Friday, February 26, 2010

Q & A With Kyle Kuric

So remember how I said I might be interviewing a Louisville player to get some thoughts on the team this year? No? Well I did, and now I'm making good on the promise. Through a mutual friend, I got in touch with sophomore guard Kyle Kuric. Kuric, a native of Evansville, Indiana, is a solid role player on this year's edition of the Cards. In 27 games this season, he averages 3.5 points and 2.6 rebounds in just over 13 minutes of action, and he was nice enough to take the time to answer some questions for me and our loyal readers as his team fights for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

(Editor's note: These questions were sent about a month ago, hence some of the questions that don't match up with what's happening today.)

Q: Your recruiting decision came down to the wire back in 2008. In the end, what made you decide to play for Coach Pitino at Louisville?
A: It came down to Coach Pitino. He's a hall of fame coach, coaching at a high-major program and it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

Q: Last year, you guys finished 16-2 in the Big East, winning the regular season and tournament titles. Looking back, how impressive was that feat? Did the loss to Michigan State spoil the year for you, or do you still have fond memories of last season?
A:Last year's Big East titles were great accomplishments. Almost every game was against a Top 25 opponent, many of them being in the Top 10. Although the Michigan State loss ended our season earlier than we all wanted it to, it was still a great year. Winning the Big East
regular season title, Big East tournament, regular season number 1 ranking, and the number 1 overall seed for the NCAA tournament was a great year.

Q: North Carolina fell out of the polls this week for the first time since January of 2006. How tough is it to lose the kind of talent and leadership that they did, the kind you lost with Terrence Williams, Earl Clark, and Andre McGee?
A:It's tough to come back the next year with losing that kind of talent. Many guys are stepping up into roles that they aren't used to, getting more playing time and becoming more of an impact player for their team. Another thing that is lost is the leadership that they brought. That needs to be replaced and it's a hard thing to do.

Q: What’s the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s?
A:The experience and vocal leadership are two big things that are different. Having guys step up and play big minutes for the first time. And we have leadership but it's not as vocal as it was last
year. T-Will was a naturally vocal person and other people fed off him.

Q: From watching the team all through last year, it looked like T-Will and McGee were the heart and soul of the team. Who fills that role this year?
A:I'm not sure if one or two people can fill their roles this year. Instead it'll be more of a team effort. The more we play together the better we will play.

Q: What does the locker room normally sound like? Are you guys a goofy bunch or more businesslike?
A:It will usually depend on the day. Some days quiet, other days it is loud. But overall I'd say we are goofy but when it comes down to business we handle ourselves appropriately.

Q: You’ve seen your playing time shoot up dramatically this year, and you were in the game in the final minutes against Pitt. How gratifying is it to know that Coach P has that kind of trust in you, especially in a hostile environment?
A:Playing time is sometimes hard to interpret with coach but you just have to be ready at any time and always stay focused. It is gratifying to play in those situations and good to remember that through rough times.

Q: Most games, you get between 12 and 20 minutes, but sometimes Mike Marra gets the bulk of the court time. What determines who gets more playing time in a given game?
A: It could be many things: maybe one of us practiced better that week, or coach will expect the other team will do something and play which one will fit better against the other team.

Q: You are, for my money, the best pure rebounder on the team, especially on the offensive glass, despite being only 6’4”. Have you always had that nose for the ball, or is it something you’ve worked hard on at Louisville?
A:I've always been a good rebounder but it has gotten a lot better since I've been at Louisville. I am good at predicting where the ball might come off and get in that general spot.

Q: Is there anyone you’ve tried to model your game after? What will be your main focus as far as improving your game goes for the rest of the season?

A:There isn't really one person that I've modeled my game after. I try and look at different players and study what their strengths are and why. My main focus is just staying confident. Confidence is key to shooting, defense, dribbling, etc.

Q: Most of the talking heads thought the Big East would be down this year, but Pittsburgh is in the top 20 despite being picked to finish 9th in the conference, Syracuse and Villanova both have only 1 loss all year, Seton Hall just beat Pitt last week, and UConn took down Texas without Jim Calhoun. Fran Fraschilla has said that in the Big East, it’s all about getting on a 1 game winning streak and going from there. Is that the case? What’s the toughest part about playing in the conference?

A:The toughest part about this conference is the competition and competitiveness. There's no easy game. Anyone can get beat by anyone on any given night. We just played Depaul and they are alot better than their record shows, so every night we have to go out and compete hard
to win.

Q: Who is the best player you’ve guarded/played against at Louisville?
A: I've played against a lot of great players so far, there's Thabeet, Harangody, Dyson, Johnson, and I have to put Twill on the list. All of those guys, except for may be 1, are or will be in the NBA.

Q: As a Notre Dame student, I have to ask: What do you think of Luke Harangody?
A:He's a very deceptive player. You look at him and you don't think basketball player or athletic. But the truth is if you don't prepare for him he can put up 40 on you.

Q: For the past few years, Pitino’s teams have been the best on the road in the Big East and great at closing out games. This year’s team has let a couple games slip away, againstVillanova and Pitt. What is it going to take to be able to close out games against some of the top teams in the country?
A:The main thing is to stay focused and finish games. It's easy to not be focused and let a game get away but good teams stay focused and win games they are supposed to win and also some games that they aren't supposed to win.

Q: Free throw shooting has been a bit of a weak spot for the last few years. Does the team spend a lot of time on them, or is it more of a mental thing?
A: In my opinion it's a combination of both. May be one influences the other. We shoot free throws everyday after practice and even more on game days. My thinking is the more you work on them the more confidence you have which is the mental aspect of them.

Q: Jerry Smith has never shot below 46% in his career, and in each of the last 3 years, he has shot better from 3 point range than he is shooting from the field this year (38%). How much is his slump bothering him? The last couple games, he seems to have really tried to help the team in other ways, and I see him getting the bench fired up all the time. Is that more of a focal point for him as he tries to regain his touch?

A: Although he has been in a shooting slump, for him, he is doing many other things to help the team out. It's not all about scoring. Getting a stop on defense is just as, if not more, important than scoring. He gets a lot of deflections, drives the lane to set up other people for shots, and when he's not in the game he's on the bench getting everyone fire up.

Q: Pitino teams are famous for slow starts and great finishes. Do you see this team making a run the rest of the conference season? What will it take to do that?

A: Like you said his teams are known for that, and I think we are capable of making a good run to finish out the conference season. It will take a lot to do that. It will take focus, hard work, and a drive to win. Coach prepare us well for the other team and we just need to go out and execute the game plan.

Q: How much has the addition of Ralph Willard to the coaching staff helped the team this season?
A: He has influenced the team a great deal since his arrival. His approach is different than coach's and it helps us out sometimes if things are explained a different way. He is a great coach and I'm glad he's here.

Q: Sunday against Cincinnati, we saw Terrence Jennings and Samardo Samuels play together for extended stretches, something I’ve been hoping to see a lot of this season. How dangerous can this team be when they are playing well together, and how does it change the way
opponents have to prepare for you guys?
A:TJ and Mardo playing together is another combination that makes it hard for other teams to prepare for. Truthfully, we have several lineups with different strengths and we are deep. On any night, we can put in three or four lineups that cause match up problems for many teams.

Q: No matter how this season plays out, clearly there’s a lot to look forward to in the coming years. How have you seen this year’s freshman grow as the year has progressed? How excited are you for the next couple recruiting classes, one of which (2011) already includes 2 members of the ESPN Super 60, to come to the Ville?
A:Coach always brings in great players so we can be successful. I know we have a lot of talent coming in and I look forward to playing with those guys but truthfully my focus is this year and now.


Q: How excited are you to play in the new arena next year?
A: I'm really excited to play in the new arena. It's going to be an amazing place to play. I will have had 2 years in Freedom Hall and will have 2 years in the new stadium. Best of both worlds.

Q: How hard is it to balance the demands of being a major conference college basketball player with your academics? (Congrats on being named to the AD’s Honor Roll, by the way)
A: It's really challenging to excel in both athletics ad acedemics. But I've learned to manage my time and how to get things done that I need to get done. For example, this year on flights instead of sleeping I would take homework with my and do it on the plane or I do it while we are stuck with curfew at the hotel.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

We Never Graduate Salutes Utah State

Usually this blog is focused on just a few specific teams, but I stumbled across a video on Rivals that deserves the spotlight (because, you know, it's pretty dam glaring here at We Never Graduate).

This is the Utah State student section at the end of their recent home victory over Nevada. With the game in hand they unleashed the loudest, most aggressive coordinated cheer I've ever heard. The Youtube clip doesn't really fit nicely but it's awesome enough that I just don't care.

Utah State Aggie fans, for this we salute you.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Breaking Down Mike Brey

Over the past month the Irish’s somewhat promising season has come undone thanks to crushing defeats at the hands of Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. John’s, and Louisville. The latest trio of losses has led the masses to grab their pitchforks and call for the head of head coach Mike Brey. Other people argue that it is unfair to hold the program to a higher standard than it’s currently attained because it is unrealistic to think any coach could do any better with the hand Brey has been dealt.


Over the course of ten years Mike Brey has done a lot for the Notre Dame Basketball Program while dealing with some pretty tough restrictions (academics) and sub-standard facilities. Is it time for a change? There’s been a lot of literature out there recently about why Brey is the right fit or at least why he shouldn’t be let go (here’s an article by Lou Somogyi from BGI, one from Mike Coffey from ND Nation, and an entire state of the program from Kevin O’Neill) so I’ll try to present the educated counterpoint.


Brey has an impressive overall record and a rock solid record in the toughest conference in America, but eventually there comes a point when numbers don’t tell the entire story and you can see with your own eyes that a ceiling has been reached. Need an example from another sport? Call up some Philadelphia Eagles fans and get their take on the yearly Donovan McNabb-Andy Reid experience. Brey’s dismissal would have less to do with his body of work and more to do with his basic philosophies and the trends and attitudes that have been entrenched within the program over the course of his tenure.


We can start with the fact that inadequate attention is given to the simple fundamentals of basketball. I vividly remember Brey talking about the loss of Rob Kurz and what it meant to the team during the ’08-’09 campaign. He said, “Rob did all the little things like screening and we really miss that.” Now Rob Kurz was a great and underrated contributor who was greatly missed last year, but you’re telling me that when he left our ability to set screens left as well? Luke Harangody is 6-7, 250lbs. Tell me why he couldn’t square up, lay his body into someone, and spring one of the bombers we had last year for an open three?


Setting screens has nothing to do with talent; it has to do with focus and attention to detail. I realize that the players on the court shoulder some of the blame for not executing, but Brey has a responsibility to call out and hold players who can’t perform simple tasks like setting an effective pick accountable. Watching Zeller and Harangody set lazy, half-hearted screens last year as Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers—guys who made open threes far more often than they missed them—tried to get free last year in half-court sets with limited success made me want to jam my head through a wall.


Attention to detail is an attitude that starts from the top and trickles down and it’s something Mike Brey simply lacks. It manifests itself on the boards as well. Countless times over the past couple years we have allowed offensive rebounds at the most inopportune time. Almost every week of the season it seems an Irish player appears on the wrong side of highlight reel putback dunk. Many times it’s not because we’re outmatched athletically, we just completely fail to turn and box a man out. Just a few weeks ago Rutgers essentially locked up a victory by tipping out a missed free throw in the last two minutes that sucked all the air out of the Irish balloon. That’s the definition of lacking focus.


Another more glaring shortcoming of Brey-coached teams is defense. There is absolutely no excuse for how terrible our defense is year in and year out. No, we do not have the elite athletes of other teams in the conference and we can’t expect to have a smothering Pitino-like press in the Big East. Does that mean there’s any defensible reason to be ranked toward the bottom of the entire NCAA in defensive efficiency every season? Absolutely not.


Brey has gone on record stating that he’s willing to sacrifice defense to maintain rhythm and flow on the offensive side of the ball. This is a guy who learned under the greatest high school coach ever (Morgan Wooten) and one of the greatest college coaches ever (Mike Krzyzewski). Both are icons in the sport that must cringe every time they hear their old assistant utter his philosophy. It blows my mind that in spite of learning at the foot of these legends and seeing how they operate and approach the game, Brey still takes on an indifferent and borderline dismissive attitude about defense.


One excuse that’s trotted out on behalf of shortcomings on the defensive end is the lack of athletes to employ an effective man-to-man all game long. Defense is not as much about having athletes as it is about effort and attitude. Those that tell you otherwise are wrong. Period. He’s right, we can’t lock down the upper level teams by playing man-to-man all day but that’s no reason to wave a white flag. Why not seek to neutralize the disadvantage we face through alternatives?


The Naval Academy doesn’t line up in traditional sets in football and hope to beat the Notre Dames of the world. They implement a disciplined offense designed to confuse their more talented opponents, shorten the game, and level the playing field as much as possible. Do they win all the time? Absolutely not (please use restraint on your Charlie Weis cracks), but sometimes they find a way (you may now unload on Charlie). The talent gap between Navy football and ND football is far greater than ND basketball and the rest of the Big East.


What about committing to a 2-3 Matchup Zone? It’s something that nobody—to my knowledge—in the Big East currently employs at least on a consistent basis. It could be a wrinkle to disguise our weaknesses and confuse offenses. Temple almost exclusively used the Matchup under John Chaney and had a great deal of success with it throughout the 90’s. Is it a slam dunk to work? No. Could it be worse than the current state of our defense? No. The unwillingness to address the problem over the course of his ten years is unacceptable. The ceiling for teams that can’t buckle down and make stops at crucial points in the game is very low—it doesn’t matter how vaunted their offense is.


Speaking of that explosive offense, let’s dissect that a bit. Much to Brey’s credit his teams are normally chock full of offensive firepower. When things are clicking it is a thing of beauty to watch and the Irish are capable of scoring in bunches that few teams can match. However, inevitably there are times in games where things don’t run like clockwork. Brey’s offensive philosophy is free-flowing, but when it stalls we never seem to have anything to fall back on. This becomes particularly evident down the stretch when games grind to a slower, half-court affair.


At the end of games instead of drawing up a play it seems Brey puts the clipboard down and says “go out there and create.” Most of the time it leads to the Irish coming out in a 1-4 set where the point guard (whether it be Tory Jackson or Chris Thomas or Chris Quinn) tries to take his man off the dribble. The last time I remember this working was when Chris Thomas hit a shot to beat St. John’s at the buzzer during the ’04-’05 season. We’re not built for a slow, half-court game but a coach has to realize that in each contest there will come a point where an offensive set is necessary. Part of being a great coach in any sport on any level is the ability to make adjustments. Even on the offensive side of the ball—where Brey’s teams clearly excel—the necessary adaptability to be anything more than a fringe team is lacking.


There are also a wide variety of personnel decisions he makes on a yearly basis that are just maddening. Almost every year he decides to go with only a six or seven deep rotation. This allegedly helps the offense maintain its flow but usually at the expense of running out of gas down the stretch of the season. Take this year for example. I don’t think anyone can provide a legitimate reason that Joey Brooks, Jack Cooley, and Carleton Scott couldn’t have played a bigger role earlier in the season. At the same time no one can convince me that Jonathan Peoples should have been anything more than the tenth man on this year’s squad.


Brey almost seems to slow-play guys so that they can emerge unexpectedly as juniors instead of giving them 8 to 12 hard, intense minutes a game early in their careers to give the starters a blow while giving them valuable experience. We’ve already established we don’t have the caliber of athlete that Syracuse and UConn have so why wouldn’t we counteract that by maximizing the talent we actually do have on the roster? Carleton Scott is the best athlete on the team and instantly upgrades our defense the moment he steps on the court. Was his attitude that bad in the first two months of the season that he couldn’t have gone out and contributed the way he has been the past couple games? Why couldn’t Jack Cooley have been put in for a few minutes per game to bang around inside? He’s actually an upgrade over Harangody on the defensive end. No one is calling for these guys to play 25-30 minutes a game; it just seems to be a waste when they rot on the bench as we slip farther and farther toward the wrong side of the bubble.


To me the most damning evidence against Brey is not what we have seen on the court, it’s what we’ve heard from his mouth. Last December when his team was ranked in the top 15 he stated that he would be content with a 9-9 league record. From this Chicago Tribune article he stated, "Where do I sign on Dec. 26? I don't want to sell us short, but I've been through the cycle of the league nine years now. You thrive when you can, then when rotate up into that (difficult schedule), can you survive?"


When I read that I realized Mike Brey probably had run his course at Notre Dame. Odds are high that we’ll never surpass this plateau under the current regime—middle of the road Big East team that lives on the bubble every season—because the guy leading the ship isn’t striving to push the program to new heights. He’s content with this state of affairs and armed with a Bob Davie-like laundry list of excuses to defend his teams’ shortcomings.


Last year—when he had his best team in his ten years at Notre Dame, a preseason top ten outfit—it was the schedule that was to blame. Then he went on record stating that the heightened expectations were unrealistic in the first place. Was our team a bit overrated in the preseason when we found ourselves in the top ten last year? Yes, it was. But we had the best player in the Big East, a veteran squad, and a high octane offense that completed a 14-4 regular season the previous year. It’s crazy to think we shouldn’t have been a top 25 team and it’s even more incredulous to suggest that we should have been even flirting with being on the bubble. Brey set the bar so low that the Irish tripped over it and that is nothing short of unacceptable.


The reality is that for better or worse Mike Brey will not be fired after this season. He’s only two years removed from being dubbed Big East Coach of the Year and replacing him would unleash a media firestorm. In all honesty, I believe that next year this team is poised to have a season much like ’06-’07 when expectations were low and they emerged as a surprise top 25 team by the end of the season. People are going to overestimate how much the loss of Harangody will set ND back, I absolutely love the core of Abromaitis-Hansbrough-Martin-Nash-Scott-Brooks, and we’re going to fall into an easier schedule rotation than the last two years. Another successful year and another NCAA berth will silence the critics for a little longer, but it’s more than likely that they’ll reappear in a few seasons as we fall into the same pattern we’ve developed over the last decade.


If the hammer does eventually fall a huge question arises: who will Notre Dame turn toward? That’s far and away the toughest piece of this puzzle. Common sense says you don’t cut loose a good coach unless you have someone lined up that you think is better. Notre Dame is not a job that would attract any top level coach—those that throw out names like Gary Williams and Tom Izzo aren’t even remotely in touch with reality. More than likely we would end up having to roll the dice with a somewhat unproven commodity and hope it pans out.


There isn’t anyone out there that jumps out right now, but I’d keep a close eye on Billy Taylor over the next three years should Brey’s teams continue to fall short. He’s a former ND basketball player that took Lehigh to the NCAA tournament—which is like taking the Kansas City Royals to the World Series—and is currently turning around a Ball State program that was in the toilet thanks to Ronny Thompson.


I like Mike Brey a lot. I had the opportunity to meet him a few times in my time at ND and the guy is just so likeable and such a class act that you just want him to succeed in the worst way. I want him to be here another ten years, to take Notre Dame to the next level—which to me is the level of Villanova on Tier 1.5 in the Big East. It’s just disheartening how obvious it is that he doesn’t have ambitions of taking this program higher.


If you need further proof read this article from yesterday written by Teddy Greenstein. Brey defends himself by pointing to the failures the program endured before he arrived over ten years ago. Looking into the somewhat distant past instead of taking on any sort of accountability for recent shortcomings tells me he’s happy with where Notre Dame Basketball is today and doesn’t understand why others wouldn’t be as well.


Mike Brey helped resuscitate a dormant program and made it relevant on a national scene for the first time in a long time. He deserves plenty of credit for doing so. But this is not a situation where Brey has become a victim of his own success—it’s a matter of him becoming too comfortable with the status quo and not striving hard enough to take the next step...or worse yet, shying away from that next step.


He wants to experience success, but it's an equal priority to try to keep his team under the radar. You can't have it both ways. In order to take the leap you have to embrace the pressure and expectations that come with it, not run away from them. I'm not convinced he has the necessary attitude and approach to take on that transformation.


If his ultimate goal when he arrived was to make the Irish relevant he’s achieved his objective. If he has no greater aspirations then it’s time to find someone who will aim to take the program higher.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Life on the Bubble


We've all heard the term before. The dreaded "bubble" has become a college basketball buzzword in the past few years, giving way to weekly publications on ESPN.com and constant updates from amateur and professional bracketologists alike. Joe Lunardi has made a living prognosticating the NCAA Tournament and dissecting every aspect of an ever-expanding collection of teams on the proverbial fence of inclusion to March Madness. My two teams, Louisville and Notre Dame, have been perched precariously on the tournament bubble for seemingly the entirety of the 2009-2010 college basketball season. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey recently said that were he to write a book about this year, and let's be honest, most of his career, he would call it "Life on the Bubble." Rick Pitino is far less accustomed to fighting for his tournament life, but nevertheless the Cards find themselves trying to keep their bubble from bursting in the final month of the season. Less than a month from Selection Sunday, let's take a look at where the Cardinals and Irish stand in the eyes of the selection committee-or at least mine.

Orange Crushed:
-The University of Louisville took a giant step towards tournament inclusion on Valentine's Day with a shocking upset of 3rd-ranked Syracuse in front of a crowd of 31,000 at the Carrier Dome. It's hard to figure how a team can look so lost against St. John's and completely take the country's best team (arguably) out of their element in front of their home fans. The Cards appeared to have burst their bubble beyond repair by laying an egg at the Garden, and just as they were being written off by every journalist and college basketball fan in the country, they blew it right back up again. Louisville overcame an 11 point first half deficit, using an active matchup style of defense to harass Andy Rautins on the perimeter and keep Player of the Year candidate Wesley Johnson searching for his jumpshot all day. Johnson finished 5 of 20 from the field, and apart from back-to-back threes in transition midway through the second half, Rautins was never able to get involved in the offense. Although they were just 9 of 30 from beyond the arc and 9 of 17 at the foul line, and Samardo Samuels waited until there were 8 minutes left in the game to record his first points, the Cards crashed the offensive glass all day. 16 offensive rebounds led to second chance points and deflated the crowd, and Edgar Sosa managed one of his better performances of the year, scoring 12 points with 5 assists while turning it over only twice against the Orange's vaunted 2-3 zone. Syracuse was never able to get anything going against a Louisville defense that had been playing far below its potential all season long, and as a result the Cards were able to turn a 5 against 31,005 game into a 5 on 5 battle, and if only for a day, they were better.

On the offensive end, Pitino was very pleased with the effort, lauding the ball movement and composure of his squad. Freshman Mike Marra, touted as a zone-busting specialist, proved worthy of the title, knocking down 4 three pointers, including the dagger from the left corner that put the Cards up 62-56 with 1:22 to play. The emergence of Marra's shooting confidence was a great sign for Louisville, which has been lacking spark off the bench most of the season. The Cards rank 10th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency ratings for offense, and if the defense plays at the level it did on Sunday, they just might manage to make one of their patented late season runs. As of Sunday, Louisville is 16-9, 7-5 in the Big East. The win over Syracuse represents the signature victory they had been searching for all season and had let slip away in games against Pittsburgh, Villanova, and West Virginia. The Cards upped their road record to 2-5, and earned their second win of the season over a top 50 team in the RPI. If there's such a thing as a good loss, Louisville has several to its credit, but will need to take care of business at home to feel confident about their chances of getting into the tournament. They take on a Harangody-less Notre Dame squad on Wednesday, and then travel to Chicago to face league cellar dweller Depaul on Saturday. The Cardinals boast wins over fellow Big East bubble teams Cincinnati and South Florida, but other than that, there isn't a lot to their resume, which made the Syracuse win all the more important. Even with the upset, the Cards will need to hold serve this week against ND and Depaul, and pick up a home victory over either Georgetown or the Orange to feel confident in their chances. Road games at Marquette and UConn mark chances to pick up solid road wins. Pitino has said all along he believes his team needs 11 wins in the Big East to make the tournament. If Louisville beats the teams it should beat and picks up another signature home victory, that should be more than enough to keep them from needing a run in the conference tournament to secure an at-large bid. If I know this year's team, they will certainly make it interesting.

Bubble Bursting
-Notre Dame, on the other hand, is doing its best to play their way out of tournament consideration. A dreaded 2 loss week places the Irish at 17-9, 6-7 in the Big East. Granted, the loss at home to St. John's was without Luke Harangody, but a tournament team needs to take care of business at home against teams in the bottom half of the conference. The selection committee will take the absence of Harangody into account when integrating results obtained without him into the comprehensive resume, but even with their star the schedule is daunting for the Irish. The Luke-less Notre Dame men take on Louisville on Wednesday before a home date with Pitt a week later. Georgetown comes next, followed by Connecticut and a trip to Marquette. The opportunities for big wins are there, but Notre Dame needs to go out and get them. The team's struggles on the road, as well as bad losses to Loyola Marymount and Rutgers, are working hard to prevent the Domers from even being considered for tournament inclusion come March. A win over West Virginia is the only saving grace on ND's resume, and once again the out of conference schedule offers no redeeming victories. With Harangody out, Mike Brey is down to a 6-man rotation. Tory Jackson and Tim Abromaitis will have to play brilliantly to get a win on Wednesday, and Harangody will have to return to health in time for next week's date with Pittsburgh to give the Irish any chance. Ty Nash needs to step up and shoulder the load inside for a depleted squad in need of some inside muscle. None of this matters, though, if ND can't amp up the intensity on defense, force turnovers, and keep opponents from getting to whatever spots they want on the court. The Irish have never been able to get opponents out of their comfort zones and come up with key stops when they need them, but if they're going to make a run at a tournament berth, that's exactly what it will take, with or without Harangody. It's time for Mike Brey to let his polished offense run itself, and focus the rest of the season on shoring up some holes on D. Buckle up, everybody, it's gonna be a wild ride to March.

Friday, February 12, 2010

JoePa + Lasik = HIDE THE CHILDREN

In this article on Penn State's Scout.com site they talk about the fact that fossilized coach Joe Paterno has gotten eye surgery so he can "read his watch" among other things.

Practical result? He doesn't have to wear his trademark glasses any more. Aesthetic result? He looks absolutely terrifying.

This is the definition of "lose-lose."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Two Dudes, One Post: Signing Day Edition

The biggest day of the college football offseason has come and gone so it's time to take stock. Let's fire up a little Two Dudes, One Post to break down the Irish and Nittany Lions' performance on Signing Day 2010.

1. Give your team's class a letter grade and a brief analysis of your staff's overall effort in this recruiting cycle.

Mattare: B-...This was not a disaster of a class nor was it one to put in the trophy case. It was a solid effort but lacked that one splash signing (Ferguson, Christian Jones, or Henderson) that would've pushed this up to a B+. I think all things considered the coaching staff did a good job limiting damage and reeling some prospects that project well into Kelly's system. When you compare this haul to Weis' when he inherited Willingham's disaster of a class in the winter of '04 it stacks up far better (in quality and quantity).

Something that will be very interesting to watch is how the bottom half of this class (in terms of ratings from the recruiting services) turns out. Kelly took on a lot of guys that weren't even on Weis' radar and aren't necessarily considered to be "blue-chip" prospects, but he prides himself on his ability to spot and develop talent. A lot of people are of the opinion that he should have saved a few scholarships for next year when he had an entire cycle to entice the top prospects in the country to South Bend.

Was it the right move taking on those two or three extra two and three star guys? That's one of those things we'll have to wait and see a few years from now. Kelly wasn't just handing out scholarships for the sake of handing them out, he obviously sees potential in these kids. I like to stay away from the hyperbole and dramatic statements that have been flying around over the past few months, but we'll know a lot about how successful the Kelly is going to be if we're talking about a few of these three stars emerging as serious contributors three years down the road. It's not a matter of whether Tai-ler Jones or Louis Nix or Matt James steps up; it's if Roback, Heggie, Schwenke, or Nichols turn out to be more than roster fillers.

Bill: B+...Very good class for us, the only reason I'm not awarding it an 'A' is because of what could have been. We once again failed to close on big time recruits. The best prospect in PA Shariff Floyd went out of state to Florida, Dominique Easley was committed to us for a long time before jumping ship to the gators a la Jelani Jenkins last year. Easley fishily earned a top 10 Rivals ranking after committing to the Gators, which even further inflated their class. Marcus Lattimore had us in his top 3 until the very end before dropping us.

Penn State has a ton to offer to these kids and I think they engage them very well initially. We are a big time program with good academics, great facilities, and rich in tradition. We can get these kids to buy in to our team philosophy and Joe is very particular about the character of the kids we recruit (see Adrian Coxson this year). Having said all that, at some point we need to look these kids in the eye and tell them we can win a national championship, and they have to believe us. They are aware of the rankings Rivals and ESPN give them, and I think they think that 5 star recruits go to the SEC, USC, Texas Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, and yes even Notre Dame. I'm not sure that a player considers Penn State when he learns that he is considered elite.

Overall, I am happy with the effort of our staff this year, Joe was going to make an in home visit to Lattimore before he graciously declined. The last player he did that for was Pryor.

2. Who was the most important recruit you got this year?

Mattare: It has to be Louis Nix. Notre Dame had big needs on both lines but the larger hole was on the defensive side of the ball. Nix (6-3, 320lbs) is the monster in the middle that the Irish sorely need to run an effective 3-4 defense. In fact, he'll be the first player we've employed at the position that hasn't been undersized since probably the mid-90's (Brian Hamilton maybe? Hilliard and Campbell? Even then we ran a 4-3, I'm just talking pure interior size). He's the type of space eater that frees up playmakers like Manti Te'o and Darius Fleming to wreak havoc because he commands a double team on every down. Nix isn't a guy who will instantly transform a defense from bad to good (a la Gerald McCoy), but he'll be entrenched as a starter by his sophomore campaign.

Bill: Tie between Paul Jones and Robert Bolden. Our depth chart was looking pretty abysmal before we landed those two. If Kevin Newsome went down we were going to be starting walk-on Matt McGloin. The Pat Devlin transfer remains a big deal. From what I've read about Jones and Bolden, Bolden is the more athletic of the two and might have the stronger arm but Jones had excellent Army AA bowl practices and they actually ranked him as having the strongest arm there (Bolden wasn't there). Bolden wants to play as a freshman but Jones has already enrolled and Kevin Newsome has the upper hand in experience as a sophomore, which we all know plays a huge role in depth chart decisions for the Lions. Between Newsome, Jones, and Bolden I don't have a favorite, I just hope we start the right guy.

3. Which player that you couldn't reel in stings the most?

Mattare: There were quite a few stings this recruiting cycle. We thought we had great shots at Seantrel Henderson, Kyle Prater, and Anthony Barr but they all ended up in Los Angeles. We also had a few 4-star prospects committed (Lueders and Bernard) that bailed late in the process. But the one that stung the most has to be Chris Martin. He committed last year on signing day and spent the entire spring and summer proclaiming how he bled blue and gold. He talked trash to USC recruits, he dominated every camp he attended, and was well on his way to being one of the most beloved Irish players of the next decade.

Then he began to waffle and the slippery and seemingly inevitable slope to decommitment began. The week after Weis was let go Martin followed him out the door. Yet again the Irish were spurned by their top defensive commit (see: Hunter, Omar and Trattou, Justin...burn in hell Urban Meyer). Martin is the elite type of playmaker on the defensive side of the ball that we've whiffed on time and time again over the past five years. Martin and Te'o at linebacker could have been the defensive version of Floyd and Tate. This is where Bill Simmons would say something like "I will now light myself on fire." I'll go grab some matches.

Bill: Dominique Easley, especially since our defensive line coach is by far our best recruiter. We needed to land a big time player at DT or DE. We got two solid guys in CJ Olaniyan and Dakota Royer, but the experts are gushing over Easley and calling him a special talent. You can't afford to whiff on those guys.

4. Who do you see making an immediate impact this fall?

Mattare: There's no one in this class that's on the level of Michael Floyd and Manti Te'o in terms of being so talented that they immediately must be on the field. I think there are two candidates who could emerge as contributors though: Chris Badger and Tommy Rees. Badger is a hard hitting, intelligent safety who will have every opportunity to snatch a starting position an an early-enrollee this spring. There's a gaping hole at both safety positions (especially if Harrison Smith ends up staying at linebacker) and an alarming lack of bodies so he's already in the two-deep. He has the best chance of any freshman to find his way into the starting lineup this fall. If he doesn't seize a position though there's no doubt he'll make a dent on special teams.

Now Rees making an impact is more of a worst case scenario. I really think that Tommy Rees could emerge as the best quarterback from this class, but the only reason he'd be making an impact this fall is if Dayne Crist is not on the field. That would be a terrible, terrible thing. Should Dayne not be ready to go then the spotlight will be turned on Tommy Boy (Is it too early for a Tommy Gun nickname? Carl, should a nickname from Rocky V be allowed?). He's a coach's son with a good arm and he'll be way ahead of the rest of the quarterback quartet due to the fact that he's already on-campus this spring. If we have any sort of luck we won't have to see too much of him though.

Bill: This is an easy one. Either Jones or Bolden. If pressed to pick one I would say Paul Jones because he's already enrolled. This team is pretty deep across the board so I don't see anyone getting on the field too early. Mike Hull may see some time on special teams, but it is almost a certainty that one of these two true freshman will be #2 QB on the depth chart for the 2010 season. Please God, don't let Jay Paterno destroy these young careers.

5. Give us a sleeper or two that may emerge from this class.

Mattare: I really like Tate Nichols. The kid played tight end in high school but is shifting to offensive tackle. According to Brian Kelly, Nichols has already put on sixty pounds from the last time he'd seen him, weighing in at 292. He's very athletic for a guy his size (he's 6-7 in addition to being almost three bills) and a tough, aggressive blocker who goes 100mph until the whistle blows. It'll take him a couple years to learn the ins and outs of the position, but he's exactly the type of project that Kelly loves to take on. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if either Lombard or James gets bumped from tackle to guard in order to make room for Nichols in the lineup down the road.

Bill: Shyquawn Pullium from Erie, PA! Safety! Bob Sanders reincarnate! I love this kid's numbers: 6'1" 180 lbs 4.5 40 (rumored that he has run a sub 4.4). Obviously my biggest fear here is that they turn him into a cornerback or receiver. No one plays safety for 4 years at Penn State. They always get shuffled around. "Good football instincts" buried somewhere else on the depth chart seems to be the fast track to starting at safety for us. I totally disagree with this, let the kid start and finish his career there and let's see how valuable an athletic safety with knowledge of the position can be for us.

A second sleeper here may be Levi Norwood, solely because of his bloodline. Why wouldn't I want another 4 seasons of the-softest-hands-in-the-world play from a Norwood?

ON TO THE RAPID FIRE FINISH

Mattare: It's been almost a month since our last dual post and PSU basketball has run their Big 10 record to a staggering 0-11. What happened to your boys? Does it have anything to do with the fact that Talor Battle spells his first name wrong?

Bill: No. Everyone else spells it wrong. We are so bad, I guess losing Jamelle Cornley hurt more than expected

Bill: I have 150:1 odds that someone from The Who smashes their guitar on the drummer. Does that make me a bad person?

Mattare: No, it just makes you one of the 150 people who will have an interest in the halftime show.

Mattare: So I'm assuming that you're watching Puppy Bowl VI on Animal Planet like I am right now. What was the bigger addition to this year's contest: the bunny cheerleaders or the hamster-operated Twizzlers blimp?

Bill: I'm actually not watching but hamster-operated blimp sounds delightful.

Bill: Has the realization that there are seven months before college football starts again hit you yet? How do you plan to pass the time?

Mattare: Dissect every spring practice report until I get sick, then start playing golf in April and qualify for the US Open at Pebble Beach in June. That'll do.

Mattare: In two weeks four of A-Town's finest (plus Ross Baker) will be invading Orlando. How do you see the weekend playing out? Will your roommates ever speak to you again?

Bill: Not worried about roommates, worried about neighbors, jail, bouncers, vodka, and futures. And sun poisoning.

Bill: Today during the Pens-Caps game the announcers said DC is a "hockey town." Thoughts?

Mattare: On a scale of 1-10 in DC, the Redskins are a 20, the Caps are a 7, the Wiz are a 1, and the Nats are a -5.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Edgar Sosa for Player of the Year?


I'll give you a minute to catch your breath after the hearty laugh you're sure to have gotten from the title of this post. In yesterday's edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal, UL beat writer C.L. Brown published an article titled "Ssshhh! Edgar Sosa having nice Louisville basketball season." In the article, an attempt to paint one of Louisville basketball's most enigmatic figures in a positive light, Brown points out that Sosa is quietly having the best season of his four year career in red and white. His points, assists, and shooting percentages are all at career highs, although he clearly believes no one has noticed. "I think I'm playing the best I've played here at Louisville. I always think that I can play better and do more, but the funny thing is, I'm not being mentioned or talked about. When I measure up my numbers with the rest of the point guards in the country, our numbers are either the same or mine are better." Brown notes that he averages more assists per game than Scottie Reynolds, fewer turnovers than John Wall, is better from the field than Sherron Collins, and is better from behind the 3 point line that Kalin Lucas. If nothing else, I'm a numbers guy, and these are certainly positive stats. However, I'm also a realist, so let's look at some other numbers:

-1,2,3,5: The rankings of the teams of the point guards mentioned above
-Each of these point guards outscores Sosa by at least 2 points a game, and each has a better assist to turnover ratio.
-In head to head match-ups, Sosa has come out on the losing end, both in the record books and the stat sheets. Against Kentucky, Sosa had 11 points, 2 assists, and 6 turnovers. Wall had 17 points, 4 assists, and 5 turnovers. Against Villanova, Sosa scored 17 points to go along with 2 assists and 5 turnovers. Reynolds, although he did commit 4 turnovers without an assist, poured in 30 in the 2nd half on his way to a 36 point outing and an 8 point win for the Wildcats after trailing by as many as 17 in the 2nd half.
-5...Game winning shots I can think of off the top of my head by these players. Lucas has hit 2 in the last 2 weeks, Collins never fails in the clutch, Wall has hit at least 2 game-tying or game-winning shots in the final seconds this year, and Scottie Reynolds burned Marquette with a last-second 3-point play.

The point is, statistics can only go so far, and in Edgar's case, about as far as Samardo Samuels' vertical. While the 2009-2010 campaign may be his best in a Cardinal uniform, to compare him with the likes of John Wall, Scottie Reynolds, Sherron Collins, and Kalin Lucas, all legitimate Player of the Year candidates, is laughable. You would be hard pressed to find a human being on this planet that would take Edgar Sosa over any one of those players. Ask any coach, and they'll tell you they would take John Wall's 7 assists and 4 turnovers a game over Sosa's 4 assists and 2.7 turnovers any day. Sosa notched his season high in that category in Monday's win over Connecticut with 8, just higher than the average amount that John Wall dishes out on a nightly basis. The biggest difference between Sosa and the others is that Collins, Wall, Lucas, and Reynolds are LEADERS. Right now you might be saying, "Is he an idiot? Kalin Lucas was benched for lack of leadership earlier in the year!" Well, what's he done since? Hit game winners against Minnesota and Michigan, that's what. He also ran Sosa up and down the court in last year's Midwest Regional Final. Sosa has never, ever, shown the ability to put the team on his shoulders and will them to victory when their backs are against the wall, and the breaks are beating the boys-gotta love sports clich├ęs, huh? When their teams are struggling, the aforementioned stars almost always carry them. I would take any of them with the game on the line and feel reasonably confident that I would come out on top. With Sosa, that same confidence and faith has never been there, aside from a brief stroke of brilliance in last year's game against Kentucky. His career has been as full of ups and downs as a late-night Jersey Shore club scene, and that hasn't changed this year. I find it hard to believe that Kalin Lucas would have missed 4 of 5 free throws down the stretch at Pitt-I find it hard to believe Sammy Sosa would have. I know for a fact that John Wall and Scottie Reynolds have bested Sosa in head-to-head match-ups. And I know for a fact that no self-respecting basketball fan could argue that Edgar Sosa is having a better year, or is a better player, than Sherron Collins in any sense of the word. And, the most important fact of all, Kansas, Michigan State, Villanova, and Kentucky are all in the top 5.

Don't get me wrong, I am not one of the Louisville fans trolling the message boards calling for Sosa to be benched in favor of the freshman Peyton Siva to anyone who will listen. Sosa is absolutely having his best season as a Card. Last year, and the year before that, he would have never recovered from the Pitt game. He played his heart out against Connecticut and came up with some huge plays to ice the game down the stretch. He is as electrifying a player as has played for the Ville in the last several years. That being said, Sosa has been nothing if not infuriating in his 4 years in red and white. Next year, there won't ever be a time where I think, "Man, I wish Edgar Sosa were here right now, he'd get us out of this mess," the way that I do with Reece Gaines, Taquan Dean, Francisco Garcia, and Terrence Williams-the way that I think I will with Peyton Siva. Rick Pitino, the 4 year owner of the Edgar Sosa doghouse, in response to his point guard's comments, said: “I don't know what it's going to accomplish by looking at other point guards,” Pitino said. “A, it's not going to help us win; B, it's not going to help him get drafted; and C, it's not going to help him become a better basketball player.” Sosa needs to stop worrying about his own recognition and help his teammates to become better players, and help this team make a run at an NCAA at-large bid. When he does, this team has the potential to make a run in March. When he plays well, and starts doing some of the things that have earned other players such lofty praise, people will notice. As one who has seen it so rarely, I certainly will.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Channel that Karma...

National Signing Day has finally arrived. For recruitniks today is the equivalent of Christmas morning. I follow recruiting religiously but I certainly don't put this the holiday on the pedastal most others do. Perhaps it's because of the scars I've accumulated due to years of disappointments, starting with the first person to ever announce their commitment on ESPN Lorenzo "My head and heart say Notre Dame...but I gotta go to Florida State" Booker (to say I'm not upset that Lorenzo didn't really pan out is an understatement).

Historically ND has had zero luck on this godforsaken day with the very notable exception of Manti Te'o. Why is that? I think the biggest reason is simpler than people think. When you step on campus either you are swept up in the aura of the place or don't see what way it distinguishes itself from other big-time program. I really believe that the majority of big time Notre Dame recruits will always be on board far before they have a chance to do the hat dance. Will there be exceptions? Of course there will be, but I think we'll always bat a far lower average on this day than most elite schools and it won't be because of relevance or stature. It's because either the place clicks with you or it doesn't. When it clicks you're sold hook, line, and sinker and no matter what other schools can throw at you that you can't get at Notre Dame (easy classes/majors, weather that doesn't make you question your existence, an entire student body that owns at least three pairs of jorts) it won't make an impact.

Today we locked down Ohio offensive tackle Matt James which is solid, but also whiffed in the hat game with Christian Jones (FSU) and Ego Ferguson (LSU). The biggest (and only) fish still in the pond is Minnesota offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, the mountain of a man that the Irish are still in the hunt for thanks to the efforts of former high school teammate Michael Floyd. The Irish are a long shot but have to be encouraged by the fact that Henderson retook the ACT in an attempt to become academically eligible to enroll at Notre Dame. Reeling him in would be a Te'o-sized shock that would officially announce Brian Kelly's presence as a big-time player on the national recruiting scene.

(Pardon me as I slip into Jay Bilas "I'm going to have a Q&A with myself" mode)

Is it a long-shot? Yes.

Will he probably end up playing for Lane Kiffin? Yes.

Have crazier things happened? Yes.

Did Seantrel respond "HELL YEAH" when my buddy Chops asked him whether he'd be coming to ND next year while he was on his official visit? Yes.

Was Seantrel eating four Reckers burgers stacked on top of one another when this encounter happened at 4am? Yes.

Was Michael Floyd berating him for being a fatty the entire time? Yes.

Is any of this relevant? I don't know.

Just in case, we'll throw up a picture of the best signing day in history. A lil' positivity can't hurt...

(Coming Soon - Two Dudes, One Post: Signing Day Edition)