Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Déjà Vu | by Pat

I think we all recognize this one by now. The game gets tight, the clock winds down, and the Irish fail to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. More depressing than the game itself, is the familiarity with this type of game.

Things hadn't started like this though. In the first two exhibitions game, the Irish appeared that, just maybe, there were signs of turning a corner. Against Rockhurst, the Irish won 79-44 and saw 9 players all play more than 10 minutes. In the next exhibition game against a similarly overmatched Bellarmine, once again the team concept shone through in an 87-55 win. Players were having fun and it seemed like the bench would be a key weapon all season with no absolute "go-to guy".
"I think they kind of like that -- let's see who's the double-figure guy tonight," Brey said. "That's a great frame of mind to have right now."

The Irish insist they have no problem relying on different guys each night out. That nobody looks to lead the team in shot attempts. That team basketball, where the rotation is at a solid nine, all of whom could see double-figures for minutes, can work.
The first game of the regular season continued the theme that perhaps this young team had the right mix of chemistry and hustle to perhaps surprise many this season. Against a IPFW team that returned most of the starters that only lost by 2 to the Irish last year, ND dominated in a 92-49 blowout.

And not only did the Irish win big, but again they all seemed to be saying the right things.
That the Irish have done that thanks to a change in philosophy. Instead of leaning on his starters for 37, 38 minutes a game, Brey has extended his bench to include a solid rotation of nine. No starter played over 30 minutes Friday. That allowed everyone to attack the basket and defend in waves of fresh legs.

"You're able to rebound better because nobody's tired," said Brey, whose team out-rebounded IPFW 54-28 and received 35 points, 25 rebounds, five assists and three steals from reserves. "We're beating people down the floor. Again, it's fresh guys.

"I tell them, 'Don't pace yourself. Play your spurt and we'll get a guy in there fresh.'"
But then, it all seems to have come crashing down with the second game of the season; a close loss to Butler in the first round of the pre-season NIT that not only will ultimately impact ND's strength of schedule (ND now won't face Indiana and possibly other high stature programs) but also brought back many of those old issues that for a moment appeared to be a thing of the past.

Defensively the Irish had a hard time switching over to defend against Butler shooters like A.J. Graves who hit a career high 8 three-pointers on the way to 28 points. And all of the promises of the deeper bench appeared to vanish as only 6 players reached double figures in minutes with four of them (Carter, KMac, Falls, Kurz) playing over 30.

Perhaps the worst thing to come out of the game though was this quote by Coach Brey.
"We've kind of been four-year guys, and if you hit us at the right time, we're pretty good," he continued, and now he was explicating how his program resembles a midmajor. "But we've got to wait for our guys to grow up in our program. That's a little bit of the school, the kind of kids we attract. A guy who wants to hit it for one year and go, two years and go, he's probably not going to choose us.

"We could use a marquee guy. We've got a lot of good players here, guys who can develop. Here's who we are, really. When you look at our program, our four guys in the NBA (Matt Carroll, Troy Murphy, Pat Garrity, Chris Quinn), none of them was a McDonald's All-American. Those are the kind of guys we get. The problem is, the league we're in, the league we signed up for … whew, it's brutal."
I do like and respect Coach Brey, but this quote sounds eerily familiar to similar excuse-making and "throw the players under the bus" comments made by Coach Davie and Willingham over on the football side of things. Losing a tight game is one thing. Losing and then not taking accountability is another.

Now, the season is still young and it's possible this game was just an aberration, or perhaps the final kick in the ass needed to really implement some coaching/strategy changes. All hope is not lost, as Zach Hillesland has showed plenty of athletic potential early and freshman Luke Harangody is off to a spectacular start in what looks like will be a fantastic career. But one or two talented players don't make a team, and even the best of players can be limited by lackluster coaching.

Again, it is early. But at the same time it appears to be getting pretty late for Coach Brey. It's time for him to show that he can junk what isn't working and develop a new identity. Sure, the team is indeed young and there will be growing pains along the way. But growing pains and freshman mistakes are almost forgivable. Repeating the same things that have led to losses in years past in the hopes that suddenly they start turning into wins is not.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A season of questions | by Pat

Back from a long summer's nap, The Fieldhouse is back and ready to cover the Irish hoops program as they open what is shaping up to be a very interesting season with an exhibition game against Division II Rockhurst tonight (streamed live from und.com). But before we get to the upcoming season, let's do a quick review of the noteworthy items that have happened since the last Fieldhouse update.

The Team

Practice started about a short time ago and expectations, at least from the media and fans, aren't too high this year. The Big East Coaches Poll picked ND as the 11th best team in the 16 team conference and the only player to earn pre-season all-conference honors is senior Colin Falls, who was named All-Big East Honorable Mention. Personally, I thought Russell Carter deserved some recognition and I look for him to be named to some post-season lists.

Und.com put up some practice video from an early practice, but really it's too soon to know what fans can really expect from the team. My premature stab at a starting five includes Kyle McAlarney at point, Colin Falls as the shooting guard, Russell Carter at the small forward spot, Rob Kurz at power forward, and Luke Zeller as the center. The thing is, Carter would also be very effective at the 2-guard spot, and Ryan Ayers would add a lot of height and athleticism as a small forward. And what about 6'9 Zach Hillesland, who apparently is the pre-season front-runner for breakout player of the year based on practice chatter and 2nd-hand reports? Oh, and don't forget the four man freshman class either, which includes quick point guard Tory Jackson and hopeful rebounding machine Luke Harangody. As you can see, there are plenty of lineup possibilities with this young team. One hand, that is pretty exciting, as fans get to see which young players step up to replace stalwarts Chris Quinn, Torin Francis, and Rick Cornett. On the other hand, given Brey's tendencies thusfar to play a short bench, fans are curious to see if he will keep it short or go to a deeper pool of subs more often.

One thing that Irish fans do hope to see is an increased focus on defense and hustle. Not that past Irish teams didn't work hard on the floor, but there almost seemed to be an attitude of the best defense is a good offense. Hopefully with plenty of athletic young players fighting for playing time, the Irish won't be near the bottom of the Big East again in many defensive categories.

I hesitate to give a prediction, because honestly I'm not really sure what to predict. I think that the team will be fun to watch, but there will definitely be some mistakes along the way due to the inexperience of many of the players. There is a concern that ND will be pushed around due to a real lack of low post size, so the quick adaptation of Luke Zeller to the low post and Luke Harandgody to the physical Big East are going to be keys to the season. Seeing as how Zeller is the only player on the team over 6-9, he's going to have to his work cut out for him against tall teams. I'm fairly confident in the guard play as Kyle McAlarney has all the traits of a solid floor leader and quick freshman Tory Jackson should provide a quality backup while Colin Falls and Russell Carter will make the shooting guard spot the most experienced position on the floor.

The Coach

I think it's fair to say that Mike Brey is on the hot seat this year. Not that it's burning, but it has been three years since the Irish have made the NCAA tournament and this year doesn't have the early look of a Big Dance season either. There was a vocal set of Irish fans last year who were calling for his job and certainly they will grow in number this year if Brey can't turn things around and show some positive momentum. Honestly, I think getting to the NCAA Tournament and perhaps even winning a few games are about the only thing Brey can do to quiet the masses. I don't know what Kevin White is thinking about the future of the men's basketball team, so it's possible that Brey's job will be safe even if the team, admittedly young, fails to make the tournament. Still, at some point a program has to decide if the status quo is good enough or if the goals and expectations are going to be set at a higher level.

Personally, I'm going to try and enjoy this season, win or lose. If the Irish are able to win games and look like an improved lot, that's fantastic. However, if they struggle and fail to close out close games and generally look like an inexperienced group of undersized shooters, then I'd like to think that the powers that be will recognize the situation and move to rectify it. If they don't, I'll complain then. In the meantime I'm going to assume that the people that matter are paying attention.


One thing that many Irish fans have been clamoring for are improved basketball facilities for the hoops program. Not that better locker rooms and a video scoreboard will make the team play better defense or open the flood gate of 5-star recruits, but it will put the Irish coach on a more even setting with many of his Big East counterparts. The program has lost a bit of its mojo lately, and while coaching is the key factor in that equation, it's a fact of modern college basketball that facilities play a major role.

As it turns out, ND is moving to improve the amenities in the JACC, although for now the early drafts call for more gameday atmosphere changes than items high on the Irish fan wishlist like a new practice facility. Still, the announcement of the $25 million renovation of the South Dome of the JACC is very welcome news indeed. Plans aren't final so I expect a few changes from the proposed drafts and I suspect it's possible that the lack of finality in the plans is also by design. If it comes that ND is in the market for a new coach, the promise of a say in how the University updates the arena. Either way, the fact that ND is moving to update the physical plant is a positive move that helps out the entire program and I'm sure has already helped Coach Brey in recruiting. Speaking of...


Somewhat surprisingly, Notre Dame has four commitments heading into the early Signing Period (early November). The first came in August and then in a whirlwind 3-day span, ND picked up three more players for the Class of 2009. We'll get to the ramifications of the large class in a minute, but first, let's meet the players.
Carlton Scott - This 6-8, 200 pound small forward from Texas was the first to hop on board on August 13th. The athletic forward was a bit of an unknown, as Vandy and Texas Tech were the only other programs to offer, but a broken leg that kept him out his entire junior year and can partially explain that. Described as an emerging prospect, the #12 junior in the Texas Class of 2007 just might see his stock rise even further before getting to campus.

Ty Proffitt - A point guard who potentially projects to shooting guard in college, Proffitt is a favorite for Mr. Basketball in Kentucky after being named 1st Team All-State his junior year. Picking ND on October 22nd, the 6-4, 190 pound guard had offers from schools like Stanford and Western Kentucky and was being recruited by Kentucky and Florida, but neither of the latter got to officially extending an offer.

Tyrone Nash - Just 48 hours after Proffitt gave Brey his word, so did Nash, a 6-8, 220 pound guard/forward combo. Nash is probably the highest rated of the four recruits, even though he is only a three-star recruit according to rivals. Still, he had a rather impressive offer list including Indiana, Kentucky, Marquette, St. Johns, and Seton Hall. Like Scott, Nash appears to be an active player who will be helpful on defense and on the boards as he fine-tunes his offensive game.

Tim Abromaitis - Flying under the radar completely, Abromaitis committed to Notre Dame on October 25th. Apparently ND was his only major conference D-1 offer, although Tim was mainly looking at smaller east coast schools near his Connecticut home. At 6'7, 210 pounds, Abromaitis is still a bit of an unknown to Irish fans. His coach raves about his hustle and work ethic and notes he was 1st team all-state as a junior.
The common theme with these four players seems to be position flexibility. All four seem to be able to handle a few different spots on the court. Proffitt probably will end up as a shooting guard, ala Falls, but his background as a high school point guard is nice to have. Scott, Nash, and Abromaitis all seem like fairly athletic guys and could handle either small forward or power forward. Which one, if any, ends up at power forward probably depends on who can add the most bulk as none of them seem overly bulky now.

The decision to take four recruits, which leaves the next class with only one available scholarship, is a bit interesting. You never want to blame a kid for accepting an offer (who wouldn't take a free ride to ND?), but I'm a bit unsure why the staff went after a 3rd 6'7, 200 pound kid when there were already two in the class. Maybe they all have a different skill sets, but from the admittedly sparse reviews online they don't seem all that different from each other. It will be interesting to (hopefully) hear Brey address this during his Signing Day press conference. Until then we'll hold off on too much speculation.