Thursday, October 16, 2008

Expectations Are High For Experienced Irish

By Mark Allen, Domer Sports Report

Notre Dame Men's Basketball
Season Preview

Expectations for the 2008-2009 edition of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team are sky high. But, unlike past seasons, the expectations are not only from within the program, but also on the outside. Many publications and websites have the Irish ranked high going into the season. For example,, in their rundown of the top teams, has the Irish coming in at #5. ESPN has Notre Dame as their #11 team.

What are the reasons for such optimism? A good start is that the Irish return 4 of their 5 starters from last season. They lose only Rob Kurz (12.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg), who graduated after last season. They also return 7 of their top 8 players and 11 of 12 monogram winners.

Notre Dame’s cause and hopes are bolstered by the fact that two of their starters are also Big East Conference first teamers. The two players are senior Kyle McAlarney and junior Luke Harangody. Harangody also garnered Big East Player of the Year honors.

Head Coach Mike Brey
The Irish, of course, are coached by Mike Brey. Brey is entering his ninth season with Notre Dame in 2008-09. He is a 2-time Big East Coach of the Year winner, which says a lot. His record at Notre Dame is 167-86 (.661). In 13 years as a head coach, Brey is 266-138 (.658), which includes a 5-year stint at Delaware. Prior to Delaware, Brey was a top assistant at Duke, where he was a great recruiter.

Brief Review of 2007-08
Last season can be considered successful. How it ended, can be considered frustrating. The Irish finished the 2007-08 season with a very good, 25-8, record. They were tied for second in the Big East Conference with a 14-4 record. The Irish, though, lost to Marquette in the conference quarterfinals. They made it to the second round of the NCAA’s where they were blown out by Washington, 61-41.

Projected Starters: Tory Jackson, Kyle McAlarney, Ryan Ayers
Off the Bench: Jonathan Peoples

The Irish return one of the Big East’s most dynamic backcourt duos in Kyle McAlarney and Tory Jackson. They are also vastly underrated, nationally. Notre Dame played 33 games last season and both guards started all of them. Talk about experience!

Jackson (Junior, 8.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.8 apg) will be running the point. He is ultra-quick and is a very good ballhandler. Last season, he led the conference in assists. He can penetrate with his quickness. The Irish will need him to do so in order to feed the big men for close in shots or to have them kick it back out for open threes.

On a team that has to emphasize better defense if it wants to go deep into season-ending tournaments, Jackson is Notre Dame’s best defender. He was first on the team in steals (58) and ranked sixth in the Big East.

Look for Jackson to improve on his downside. That downside is in the area of shooting. From the floor, he shot 38.6 percents and from beyond the arc, he was 30.2 percent. Point guards are usually very good free-throw shooters. Jackson shot only 52 percent last season. Ideally, he needs to get into the mid-60s on free-throws and mid-40s from the field.

Kyle McAlarney (Senior, 15.1 ppg) just might be the nation’s premier 3-point shooter. His range is almost to midcourt. As a matter of fact, McAlarney led the Big East in 3-point shooting (46.3 percent in the Big East and 44.1, overall).
McAlarney is the perfect compliment to Jackson. He is a catch-and-shoot player. However, he is more. Underrated is the way he can drive the lane and score on the floater. With his reputation as a long range bomber, teams might cover him outside. In that case, look for more drives this season from McAlarney.

McAlarney is also a very good free-throw shooter. Last season, he shot 82.1 percent from the line.

The Big East first teamer will be an important cog in this year’s team. With people doubling and tripling down on Luke Harangody, he might actually become the leading scorer on the team.

Notre Dame will go with a three guard lineup. The third guard is Ryan Ayers. Ayers played in all 33 games last season, starting 17 of them.

Ayers is another excellent long range shooter for the Irish. He was second on the team in 3-pointers attempted (122) and made (55) for an excellent percentage of 45.1. He is important as far as being a safety valve when teams concentrate on Harangody and McAlarney in their game plans.

Look for Ayers’ role to increase in his senior season. In Ireland, Ayers was on fire. He also seemed to take more of an active leadership role.

Ayers is also important for his defense. Much like Jordan Cornette, from a few season’s back, he is long. That really helps on defense, whether the Irish are in a zone or in man-to-man. Many times, coach Brey will put Ayers on the opposition’s best player.

Projected Starters:
Luke Harangody, Zach Hillesland
Off the Bench: Luke Zeller, Ty Nash, Carlton Scott

The heart and soul of the Fighting Irish is Luke Harangody. He is the anti-Brey in terms of outward intensity. If Brey is “ice”, then Harangody is “fire” in terms of showing emotion. For the most part, that is a plus. However, Harangody has said that, for the 2008-09 season, he is going to try to get more under control. Many times, he allowed bad calls to get to him.

Harangody is the returning Big East Player of the Year. He averaged a double-double for the season (20.4 ppg, 10.6 rpg). In conference play, he led the league in scoring (23.3 ppg) and was second in rebounding (11.3 rpg). He had 17 double-doubles and scored in double figures in 32 of Notre Dame’s 33 games.

Harangody might have been a big surprise during last season. He certainly will be no surprise for this one. What does he do to counteract that lack of surprise? He became known for his little flip shot that was a combination of a hook and shot-put. Most of the time that was done with his right hand. Look for him to use his left hand more.

There are two other ways in which Harangody will look to make his game complete. First, as evidenced against Louisville last season, he will shoot some from the 3-point arc to 15 feet. He definitely has the range to do it. Also, since he will no longer be a surprise, teams will double and triple team him as soon as he gets the ball. Look for Harangody to kick the ball out much better to open long range bombers like Ayers, McAlarney and Zeller.

The second frontcourt starter for the Irish, likely, will be Zach Hillesland (6.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg). Hillesland, at 6-9, is a decent ballhandler. He also shot 50 percent from the floor last season.

Hillesland is one of those role player that has to step up in his senior season for the Irish to reach their high goal. Two things he has to do, offensively, to improve. First, many times he drives the lane and appears out-of-control. He has to pull up on those drives. Secondly, he has to start shooting the mid-range jumper. If he can shoot it from about 10 feet, the Irish will be better for it.

Rob Kurz was the only loss to graduation. One question asked about the Irish basketball team is where will Kurz’s minutes be divided and who will do the things that he could do (play defense, take charges, get garbage baskets, etc). The answer will, most likely, come from the next three frontcourt players.

Luke Zeller (4.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg) is a former McDonald’s All American and Player of the Year in Indiana. He is the tallest player on the Irish roster at 6-11. Many think that Zeller has not lived up to his early hype. This is the season for him to step up.

There is no doubt that Zeller is an excellent offensive player. He can shoot from the outside. He was 32-of-84 from 3-point land (38.1 percent). But, in his senior season, Zeller needs to do more. He will be counted on to rebound and also play defense. How he does will go a long way in determining the success of the 2008-09 season.

Mike Brey is notorious for having a short bench. The Irish, for this season will have a solid rotation of 7 players. There is room for two more if they earn it. Those two players are Ty Nash and Carlton Scott.

Ty Nash (1.0 ppg, 1.3 rpg) appeared in 15 games for the Irish in his freshman season. At times he appeared very good. He is very athletic with a muscular build. In short, he has a “Big East” body. Will he get increased minutes in the upcoming season? The best chance will be doing it the “Kurz” way. He must do things such as rebounding, playing defense and diving for loose balls.

Many are anxiously awaiting the introduction of Carlton Scott. Scott was redshirted last season. Brey redshirted him in order for him to get stronger. Scott has a basketball body. He is long and can jump out of the gym. In practice, he has shown that he can dunk spectacularly and also has a 3-point range. Many think he will get more of a chance this season than Nash. Regardless, both players have a great upside in terms of talent.

Sophomore Tim Abromaitis might end up being the odd man out for this season. However, he does have talent. The former Connecticut Player of the Year runnerup can shoot the ball. If Brey, somehow, expands playing time, look for Abromaitis to play.

The Schedule
Notre Dame, in 2008-2009, just may be playing one of the toughest schedules in their history. That includes both, conference and non-conference games.

Last season, many complained about Notre Dame’s out-of-conference schedule. The RPI index of the opponents were low and provided no benefit to the Irish in terms of schedule strength, many believed. That is not so for the upcoming season. The Irish will “dive right in” (where have we heard that phrase before?) this season.

Notre Dame will travel to Hawaii to participate in the Maui Invitational. They will face rival Indiana in the opener. After that, possible opponents could be Alabama, Texas and North Carolina. In early December, the Irish will face Ohio State in Indianapolis. Then, in the middle of the rugged Big East portion of the schedule, Notre Dame takes a “break” and faces UCLA, in Los Angeles, in February.

Predictably, the Big East Conference leaders rewarded Notre Dame’s finish last season with a brutal schedule for this season. The Fighting Irish will face Connecticut and Louisville, no less than twice, this season. Both of those teams have been picked in the national top 5 by many publications and websites. Trips to Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Syracuse figure to be tough, too.

Expectations are very high for this edition of the Fighting Irish men’s basketball team. The players and coaches have been downplaying it during the offseason, saying they haven’t earned anything. But, you know it is in the back of their mind that this could be something special.

In order for the Irish to reach their high goals, a few things have to happen. First, as a team, they have to find a way to score 80 points a game. That should be no problem, given the firepower they have. On the opposite end, Notre Dame must improve defensively. The Irish ranked 12th in the Big Eat in scoring defense. The goal should be to, at least, move up to middle-of-the-pack.

Notre Dame needs to replace the hustle factor of Rob Kurz. No one person can do it. It has to be done by committee. So, key players in this endeavor will by Luke Zeller, Ryan Ayers, Zach Hillesland and the combo of Ty Nash and Carlton Scott. Point production would be nice, but diving for loose balls, playing defense and rebounding are more important.

Luke Harangody is no lone a surprise, as mentioned. Neither is Kyle McAlarney. But, each can help the other. When Harangody has no room, kick it out to McAlarney. When McAlarney is covered, get the ball to Harangody. If this happens as well as Tory Jackson driving and dishing, offensively, at least, the sky is the limit.

The Irish have been working very hard in the offseason on all of the aspects mentioned. Look for Notre Dame to have a very successful season – perhaps, their best since 1978 (Final Four season). A Big East championship, whether a regular season or a tournament one, is not out of the question. Neither is a deep run into the Big Dance. With the chips falling right, a run to the Elite 8 – or beyond – is possible.

01 Ty Nash, F, 6-8, 220, Sophomore, Queens, NY
02 Tory Jackson, G, 5-11, 193,Junior, Saginaw, MI
05 Tom Kopko, G, 6-2, 184, Sophomore, Chicago, IL
14 Scott Martin, G, 6-8, 200, Sophomore, Valparaiso, IN
20 Jonathan Peoples, G, 6-3, 215, Junior, Bellwood, IL
21 Tim Abromaitis, F, 6-8, 232, Sophomore, Unionville, CT
22 Ben Hansbrough, G, 6-3, 206, Junior, Poplar Bluff, MO
23 Kyle McAlarney, G, 6-0, 195, Senior, Staten Island, NY
33 Zach Hillesland, F, 6-9, 228, Senior, Toledo, OH
34 Carlton Scott, F, 6-7, 215, Sophomore, San Antonio, TX
40 Luke Zeller, F/C, 6-11, 245, Senior, Washington, IN
41 Tim Andree, F, 6-8, 213, Junior, Colts Neck, NJ
42 Ryan Ayers, G, 6-7, 210, Senior, Blue Bell, PA
44 Luke Harangody, F, 6-8, 255, Junior, Schererville, IN

Head coach - Mike Brey (George Washington, 1982)
Associate Head Coach - Sean Kearney (Scranton, 1981)
Assistant Coach - Anthony Solomon (Virginia, 1987)
Assistant Coach - Rod Balanis (Georgia Tech, 1993)
Coordinator of Basketball Operations - Martin Ingelsby (Notre Dame, 2001)

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