unsettled'. For now, Verducci assumes stewardship of a line that ought to be sky-high on potential (with certified blue-chip prospects such as Sam Young, Dan Wegner, Chris Stewart, Eric Olson, & Trevor Robinson plus open competition at the left tackle spot) yet has come up woefully short on results each of the past two seasons.

Tony Alford named Running Backs Coach

Just hours ago another coaching press release went out, announcing the hire of 40-year old Tony Alford from Louisville to take Haywood's other position as running backs coach - again, notably, only as running backs coach. Alford was an All-WAC running back at Colorado State during the late 1980s before beginning his coaching career at Division III powerhouse Mount Union, quickly moving up to Kent State and then Iowa State, where he spent most of his career (1997-2006, with a brief one season stop at Washington in 2001).

If nothing else, coming from Louisville gives Alford plenty of experience in shaping a running attack that comes secondary behind throwing the ball. In 2008 he coached redshirt freshman Victor Anderson to a 1,000 yard season and helped UL average 164.5 yards/game on the ground (it was 137.5 per game in '07), and during his first four years at Iowa State he oversaw a rushing attack that rose from 103rd to 17th nationally. Additionally, he has experience with the type of national recruitment one expects at Notre Dame, having worked California, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Texas along with Iowa and Michigan.

So now the work begins for Verducci and Alford as the new partnership for the Irish offense under the grand architect (and yes, even if Weis does bring in an offensive coordinator, there's no ambiguity about who the architect of the offense is going to be).

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.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Carrousel, Recruiting Edition

Perhaps it was inevitable, but for a third straight season Notre Dame lost a recruit in January, although this time it could hardly qualify as an earth-shattering development. The recruit in question was Marlon Pollard, cornerback out of San Bernadino, CA. Pollard had once been a UCLA commit - since the end of his sophomore season - but opened things back up after the dismissal of Karl Dorrell, then pledged to join the Irish last July. Beyond that, however, he's been something of an invisible man on the recruiting front, and things finally came to a head when Rick Neuheisel convinced him to make an official visit to Westwood this weekend.

Every year there's kids who change their minds (Notre Dame still has one in their camp, wideout Shaquelle Evans) and every case is different. Unlike the past two years, where it seemed that a little bit of subterfuge and deliberate misleads marked the cases of Justin Trattou and Omar Hunter, Pollard's situation seems pretty cut and dry. He committed after an impromptu visit to campus last summer and finally met, in person, most of the key coaches and players for Notre Dame once he made his official visit for the Stanford game. At the time it just seemed like a fortunate bounce of the ball for the Irish, having a top player out on the market after a coaching change at his program of choice, but from the get-go there's a concern that once somebody changes his mind once, he's liable to change it again (see Kapron Lewis-Moore from last year's recruting cycle). And Rick Neuheisel is nothing if not an aggressive recruiter, clearly winning over Pollard's mother in the process. Explaining the decision to switch back once more, the 6'1" Pollard stated, "I've just always been a Bruin." Browsing through his photos at Rivals and Scout, it's tough to find a picture of him where he's not decked out in UCLA gear, so it's not hard to see where he's coming from.

What remains to be seen is how or if this changes the landscape of Notre Dame's 2009 recruiting class. With regard to defensive backs, the Irish looked pretty set over the summer when they landed Pollard and Pennsylvania's EJ Banks. Now Pollard has gone back home and Banks will be in the middle of rehabbing a torn ACL when he enrolls early along with Tyler Stockton and Zeke Motta. Still, it's not like cornerback is a place where the Irish need a ton of talent and need it now - they have Raeshon McNeil & Sergio Brown, plus Darrin Walls (with two years of eligibility), Robert Blanton (3 years) and Jamoris Slaughter (4 years). The depth issue would be a little clearer if there was a resolution on Jashaad Gaines, who's in the same class as Walls and McNeil but was not in school this past semester; unlike Walls there's been no indication he will return. The same goes for Gary Gray, who did not make the bowl trip and will not be enrolled this coming semester according to the South Bend Tribune (the Trib noted that "the expectation [for Gray] is a return to school and the team this summer").

With just over three weeks to go until Signing Day, there are still a few key prospects the Irish are in on, but now comes the added intrigue of if they'll try late to add another target, as they did a year ago in last-minute pushes to secure Kapron Lewis-Moore and almost snare Milton Knox away from UCLA. Stay tuned.

Friday, January 09, 2009

On a Carrousel

As he set aside the flurry of speculation over Charlie Weis' job security following the USC game, athletic director Jack Swarbrick made it clear that Weis was being retained with the explicit understanding that things were going to have to change both on and off the football field for 2009. Obviously not everything that's transpired in the two weeks since the Irish got off the bowl schneid has been at Swarbrick's request, but circumstances are indeed beginning to alter around the Irish as we hurdle into January, when the coaches carrousel really starts to gain momentum. As far as Notre Dame is concerned...
  • Mike Haywood accepted the head coaching job at Miami (Ohio), having previously been a candidate for vacancies at the University of Houston and University of Washington. The news broke shortly before the Irish beat the Hawai'i Warriors on Christmas Eve and Haywood was officially introduced the following Tuesday. The fact that Haywood landed a head coaching job is not surprising - given his previous stints at power programs LSU and Texas along with his recruiting ability, plus being named the nation's top assistant football coach in 2005, it was only a matter of time. What is interesting is how many Irish fans seemed to view the news with a healthy dose of, "Good riddance!", as if Haywood alone should foot the blame for what happened in the second half of the season. Through 7 games, the Irish offense was indeed flying high, racking up over 450 total yards in four straight games heading into November. We all know what happened next. But could it really have been just a case of not following the basic rule to "Keep it simple, stupid"? That seemed to be the suggestion raised in one particularly eye-opening quote from Mike's introductory press conference in Oxford:
We were having so much success, that we thought we could add a lot more material, and the only thing we did was complicate things for the quarterback. With the time off we had before the bowl game, we were able to regain the quarterback’s confidence, and the players regained their confidence, allowing them to be successful in the (bowl) game.
  • In addition to needing a new offensive coordinator, the Irish also will now be looking for a new defensive line coach as Jappy Oliver, who came over with Rick Minter to fill out Weis' original staff, has resigned/been fired after four seasons. (First reports indicated Oliver had been dismissed; Notre Dame released an official statement saying Oliver resigned to "pursue other opportunities" - which makes sense as his name has been mentioned for Haywood's staff at Miami). Semantics regarding his departure aside, Oliver's tenure with the Irish d-line has been defined by ups and downs - the development of players like Trevor Laws on the plus-side, the baffling lack of development out of players like John Ryan on the down. On the whole the best thing you can say is that Oliver produced something decent out of a bad situation, as defensive line was one short step above offensive line for the distinction of most sorely mismanaged position under the previous regime. Yet despite having quality players early (Victor Abiamiri and Laws come to mind) as well as promising youngsters like Ethan Johnson & Ian Williams, the front four has been a collectively lackluster unit throughout Oliver's tenure. I think the biggest culprit might be what's not there as opposed to what is - it's not a huge secret to say that the Irish wish they'd landed a player like Gerald McCoy or been able to convince Justin Trattou and Omar Hunter not to defect to Florida. And unlike other coaches, it hasn't been for a lack of effort that the Irish haven't gotten the top-level defensive line talent they seem to be getting at positions like wide receiver and defensive back.
As of Friday 1/9, no word on who might be stepping in to replace Haywood and Oliver, or if their departures mark the end of offseason staff changes. With the annual coaches' convention coming up (this time last year was when Weis was able to convince Jon Tenuta to come on board), I suspect that within the next week some new names and faces could be on the Irish coaching roster.
  • On a player personnel front, cornerback Darrin Walls will return to campus on Monday after having withdrawn for the fall semester. Similar to the situation with Pat Kuntz last spring, this is welcome news not only for Darrin as a person, but for the Irish football team to have another seasoned veteran with something to prove in his final campaign (Walls would have a fifth year option, but that's getting ahead of ourselves). With Walls re-joining Raeshon McNeil, Robert Blanton, sophomore Jamoris Slaughter (redshirted this season) and hopefully Gary Gray as well, the competition at cornerback should be intense throughout spring ball. It also (hopefully) paves the way for Notre Dame to have some of the more menacing nickel and dime packages in college football. You may recall back in the dog days of summer the rumors that Walls' withdrawal would eventually lead to a transfer, perhaps to hometown team Pittsburgh. Never a chance, according to the senior-to-be:
Walls Jr. was well aware of the rumblings as well, but he remains consistent in that the thought of leaving never arose.

“It never crossed my mind to go anywhere else,” he said. “My mom was a Pitt fan and wanted me there at the beginning, but there was never a thought of transferring.”

He then echoed the same sentiment that his father expressed during the summer interview.

“I want to get a degree from Notre Dame,” he added.
  • Meanwhile, tight end Will Yeatman has settled on a desitination - the University of Maryland. He will play lacrosse and football for the Terps but will be required to sit out the '09 football season. He still has three years of eligibility in lacrosse, which starts at the end of this month. The Terps are ranked #3 in the preseason polls (the Irish are #9) and now boast two 6'5" attackers with Yeatman on board. Again, best of luck to Will as he looks for a fresh start.

Monday, January 05, 2009

A Picture Says 1,000 Words

...or, perhaps in this case, just two.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

In Which I Remember the Password to the Email Account

A quick note to start the New Year here, as Thomas & Falcron pool their talents for a report on Thursday's Winter Classic hockey game and we prep a few obligatory offseason recruiting/coaching change posts in the wake of an ND bowl victory (still sounds a bit odd, doesn't it? Get over it).

As anybody who visits the site might notice, in addition to our individual handles we also have the handy link on the side here - "Email Us" - which feeds to the generic 'Section29' GMail account. The problem of course is that for the last five months we have not been able to log in and read that account because somebody...okay, fine it was me...forgot the password. No more. After cleverly defeating the security barricades of Google, we have reopened this line of communication, and nobody was more shocked than we were to discover that people had actually written in! A few were requests to be added as links to our blogroll, which have been honored, while my personal favorite came from fellow internet journalist OC Domer the day after the Michigan game (when the blog was still going through a Blogger-server induced dark period):
Fellas -

You have NINE contributors and nobody had anything to say about the Michigan game - before or after?

Is it possible all nine of you are in serious relationships with supermodels at the same time?
You have no idea, OC. No idea. Anyway, our email link is once again open so feel free to contact the board at ""