2008 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Key Wins: UConn, @Villanova, Marquette, Pittsburgh
Key Losses: N-Baylor, @Georgia Tech, @ Marquette@ Georgetown
Key Stat: Rebounding Margin. No player on the floor quits until the ball is in the basket. Like piranhas in search of an unclaimed meal, Irish rebound with tremendous hunger. They will finish the year in the top ten nationally in rebounding margin, previously unthinkable for an ND team.
Biggest Strengths: Length. The five players who see regular action are: 6’10”, 6’9”, 6’9”, 6’8”, and 6’8”. All five play to their height too, rarely shying away from rebounds. The forward/centers are not great shot-blockers but do get their arms up in the air to dissuade shots quite a bit. This small action is helpful in making opponents try harder shots.
Beyond being big, strapping gents, the Golden-domers’ frontline has fascinating agility. Placed against a white wall, Zach Hillesland, Ryan Ayers, and even Luke Zeller would appear 6’2”. The fluidity of movement and swiftness of each belies their tall stature. Hillesland, in particular is really mobile, stringy. He hustles frequently, which earns him value as an important, supporting player. Rob Kurz on the other hand reminds of an old car. The center has clunky mechanics, yet gets to his destination regularly; efficient while awkward-moving.
Led by two enthusiastic people, Coach Mike Brey and point guard Tory Jackson push the positivity. “We are having a great season,” said Brey after lambasting Pitt at home. “The weight of the world is on our shoulders. Just play. Just play. Smile. This is Big East basketball. Have fun.”
Biggest Weaknesses: Notre Dame feeds off emotion and success. More than most teams ND wears its collective emotion on its metaphorical sleeve. The Irish prefer the quick strike. When shots are not falling the team stands around more. They sulk. The veteran unit has very high expectations and some tend to pout when these expectations go unmet. More than a streaky team ND is a surging team that varies from average to great scoring output. Brey and Jackson are positive people who lead with encouraging words and assured actions.
When ND is slumping Brey might bring the press in an attempt to inspire energy in his troops. In the middle of January Notre Dame lost to Marquette by 26 and Georgetown by 19. The talent disparity is not that big and being away from home is a feeble excuse. The obvious Joyce Center-inspired pep in their step has to be conjured up on the road too. All season ND hovered around .500 in road/neutral games both in and out of conference.
Most Important Player: No slam on Tory Jackson but Luke Harangody is ultimately the guy.
To look at him you would think LH shoves his defender with two hands before stepping over the beleaguered opponent en route to a nasty jackhammer dunk. And you would be wrong. The painted lane serves as a canvas for this footwork artisan. His footwork reeks of a soccer upbringing, though he has always been a ballplayer. Expect pirouettes, stutter steps, unnatural 360’s, drop steps, and face up jumpers when Luke is in action. Even after the bull strong Harangody creates space for a shot #44 has one more hidden talent. The center also owns a feathery soft touch. Many shots approach the rim as an offering, polite and well intentioned. Evidence of his exceptional touch exists in Harangody’s 78% free throw shooting. Imagine the pressure on the defense to play him straight up. Because two shots are virtually money in the bank the hesitant almost restrained defense rears its ugly head. Between his good freshman season and potentially Big East Player of the Year caliber sophomore campaign Harangody dropped 15 pounds. His hips trimmed down, but the bruising shoulders did not. When creativity fails Harangody uses this dimension marvelously. Nudge, bump, whatever it takes he overpowers when necessary.
X-Factor: Kyle McAlarney. There is the chance K-Mac goes off. He can single-handedly stomp on teams. In ten different basketball games, McAlarney made at least five three-point baskets. The 6-foot guard dropped 30 points three times. On the other side of the coin, McAlarney was held to single digits eight times. He is not only a great shooter with tremendous range; McAlarney takes shots at important times. He can recognize the vital moments and willingly step forward. As much attention as Harangody demands now, McAlarney should get plenty of open shots. Might Lose When: The balance displayed by Notre Dame is truly impressive. They have an inside scorer, a great shooter, a commanding, strong point guard, and plenty of complimentary pieces.
Because they are multi-faceted a collapse seems less likely. An injury to Harangody would obviously be an enormous blow to the team. Tory is probably just as irreplaceable. His ascendance within the Big East has been impressive too. Injuries aside the only real concern for ND is a loosening on defense. The team as a whole can become flimsy on defense especially after they give up an offensive rebound to the attacking team. For Notre Dame the instinct, at this point, is not to deny shots. For some reason they gawk, which is plainly ineffective when trying to stop someone from scoring.
Might Surprise You With: Toughness. In the last five years Notre Dame thrived with polished shooting. The defense fluctuated between flaky and marginally inspired. While both elements persist, each has taken a backseat to toughness. For the first time since his arrival eight years ago, Mike Brey managed to firmly implant the fight in the Fightin’ Irish. Not just hulking Harangody brings the toughness. Grizzled McAlarney battles. Tory Jackson courageously competes. He even blocked DaJuan Blair, one of the most physically imposing players in the conference. “TJ makes his teammates believe,” said Brey. In a dramatic homecourt comeback versus Pitt, Jackson corralled 13 rebounds. The dude is 5’11”. The Notre Dame leprechaun can look him eye-to-eye for goodness sakes. Even McAlarney, the kid born in NYC’s softest borough (Staten Island) brings moxie.
Predicted finish in the NCAA’s: Elite 8.
Editor’s Note: Notre Dame has won all of its top games at home, as Andrew points out in this article. So I’ll be watching their Big East Tournament performance very closely. I love the go-to factor with Luke Harangody, and the Irish spread the floor pretty well. They’re no longer soft in the middle, as they’ve been in recent memory. Elite Eight may be a little deep for my taste, but they should be favored to reach the Sweet 16.