Saturday, March 29, 2008

Two Steps Forward...

Here we sit 12 months removed from ND's last NCAA tournament loss. The scenery seems familiar, yet remains different in important ways.

Once again, we reflect on a season that gave us a lot to be happy about in the macro view but left us with a stinging aftertaste. For the second year in a row and in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1947, the Irish finished undefeated at home, a feat that seemed very far away last March. For the second year in a row, the Irish did not lose a Big East home game, putting them on track to challenge the overall conference home record of 20 set by Pitt earlier this decade. For the second year in a row, the offense showed versatility, purpose and efficiency, with Notre Dame finishing among the nation's best in most categories. They even managed an improvement in rebounding long sought by the fans during Mike Brey's tenure.

But also for the second year in a row, the team tripped up a bit at the finish. Last year it was the upset loss to Winthrop leaving a bad taste in our mouths. This year, although they took steps forward with the opening victory in the tournament, they stumbled back a bit while leaving us wondering if ND was really 20 points worse than the Wazzu Cougars.

For every advance this season, there seemed to be a small setback. As powerful as the Irish offense was, we still saw the lowest point production in a game since Mike's been here. As improved as the rebounding was, we had games down the stretch where the margin went the other way. And even though defense was a priority, we also had the most points given up in a game in Mike's tenure when the Irish visited Marquette.

Feast or famine? Most definitely, the feast. I may overuse the phrase "lots to like", but there's no doubt there was plenty of that this year. And with everyone but Rob Kurz returning, they have the potential to go even farther.

But if they're going to realize that potential, everyone involved with the program has work to do.

For this entry, I'm going to focus on the players. Or, rather, Section12 from NDN is going to focus on them, because he summarized our needs in a recent post much better than I ever could.

S, take it away:

These are specific skills that can and should be mastered over the summer just playing hoops ain't gonna cut it.

Kyle McAlarney
Develop your left hand, namely finishing in the paint and pull up jumpers while moving left. Additionally, delivering entry passes with your left will make you and the team that much harder to guard. By the end of the year everyone was camping on your right hand forcing you left and while you did an admirable job driving and finishing, being a one sided three point shooter makes you far to easy to guard. If you doubt the value of having a strong left hand, call John Paxson and he'll let you know. Pax didn't have your range nor quickness yet he accomplished great things because he was nearly ambidextrous.

Tory Jackson
Retool your free throw routine. Specifically, narrow your base as your legs are spread way to far; the additional effort required to come out of your dip before delivering the free throw causes you balance issues.

Ryan Ayers
Add 10 pounds and practice going to the rim against football players. Learn to crave the contact. With your long arms and ability to put the ball on the floor, you should be able to take the ball to the hole with authority. Once you demonstrate that skill, pull-up jumpers (and, of course, the three point shot) will become that much easier. A breakout senior season is not out of the question should you dedicate yourself to expanding your game.

Zach Hillesland
Add the pull-up jumper -- namely, the eight-foot bank from the wing. Develop this and you'll notice a lot less charging calls and become the match-up nightmare Mike Brey envisions you to be.

Luke Zeller
Jump rope. That and any other footwork drill you can imagine. Hell, play soccer all summer, just learn how to effectively move those size 17's. Your passing skills and your ability to shoot should get you extended minutes. It's your footwork which limits you both offensively and defensively.

Luke Harangody
Get thee to a big man camp, specifically one with a defensive mindset. It pained me to watch as opposing big men repeatedly set up shop so close to the basket. You are quick enough to beat your man to the spot and strong enough to pin him there. It's time you should be able to guard your man in the man-to-man without requiring double-team help from your teammates.

Jonathon Peoples
Please, please adopt LFH's diet and workout regimen over the summer. Lose 15 pounds to improve your quickness. You've got a decent stroke and you have the strength to finish in the paint. It's just the pace slows considerably when you enter the game. This is correctable, but will require heart and desire.

If Zeller and Peoples can improve their quickness and Harangody can defend the post in the man-to-man, we can be a Sweet 16 team with the potential of being Elite 8. If Ayers and Hillesland can expand their offensive games, there's a chance to go further. Jackson simply must shoot around 70 percent from the line or he'll surrender late game minutes to someone else. If McAlarney can develop his left hand to become more than serviceable, he can play at the next level.

Well said, S. I'll be back tomorrow to opine about next steps at the program level.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Living the Dream

Those of you who regularly read NDN know our relationship with the South Bend Tribune has been rather contentious. Under normal circumstances, I'm not prone to link things I find there. However, a good friend e-mailed a link to me I felt I should share with the ND basketball fans.

The Trib is taking a poll to determine ND's dream team for the ages. ND did their All-Century Team back in 2005, but the SBT is looking for a more focused list.

I encourage ND hoops fans of all shapes and sizes to participate. With the Irish enjoying their strongest hoops success in a while, it's good to reflect on the past and know how we got here. You don't have to stick to the All-Century list --- there may be a player not on it you think deserves mention, as I (almost) did with Ray Meyer.

As a start, or perhaps as an exercise in narcissism, here's the team I submitted:

1) Austin Carr. Duh.

2) Adrian Dantley. Duh II, the revenge.

3) Edward "Moose" Krause. The man revolutionized low post play in his era. Every time you (should) hear a whistle for three seconds, you have Moose to thank for it.

4) John Moir

5) Paul Nowak.

ND has had precious few three-time consensus All-Americans, and these guys are two of them. Moir was National Player of the Year in 1936, when the Irish won the national championship, and it was the first time the guy had ever played organized basketball.

6) Tommy Hawkins. The Hawk still holds a lot of rebounding records at Notre Dame, all achieved in only three years of playing.

7) Dick Rosenthal. What Moose was to ND hoops in the 30's, Rosenthal was in the 50's. He was a dominating low-post man, and led the Irish to the Elite Eight in his senior year ... the last time they'd get there until Digger's Final Four trip.

8) David Rivers. Not only was he one of the most gifted guards ever to play at ND, he led his junior year team to the Sweet 16 seven months after lying on the side of a road with his abdomen slashed open. If that's not balls, I don't know what is.

9) Collis Jones. He'd be considered one of ND's greatest if he hadn't had a teammate named Carr. And to his credit, he's never complained about it once and remains AC's greatest friend and supporter.

10) Kelly Tripucka. The last spot came down to him or Ray Meyer, who I wanted to put in there based on what he brought to the game of basketball over 50 years. But I decided leading ND to their only Final Four so far had to trump that.

Jump on their site and share your own team with the poll. They'll be releasing the results on the 21st.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Numbers Game

There are no more Joyce Center games for Rob Kurz and his Irish teammates, and kudos to them for pulling off what no Big East team has done before: Completing a home conference schedule unscathed two seasons in a row. They haven't set the home conference win streak record yet ... Pitt still owns that 20-game mark ... but we'll be looking for that in January.

I've talked before about the 24-game record Mike Brey and his charges broke back in December. As I said then, I believe pulling off a second straight undefeated season at home makes this streak superior, UCLA or no UCLA. And as I also said then, it's time to start looking at the 38-game streak the Irish are poised to break as the next season dawns.

The current record home win streak started December 11th, 1943, with a 41-31 win over Wisconsin, and ended February 9th, 1948, with a 68-51 loss to St. Louis. It spanned five seasons and almost as many coaches -- Moose Krause bookended it in its first and last two seasons, with Clem Crowe and Elmer Ripley taking one season each while Moose was in the Service. All-Century Team member Leo "Crystal" Klier (yes, that was his nickname) and All-American Vince "Magilla" Boryla (no, that most definitely was not) spent the first part of the streak claiming and re-claiming the Notre Dame scoring record, and fellow All-Century man Kevin O'Shea contributed at the other end during his outstanding freshman season. Marquettte and Piggy Lambert-led Purdue each fell four times during its course, with Northwestern and Butler three times and Wisconsin and Michigan State twice. And the streak even had its UCLA: the 1948 Kentucky team they beat was a juggernaut featuring Ralph Beard, Wallace Jones, and Alex Groza that went on to an NCAA championship that year.

So which one is superior? Which cuisine reigns supreme?

Part of me says the 38-game streak. But then I remember some other things about it.

As impressive as three straight undefeated home seasons is, in the days of the Fieldhouse, most top teams wouldn't play ND there and ND played most of their games on the road or at neutral sites. In addition to its reputation as a snake pit, the Fieldhouse only sat around 4,000 people, and once you factored in the students (who watched games for free), there was precious little gate to split with the road squad. ND did beat that 1948 Kentucky squad, but that was the only time the Wildcats appear on the victims list. Meanwhile, Loras, Bunker Hill, Franklin, Drake, Alma and Valpo are all taking up slots too.

There was also a war on, and a lot of major programs were shells of their usual selves. Notre Dame, thanks to the Naval ROTC on campus, was able to stay competitive, but a lot of programs had to shut down during the 1945 and 46 seasons. Even ND had to employ journeyman coaches to stay afloat.

The current streak still lacks the top-five (or top-ranked) crown jewel to really make it special, and maybe next season we'll see one. But they've added a couple more ranked teams to the list of pelts this season in #13 UConn and #21 Marquette. They've done what no team in Big East history has been able to do, winning the conference home slate two years in a row. And they've captivated crowds that wandered away from the program during the dark decade, making the Joyce Center a feared venue once again.

Perhaps this will be like breaking the 24-game record ... right now, the current streak hasn't differentiated itself enough to make the comparison clear. But a couple more games, and there'll likely be no doubt.

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