Saturday, January 9, 2010

Climbing the Mountain(eers)...Juuuuuust Barely

Wow. What a game. The Irish played one of the strangest, most bipolar games I have ever seen tonight at Purcell Pavilion. Earlier in the day in the wacky Big East, Georgetown overcame a 19 point second half deficit to beat UConn by three at home, and West Virginia certainly tried to take a page out of the Hoyas playbook tonight. I'm a stats guy, and this game gave us some weird lines. A quick glance at the box score and you think ND must have won by double digits. We shot 54% to West Virginia's 37%. First team All-Big East selection Da'Sean Butler was 4 for 20 from the field. Devin Ebanks was held without a point. The Irish had 21 assists on 23 field goals, 10 of which came from Psycho B (Ben Hansbrough), who fell just 4 points and a rebound shy of a triple double. The boys shot 21 free throws to the Mountaineers' 4. Surely this was the box score of a comfortable home win, right? Not so fast. Notre Dame jumped out to a 20 point halftime lead, shooting a scalding 75% in the process. We got anything we wanted, whenever we wanted it, and I have never seen a Bob Huggins team look so silly on defense. Huggy Bear is like the toilet paper on your shoe that you just can't get rid of. As a Louisville fan, I'm more familiar than any one should be with his style of play and how difficult is to beat one of his teams. In the first half, the Irish looked like a pro team; we were getting inside with ease, dominating a stout defensive interior and knocking down every open look we got from the outside.
The second half was a different story. West Virginia came out loose, free-flowing, and with nothing to lose, and it showed. They started knocking down their outside shots, and were simply not going to be denied the offensive glass. Here's where the stats begin to explain the flow of the game, and how it came right down to the wire: West Virginia had 18 offensive rebounds, scoring off nearly every one of them, and turned it over just 4 times. They didn't use the dribble-drive to run their offense, instead looking to get out in transition with extended, pressing defense, work the ball around the perimeter, and when they missed, go up and get the rebound. WVU has a stable of talented athletes, and is longer and faster at almost every position than ND. In the end, though, the first half was the difference. The Irish played the game like it was a must-win, and it was. They outhustled, outworked, and outplayed the Mountaineers for most of the game. In the end, it was the luck of the Irish that came through, as Butler's buzzer-beating prayer went halfway down and came right back out, preserving Notre Dame's first signature victory of the season. This was huge for ND, and it might be the game to turn around the season. Ty Nash was enormous tonight; he played 31 minutes, scoring 13 points and pulling down 6 rebounds. Brey only uses 7 players, and even Joey Brooks got into the action tonight with 5 points and a big three ball in the first half. It's going to be tough to play the starters all 30+ minutes a night in the physical Big East, though. Carleton Scott has taken a leave of absence from the team for personal reasons, and the Irish will miss his length and spark off the bench if he is gone for any extended period of time. Make no bones about it, though, this was an enormous Dub for Brey and the boys, the signature win we desperately needed, especially at home. We will have plenty of chances over the course of the year to record big W's, but getting them at home when you can is paramount if you want to make a run at a top tier finish in the Big East. Brey always makes these games interesting, for better or for worse, but a win is a win is a win is a win. Our defense has to improve; we can't expect to win games forcing only 4 turnovers, and we have to get better at boxing out and playing with toughness under the rim. Nash will continue to be a huge factor in our success this year, as will guys like Brooks and Johnathan "Party" Peoples off the bench. It almost makes some sense that we don't expend nearly as much energy on defense as we do on offense, because if all 5 starters are going to have to play 30 or more minutes a night, it's hard to expect a do-or-die effort on both ends of the floor. With only a couple subs to spare the starters, it's more important that they stay out of foul trouble at all costs. On the plus side, the Irish have 2 true point guards in Tory Jackson and Hansbrough. The tandem ranks 2nd and 5th nationally, respectively, in assist to turnover ratio, and their sure-handedness and poise with the rock in their hands is a huge reason for how well the offense looks when we really get it going. Defense, and bench contribution, will be the keys to a successful conference season for the Irish, but for now, let's enjoy the big win and get ready for Cincinnati next Saturday!

Looking Ahead?
On my last day home of winter break, I went to see Louisville take on St. John's at Freedom Hall. For most of the game, it looked as if the Cards were caught looking straight ahead to their Monday night showdown against Villanova on what will be a White Out night at home. They were sluggish and lacked energy for most of the afternoon. Several times the Cards allowed Red Storm players to sneak behind their defense and pick up easy buckets, or get loose on the baseline. These lapses need to be fixed before Nova comes to town in a couple of days. In the second half, Preston Knowles provided the spark Louisville had been looking for all day. He scored 6 consecutive points to put the Cards back on top, and consistently found open teammates and knocked down his own open looks whenever he got them. Edgar Sosa was quiet for most of the day, until a span of just a few minutes in which he knocked down a trio of 3 pointers to extend the margin to double digits. Jared Swopshire posted 15 points and 7 boards today, though, to make up for the largely unremarkable performances of Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings inside. Samuels needs to be quicker to the hoop and more aggressive defensively, and Jennings needs to apply the same intensity he does for spurts for an entire game. Jerry Smith continues to struggle to find his shot, but made up for it at the line, where he went 12 of 14 and kept the Red Storm at arm's length for the game's final minutes. When Villanova comes to town, guard play will be HUGE. The Wildcats play a 4 guard lineup, one whose quickness and scoring ability is difficult to match up with. Samuels needs to be a force on the inside, and the focus of the Cards' offense for this game. They need to work inside out, establishing the interior before looking to launch from beyond the arc. Knowles, Smith, and Sosa will win or lose this game for the Cards. Their ability to keep Reynolds, Redding, and Stokes in check will be the difference in the contest. Personally, I can't wait for it. Villanova is an upper echelon team who may well end up winning the Big East, and this will be a great barometer for the Cards. Louisville has yet to post a signature victory, and what better time to do it than Monday? I fondly remember the last whiteout at Freedom Hall, dominated by the spotless white suit of Pitino and a nice win over Georgetown at home. I can only hope this year's edition works out the same way. Is it a long shot? Yes. But is it a winnable game? Absolutely. I can't wait to see how the Cards match up with the league's elite, and this game should go a long way toward proving that they can compete with the big boys. Let's go Cards, and bring on the Wildcats!

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