Monday, March 22, 2010

On to the next one

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. That's what the Xavier band played after X beat Pitt 71-68 on Sunday afternoon to advance to their 3rd Sweet 16 in as many years. Only one other team (Michigan St.) has been able to accomplish that feat in the same time. Here's to hoping we start getting mentioned in the same breath with teams like Tom Izzos'. Keep rolling X!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Season Recap and NCAA Preview: Xavier

Everybody's favorite Xavier fan is here to break down the Muskies.

1. There was a point where all your teams were flirting with the bubble either in the middle or even toward the end of the season. What happened to turn things around and ultimately land in the dance? Who were the key players who stepped up?

For Xavier, this question is a one word answer: chemistry. With all the changes that took place in the offseason it was hard to know how the players would respond to a completely changed landscape. Early on they weren't responding well and X was losing games because of it. It was easy to see that Jordan Crawford was trying to take over games without involving any of his teammates and everyone on the floor was getting quickly frustrated. As the team went through more and more games though they all learned each others talents and started playing to the team's strengths. Our quick guards pushed the ball up the floor when the opportunities arose as well as pounding it inside to Jason Love in the half court set. As they started relying on each other more and more Xavier started to win big games and it was evident they were gaining momentum, which has lasted all the way through till the postseason.

From a player standpoint, the main reason for this great turnaround is Jason Love and his incredible leadership. Love became the winningest player in Xavier history this season, but early on I suspect he saw his senior season going to waste, something that almost never happened to other Xavier greats. Love brought this team together with his incredible work ethic and unselfish play inside, showing his teammates that working together was the only way they were going to accomplish anything. I hope Jason goes deep into the NCAA's once again because the man certainly deserves it.

2. Give your coach a grade for his coaching job this season.

I'm going to use a +/- grading scale just so I can give Chris Mack an A+. There has never been more uncertainty coming into a season for Xavier than there was for this season (at least since I've been alive). In the past coaches have come and gone, but there was always a clear cut candidate that most fans knew was getting the job and it was a relatively smooth transition. Sean Miller bolting for Arizona (after he said he wouldn't...TWICE) and Derrick Brown becoming Xavier's first ever early entry into the NBA draft really rocked the foundation of our developing program and left alot of questions for what was going to happen next.

In stepped Chris Mack, a former Xavier player in the early 90's and an experienced assistant under Skip Prosser and Sean Miller. Mack wasn't initially thought of as the head candidate for the job but was definitely under consideration as the players and fan community already knew him. After he was named head coach and the season started Mack certainly had his skeptics (huge understatement) as he battled through some tough losses early in the season. This is where Mack was really impressive, dealing with a team full of individuals and bringing them together through one of the toughest stretches of their schedule. Getting talent like Crawford, Holloway, Jackson and Lyons to play together while sharing time at the guard spots was truly what turned Xavier into a more cohesive unit, something Mack knew about from being a guard in college. His leadership and optimism through the brutal, early schedule carried his young team through to the hot streak it's currently on and will hopefully continue throughout the tournament.

3. Who is going to be the X-Factor for your team in the postseason?

This is a tough one for Xavier but if Jamel McLean keeps playing at the same level he has been over the past 2 months, he'll be the X-factor. Most teams don't have a 2nd big man with the incredible athleticism that McLean possesses and this makes it easy for him to get loads of rebounds, especially on the offensive end. Alot of NCAA games are won by the team that controls the paint and if Jamel steps up to anchor the middle with Jason Love there's a good chance Xavier will win that battle in any game.

4. Play bracketologist and break down your team's draw in the bracket? What are your expectations now that the path is out there for every one to see?

I was definitely happy with Xavier getting a 6 seed in the West because there was no real chance to get anything higher and the West may be the easiest region, especially with Onuaku out for Syracuse. Xavier has already played a few teams in this bracket during the season (Kansas St., Butler and Florida) so there could be some familiar matchups if X makes it past the first 2 rounds. Round 1 might not be so easy though as they drew Minnesota in Milwaukee, a team that's on a hot streak and is also playing close to home. The one thing that scares me more than any of the Gophers' players is their coach, Tubby Smith. He's been deep in the NCAA tournament many times, even winning it all with Kentucky back in 1998, and knows how to control a game. Xavier certainly has the better corps of players but this should make for an interesting showdown early on.

If they can make it past the 1st round, it's wide open in the West region and there's no reason Xavier can't make a deep run. I expect them to get past Minnesota in a tight game and then use that momentum to down Pitt in the 2nd round. After that it will be hard to expect much, but this team has come such a long way from their first game this season. They're playing like a team now more than ever and I'd be surprised if it didn't carry into the tournament.

5. Prediction Time: How far does your team go.

Xavier's on a great run right now and I don't see it ending early in this tournament, especially with their recent track record in the postseason. Look for X to make its 3rd Elite 8 in 6 years.

Season Recap and Tourney Preview: Louisville

Three of the four teams we focus on at WNG find themselves dancing this weekend while the fourth predictably languished in the basement of the Big Ten. To prepare for the opening weekend we're going to a three part series breaking down each team. To kick things off we've got Sanders breaking down the Cardinals of Louisville.

1. There was a point where all your teams were flirting with the bubble either in the middle or even toward the end of the season. What happened to turn things around and ultimately land in the dance? Who were the key players who stepped up?

After Louisville's 19 point loss at the hands of St. John's, things looked bleak to say the least. A brutal closing stretch loomed, with 2 games against Syracuse and road dates with UConn and Marquette. The Cards somehow pulled off the upset at the Carrier Dome and handed the Orange their second loss of the season. Mike Marra scored 12 big points off the bench to key the win. Louisville has been an enigma all season, and the inconsistency continued as the Cards finished 4-3 to close out the season.

Assistant coach Ralph Willard has said that this year's team is like a box of chocolates, and trust me, you NEVER know what you're gonna get with them. Edgar Sosa had a huge game-winner on the road at UConn and WNG's own Kyle Kuric poured in 22 points in the SECOND HALF against Syracuse as the Cards took down the Orange for the second time this season. Honestly, without those two wins over Syracuse, Louisville's resume is nowhere close to tournament-worthy. The guards will have to step up in the tournament, but Louisville has been as inconsistent a team as there is in the country this season.

2. Give your coach a grade for his coaching job this season.

B+...Pitino had to deal with the losses of lottery picks Terrence Williams and Earl Clark and work in a host of new players. It took him most of the season to do it, but he was able to get his team up for some big games that ultimately got them into the tournament. That being said, he has struggled to address the rebounding deficiencies that have plagued the Cards throughout the year, and it showed in the Big East tourney as Cincy pounded the glass for 28 offensive rebounds in their second round game.

The Cards have been incredibly inconsistent, and some of that rests on Pitino, but when it's all said and done you rely on your seniors to provide some of that consistency, and he just hasn't gotten it from Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith. Overall a good job for Pitino getting his team into the tournament and into a favorable first round matchup with a chance to knock off Duke in the second.

3. Who is going to be the X-Factor for your team in the postseason?

With Louisville, it's a different guy every night. Sometimes it's Sosa, sometimes it's Samuels, sometimes it's a guy off the bench that you never saw coming (see Kuric against Syracuse). Samardo Samuels should have his way inside against Cal and potentially against Duke, so it's the play of Edgar Sosa that will determine the Cards' tournament fortunes. As he goes, so goes Louisville. If he can limit his turnovers, take smart shots, and keep his composure, Louisville can legitimately upset Duke in the second round. If not, they could easily lose to Cal and bow out early.

4. Play bracketologist and break down your team's draw in the bracket? What are your expectations now that the path is out there for every one to see?

Louisville gets the Cal Bears in the first round in the 8-9 matchup. Personally, this draw is exactly what I was hoping for: a winnable first round matchup and a weak 1 seed in the second round. Samuels should be dominant inside, as Cal has had no answer for strong post presences all season. The key will be keeping Jerome Randle in check. The Cal point guard can knock down shots from anywhere, and it is imperative that Sosa, Knowles, and Smith keep him from going ballistic.

That being said, I think Louisville's pressure defense will give Cal problems, and the Cards will try to make someone besides Randle beat them. I don't think Patrick Christopher is good enough to create for himself and go off if Randle isn't getting him the ball. Jennings and Samuels should be able to control the boards, because I don't think Cal's frontcourt is good enough to expose Louisville's rebounding deficiencies.

If they get past the Bears, Duke is a great matchup for them in the second round. Again, Samuels and Jennings should be able to completely neutralize Zoubek and the Plumlee brothers. The guards will have their hands full with Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer, but if they can knock down some shots from the perimeter and hound the back court of Duke, Louisville has a legit shot of pulling off the shocker.

The problem for Louisville is Kyle Singler. He will be a matchup nightmare for the Cards, as he is too good off the ball and too strong for Jared Swopshire to defend, and against any guard Louisville can throw at him, he can get his shot off over them. I think our best bet is to have Preston Knowles harass him all game, get in his grill, push and shove, and make his life as miserable as possible for 40 minutes. Louisville is so inconsistent that it's a huge stretch to predict them to the Sweet 16, but that doesn't mean they don't have the talent and the potential.

5. Prediction Time: How far does your team go.

A win over Cal in the first round and a scare of Duke in the second round before bowing out.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Two Dudes, One Post: Guest Edition - Part II

The extended Two Dudes Q&A with Black and Green Irish Men's Basketball Report rolls on today. For Part I click here.

1. There have been multiple nationally televised Big East conference games where the lower bowl of the student section wasn't even close to full. To be perfectly blunt, it seems that the majority of the student body couldn't care less about the basketball team. You're a current student. Is the indifference that comes through on TV--and the message boards--as bad as it seems?

We Never Graduate: As much as I'd love to still be a student I'm not. I will now pull out my old student ID, stare at it, and silently sob. For the record I think the student body should be ashamed of their showing this year, but that’s a rant for another day.

Black and Green: The student support has been up and down this year. Obviously ND never has the kind of support seen at universities where basketball is king, but we typically can get a much better turnout than has been the case in several of the games this year. While there has been an uptick recently (the student section was pretty full for the UCONN game), Sunday afternoon contests against South Florida and St. John's barely drew anyone.

I think the way last season ended and this season began has been the number one factor behind our low student attendance. With the football team struggling and Coach Brey's squad ranked in the top-ten, basketball was king on campus for the first couple of months of the 2008-09 season. The College Gameday experience and subsequent support for the Irish against
Connecticut that January was one of the highlights of my basketball watching career. At the time, I felt that the program could carry that momentum and the construction of a new arena into a permanent place amongst the college basketball elite.

Unfortunately, that opportunity was wasted. The UCONN game just became loss number three of a seven game slide and even a huge win over
Louisville and deep NIT run were not enough to keep the students interested. The football team may have sucked again this year, but the hiring of Brian Kelly has kept students looking forward to next fall instead of focusing on the present.

With last year's letdown still a recent memory and nonconference losses to Northwestern and Loyola Marymount seemingly dooming the season from the start, it's been hard for anyone to get excited about a bubble program. The recent success has helped turned things around in the students' minds a lot, but it has come too late to display a consistent increase in attendance.

I think much of the internet bashing of students has been a bit unfair. It's a consistent topic for the message boards, but I haven't really addressed it too much on the blog. Yes, student support is too low and we need to see a change in the way the student body views the basketball program. However, there are so many factors involved: hangover from yet another frustrating football season, terrible
South Bend weather, cupcake non-conference opponents, the sheer number of home games. Without a good team to watch (a Sweet Sixteen contender), the students just aren't going to put in the effort to follow the program like they do for football. That's not an excuse, it's just a fact we have to deal with.

2. Let's take a small lead of faith and say the Irish sneak in the Big Dance. What's their ceiling when they arrive?

WNG: Well this isn't a leap of faith anymore. Their ceiling is based 100% on the draw they receive. If they land in the 8-9 game and have to match up against
Kansas or Kentucky then the buck will stop there (for a preview see the ND-Arizona Sweet 16 game from '03). If we're in the 7-10 spot and find a weak 2 seed then we can start to dream big (Elite 8 isn't likely, but not totally unreasonable). It's just a matter of how the deck breaks. Check back on Sunday night and I'll tell you exactly what our ceiling is.

B&G: Again, I really need to stop predicting this team's behavior. With the right draw and the current momentum, I could really see them making it to the second weekend. However, this luck could play itself out very quickly. Regardless it will be interesting to watch.

3. Mike Brey deserves applause for getting Cooley, Scott, and Broghammer to contribute when Harangody went down... but does he deserve equal criticism for not utilizing them more at an earlier point in the season?

WNG: He absolutely does. I don't understand why he's so slow to move toward putting in younger players who can make a contribution if even it's limited. It happened with Russell Carter a couple years back, it happened with Nash, and it happened this year with Cooley and Scott. To me there is little to no upside having Jonathan Peoples on the court yet all year he ate up minutes while Scott and (even more so) Cooley collected splinters on the bench. Everyone--especially the media--has short-term memory though and the only thing people will talk about is how Brey brought the team out of the ashes when his superstar went down. Those that watched all season will realize he was responsible for being in the ashes in the first place.

Perhaps the thing that blows my mind the most is the fact that it took a shade under ten years for Brey to adjust to an effective strategy that neutralizes the athleticism of elite Big East teams. He's cried about how we can't possibly match up with the top tier of teams in the conference yet did little or nothing to adjust until three weeks ago. Now he's in the middle of a month-long coaching clinic where we might—HUGE, HUUUUUGE might--be on the verge of taking the leap to the next level. It's beyond baffling. When I try to understand it my nose starts to bleed.

B&G: Absolutely. As always, this help has been better late than never, but there is no reason why we could not have been playing Scott on a more consistent basis all year and giving Cooley/Broghammer at least five minutes per game. Scott has really come into his own recently and developed into the kind of athletic rebounder that the program has needed for years. His offensive development has been surprising, as he seemed to struggle with the ball at the start of the year, but could have come even sooner with a bit of game experience.

We could have used a big man off the bench all season and there is no excuse for why Coach Brey would have been willing to burn redshirts on two of his freshman bigs in meaningless contests without giving them a chance to spell Harangody in short stretches during the Big East season. Gody's injury forced him to open up the rotation a bit and we were able to see that these guys actually do have a bit of talent.

4. Nearly ten years are in the books of the Mike Brey era. Do you believe he's the guy who takes Notre Dame to the next level?

WNG: As recently as three weeks ago I would've answered with a resounding NO, but I'm granting him one last reprieve. The reinvention of his squad has been a beautiful thing to watch and it's the most striking evidence as to why he's held in such high regard by colleagues. My decision as to whether he's the guy to take us to the next level will not be determined in the NCAA tournament; rather, it will come this offseason when Brey will be faced with the choice of talking his team down or embracing the challenge of being the hunted.

I really think next year's squad has a lot of potential and thanks to this late surge of success it won't be under the radar like he hoped it would be. If he spends the entire offseason campaigning to avoid the "TV Schedule" like he did during the '08-'09 season then it'll prove to me he's not the guy. Should he go the other route then maybe there's hope.

B&G: No, I really don't. I like Mike Brey a lot as a person and still think he is a very good coach, but my patience finally wore out on him this season. Unfortunately, I have no idea who the right guy could be. Is it Fran McCaffery? I like what he's done at Siena, but it is hard to say definitively that he would be an improvement over Brey.

Earlier in the year, I supported a coaching change if only to breathe new life into the program. Now however, that would be a much harder sell. There simply is not a Brian Kelly-type coach (or better) available for the hoops program. Any new blood would involve a lot of risk. If Brey continues to make the Big Dance at the current rate, he's going to be retained. I don't think that is the right mentality for the program, but I really don't know if there is anyone out there who can bring about the success we should strive for under the current conditions.

Two Dudes, One Post: Guest Edition - Part I

This edition of Two Dudes, One Post will focus solely on Notre Dame Basketball so we enlisted the help of Matt Lafortune, a current Notre Dame student that runs the website Black and Green Irish Men's Basketball Report. We had eight questions to address so sit back, relax, and prepare to digest a two-part smorgasbord of Irish Hoops.

1. How did this season play out in terms of your preseason expectations?

We Never Graduate: Before the season I predicted we'd be living on the bubble which means we're right about in line with what I thought. It's been a roller coaster season but it appears we're peaking at just the right time. If we get the right draw (please for the love of God throw us in a 7-10 game with Purdue as the 2 seed in our pod) we can do some serious damage, which would far surpass my preseason expectations.

Black & Green: That's such a tough question. I entered this year thinking we would be better than last season's team. Not the top-ten early season ranking for the program a year ago, but certainly good enough to merit NCAA consideration. Tim Abromaitis has been everything I expected and more. His performance has been such a great improvement over the Hillesland/Ayers fiasco that we should have been two or three games better on that basis alone. On paper, the addition of Abro and Hansbrough replacing McAlarney should have made this team a lock for the NCAAs.

Yet they weren't. Until recently, this team would have been lucky to nail down an NIT bid. Its defensive effort was god-awful for 27 games. The once great star of the program turned into a selfish shell of his former self and Mike Brey was another losing streak away from finding a new job.

The recent success hasn't made me change my mind about this season being a disappointment, indeed I think we should have played like this all year, but there is something endearing about the current squad. Without Harangody, they have been transformed into something we haven't seen on campus in years: a gritty underdog that is willing to fight with anyone and can actually play a little defense when it counts. Sure '07 and '08 were surprises, but this one is different. I have never seen a team completely transform its identity over the course of the year like this. They could very well make a run over the next few weeks and reach a level of success that Mike Brey has only seen once. Or they could completely flame out and lose their next two. Regardless, it's hard to be surprised anymore. This season has been nothing like what I expected.

2. Who is your MVP of the regular season?

WNG: I'm really torn. Ben Hansbrough blew away the expectations I had for him coming in to this season, but when push comes to shove I have to go with Tory Jackson. He's been a gutsy performer all year who was a big part of keeping the high-octane attack going for the first part of the season and an even larger part in making the adjustment to a slow, grind it out attack a smooth one. He's a sparkplug and when Brey gushes about him it's totally deserved. Tory really helped the team stay afloat when they could have closed up shop after Harangody's injury.

B&G: That's a really tough one. Harangody was the obvious choice, but the team has improved so much without him that it's hard to stick with the All-American. Scott is most-improved. He has been the most valuable guy during this winning streak and has kept a level head while persevering through a playing time crisis to develop into one of our best players. Abromaitis has come off a redshirt year to score in double digits on all but three occasions. His scoring ability and support on the glass has been much-needed all year. He's been utterly reliable in every game this season and should continue to develop into a star.

But I'll go with Tory Jackson. He scores less than ten points per game, frequently takes ill-advised shots in the lane around much taller defenders, and has seen a sharp decrease in his rebound numbers this season. Yet his contributions to the team have been immeasurable. For two-thirds of the year, he was the only guy who seemed to give a damn about playing D. He will continue to be matched up with the best scorers from our opponents in the postseason and I can't wait to see him challenge some of the best players in the country.

On top of everything, he is the heart and soul of the program. He is a passionate leader and bleeds blue and gold. Many will remember his 22 points against UCONN that kept the Irish Tournament hopes alive, but I'll never forget the pure excitement that was in his voice for the postgame speech. The Notre Dame senior class of 2010 boasted a former Big East Player of the Year whose individual accomplishments rank amongst the greatest in Notre Dame and Big East basketball history, but he pales in comparison to what Tory has meant to this program. Harangody will go on to have a very successful pro career, but I can think of few better players to start a team around than Tory Jackson.

3. In your eyes what was the season's biggest disappointment?

WNG: Uttering this on ESPN would lead to my public crucifixion, but honestly it's Luke Harangody. I'm of the opinion he got terrible advice when it came to what he needed to do this season to prove he could make it in the NBA. Luke had shown over the course of his first three seasons that he could be an extremely effective scorer on the interior. What he needed to do this year was prove he could man up and be more than a human turnstile on defense while continuing to be a Barkley-esque force on the boards despite being a little on the short side (you can call this the DeJuan Blair Strategy). Instead he went the route of trying to prove he could be a perimeter threat. The result was a softer Luke Harangody that hovered around the three point line Luke Zeller style and launched twice as many threes this year as he did last year.

To say we're a better team without Luke is inaccurate, but I commented a couple weeks ago that if there was a way I could have freshman year Luke instead of senior year Luke down the stretch I'd make that trade in a heartbeat. Harangody was much more raw then, but he went down low and punished people with his physicality. He used to knock teeth out, he was like the big kid who didn't know his own strength and hurt all his little friends. I blame Brey a lot for enabling him to take on this new approach at the expense of the team's success.

Fortunately, since he's returned from his injury it seems like he's snapped back into freshman year mode at least a little bit. He attempted zero threes in his first two games back—the only two games all year he didn't launch one. Perhaps he's finally seen the light. Or maybe Brey flatout demanded he see the light. I don't really care which it was, but I hope he embraces his new role because we'd become a FAR more dangerous team. Until we confirm that though I'll still label him with the unsavory title of biggest disappointment.

B&G: Just the overall underperformance we saw for much of the year. Obviously, this team had the talent to perform amongst the league's best, but managed to throw away contests to Northwestern, Loyola Marymount, Cincy, Rutgers, and St. John's. I blame the short bench and the handling of Harangody for much of those problems.

Luke used this season as an extended pro tryout. I don't hold that against him too much, but the coaching staff should have had him riding the pine every time he threw up yet another dumb three pointer. He vacated the paint and destroyed the offensive flow by operating as a shooting guard in a center's body. The rest of the players were more than willing to watch him jack up 20+ shots a game and be our sole rebounding threat on the floor. With him out of the lineup, the ball movement has improved and every guy has been able to play to his ability. Call it the Ewing Theory or whatever you want. Luke Harangody's injury was the best thing that could have happened to our Tournament chances this season.

4. What will be your lasting memory of the 09-10 season?

WNG: Boy has this changed over the last few weeks. It was going to be Harangody's de-evolution at the expense of the team's success, but now it will forever be how the team rallied after Harangody's injury and played itself back from miles off the bubble to potential middle seed in the tournament. No matter what happens in the Big Dance I'll vividly remember the fantastic stretch of basketball we played to end the season.

B&G: That is still to be determined. I'm glad we didn't do this two weeks ago, because it would have been pretty negative. That still might be the case if the team regresses from its current form. However, if the season ended today I would have two major memories of this year.

First of all, the Loyola Marymount loss now seems like a harbinger of the struggles we saw in Big East play. There was no need for good defense, little intensity all day, and a late-game collapse against a vastly inferior opponent. My proudest moment right now is that UCONN game. It wasn't our best win (that would be against West Virginia way back in January, a game that was seemingly ages ago), but it was one we needed to win. After two big upsets, the team was due for a letdown but somehow pulled out a much needed victory in a low scoring defensive battle. The Marquette game came close to topping it, but there's nothing like getting the W on Senior Night like that with your best player in street clothes.


Thursday, March 11, 2010


Mr. Gottlieb spent plenty of time over the last week yapping about how Seton Hall should be ahead of Notre Dame in the pecking order for the NCAA tournament. Well, the Irish promptly went out and laid the smackdown on the Hall. The lesson as always is never trust someone who was stupid enough to get kicked out of college for credit card fraud. I have to quote the great Samuel Jackson Beer Commercial and ask Dougy Poo one thing: “HOW’S IT TASTE $%#&$#&@#%$!!!!”

Four quick things because I’m at work and I should be preparing for a presentation, not doing this.

1. Lazarus Arrives to the Party Early

I’ve been very critical of Mike Brey over the last couple years and that reached a boiling point last month when I wrote an article for this site about how it was probably time to find someone else to take ND to the next level. The Irish promptly unleashed arguably their six gutsiest, complete performances of the year and now Brey is back on hallowed ground in the eyes of the pundits on TV. I saw this latest resurrection coming but I thought it would be next year because I was fairly certain this year was a lost cause. Crow never tasted so good.

Mike Brey deserves a ton of credit for transforming this team and proving that he is capable of being a top-level coach. He has completely junked his normal high-octane style of play in favor of going with a patient, grinding, borderline Pete Carril-esque brand of basketball. The results have been staggering. We have worn down opponents with this new methodical approach on the offensive end and finishing them off with—dare I say it—relatively suffocating defense (Did I really just type that? Someone get me some smelling salts) on the other side of the ball.

Brey’s willingness to adapt with such a drastic change affirms the fact that the guy knows what he’s doing. Could this be a turning point for the entire program? That all depends on how he—not the team—handles the success. Does he downplay his team in the tournament and offseason or embrace the challenge of a potential bullseye on his team’s chest? If he does the latter than I believe we’ve turned a corner; if it’s the former than this is just a tease and the status quo will continue.

2. “Painful…yet Beautiful”

During last night’s game my buddy Pat sent me a text that read, “painful yet beautiful to watch our new style.” I couldn’t agree more, it’s Ron Hassler-ball on a higher level with a shot clock (let that Allentown Central Catholic Basketball reference soak in for a second). The grind it out game we played against a Seton Hall team that had put up 100+ points the night before almost made you feel sympathetic for the Pirates as they died a slow death on the court.

Brey’s “Burn Offense” is predicated on being able to get off a good shot in the last ten seconds of the shot clock, something we’d failed miserably at when we’d attempted to do it in the past (see: ’05-’06 season). This year’s squad is so smart with the ball and exploits weakness in the defense so effectively that the offense has been deadly. First of all it limits the number of possessions both teams get over the course of a game. For a team as efficient with possessions as Notre Dame (#2 in the entire country in offensive efficiency) that’s a very good thing.

Secondly it frustrates the opposing team so much on the defensive end that it starts to affect them on the opposite end of the court as well. Inevitably they begin to quicken their offensive possessions in an attempt to quicken the pace of the game. The patience of Tory Jackson and Ben Hansbrough prevents that from happening though, even when the Irish fall behind like they did at the beginning of the Seton Hall game.

Lastly—and perhaps most importantly—it has translated into a different defensive team. The Irish have gone from one of the worst defensive units in the country to a smothering defensive team. Part of it is the “Burn Offense” getting the opponent out of rhythm, the other part is Notre Dame having more energy to exert on defense thanks to the more methodical offensive approach.

Watching this style of play isn’t nearly as fun as the normal run n’ gun offense we’re accustomed too*, but I’ll take ugly, boring victories over fun, exciting losses any day of the week. Here’s hoping that Brey doesn’t junk this after the season and at the very least finds a happy medium between the two.

* = Be forewarned that the student body will most likely use this as another excuse to not attend games.

3. The Return of Bam Bam

Luke Harangody had to listen to people question speculate as to whether Notre Dame was a better team without him for about a month. A five point, two rebound game in the Marquette victory didn’t exactly silence those critics, but the 20 and 10 performance last night certainly did. What returned last night was a Luke Harangody that was committed to getting shots inside, not camping out 18 feet away from the basket.

I understand Luke may have been hurt by fans implying they didn’t want him back, but the reality is that he needed to change his game in order for the team to be successful. His hiatus allowed his teammates to come into their own, made Brey tweak a strategy that wasn’t working, and had to be a bit humbling for Luke. The injury was the turning point of the season and four weeks later we’re a far better team because of it.

Now that he’s back he needs to integrate himself into a system that’s working. There is no reason for him to be hoisting 25 shots a game any more and certainly no excuse for launching five three-point shots each contest. He needs to do his dirty work around the basket and patrol the baseline on offense against 2-3 zones (he put on a clinic on how beat a zone by running baseline against Syracuse earlier in the year). He’s instant offense off the bench and we’re a much better team when he’s available as a weapon. If he embraces this new role we’re going to be a team no one wants to face next week.

4. Quick Hits

Tory Jackson demonstrated in the second half of the Seton Hall game how he is capable of taking over a game on offense when he wants. He did it in the Big East tournament as a freshman as well. I love the kid and appreciate all he’s done, I’ve always just wondered why he didn’t flip the switch like that more over his career…If you really love the game of basketball and the intricacies of it then you love watching Ben Hansbrough. He’s got an endless motor and is so fundamentally sound and smart on both ends of the court…Greg Monroe is a 2-3 Zone KILLER…If Greivis Vasquez was on Duke he’d be the most hated player of all-time. He makes Joakim Noah seem likeable…I have no doubt that the NCAA Tournament will expand to 96 teams and it just makes me sad. It won’t be for the good of college basketball, it will be because of greed and dollar bills. The best part of the entire tournament is the Cinderellas that emerge in the first weekend. Mark my words: the expansion will destroy it…Jonathan Peoples was on the Big East Tournament intro montage even though he’s our ninth man. He was also prominently featured in the team intro video his sophomore year when he never played (he was chugging away on a stationary bike as Fort Minor blared in the background). What are the odds he somehow finds his way in to One Shining Moment this year? 75% chance?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Xavier's late season surge continued this past Saturday at the Cintas Center, where they defeated the Bonnies of St. Bonaventure 93-72 to close out the regular season. The victory put the Muskies at 23-7 overall and 14-2 in conference play, giving them their 4th regular season Atlantic 10 championship in a row. The consecutive A-10 titles are 2nd only to John Calipari's UMASS squad in the mid-90's who won 5 in a row, although less than 4 of them were legitimate so I think we should truly have the record.

The win came on Senior Day at Cintas and there was one, lone senior in the spotlight: Jason Love. No player at Xavier that I've seen has worked harder or more epitomized what it means to play at X. He came in as an overweight freshman from Philadelphia in 2006 and only averaged about 4 minutes a game, never really impacting the team significantly in his first season. After that it was easy to see that Jason didn't want his next 3 years to mirror his first and he got to work. Attending big-man camp in the offseason after his freshman year, Love developed his inside game to a higher level as well as dropping weight and coming in next season in the best shape of his basketball career. Here are his PPG and RPG stats over his Xavier career:

2006-2007- 1.1 PPG; 1.1 RPG
2007-2008- 6.0 PPG; 5.5 RPG
2008-2009- 6.7 PPG; 5.9 RPG
2009-2010- 11.9 PPG; 8.6 RPG

The effort and time he put in speaks for itself and has made him the winningest Musketeer in Xavier basketball history with 105 career victories. I'm starting to tear up while writing this so I'll just say I'm going to miss having Jason anchor the middle of this team next season and I hope we get more players like him in the future.

This is certainly not the end of Jason's, or any of his teammates, season though as the Muskies head to Atlantic City, NJ (the other "happiest place on Earth") for the Atlantic 10 tournament. X will come in as the 2 seed as they tied atop the conference with Temple but lost the tiebreaker based on their 77-72 defeat in Philly back in January. No matter though as the Muskies come in as the hottest team in the field, winners of 7 games in a row and 15 of 18 since the new year has begun.

This latest win streak has come from solid inside play, thanks mainly to the resurgence of Jamel McLean. The 6'8" junior has averaged around 14 PPG and 6 RPG over the past 6 games and his play above the rim has given instant energy at times when it's sorely needed. McLean lost his starting role for part of the season as X tried to show their "developing" center Kenny Frease how to perform with increased minutes (Crystal Pepsi was a better experiment). Jamel needed no other motivation to start playing up to his potential than losing his starting job for a while, and it's paid off greatly. With him and Love now solidly manning the paint for X, I don't see anything less than a run to the title for Xavier in AC.

In terms of looking at the overall Atlantic 10, only Xavier, Temple and Richmond will be able to breathe easy on Selection Sunday regardless of what happens in the tournament. This definitely didn't look like it was going to be the case a few weeks ago but Dayton, Rhode Island and Charlotte have stumbled down the stretch in conference play and are now sitting on the bubble, and probably not the good side. Unless one of them impresses in the tournament (Dayton and X have a potential second round matchup) it looks like they'll all be left out of the NCAA's sadly. I won't be rooting for anyone playing the Muskies obviously, but I'm still hoping that this ultra-competitive league can still get 4 bids because they deserve it for the incredible level of play that most of the teams have been at all season. This should (seriously) be one of the best conference tournaments in America this year and I urge everyone to try and get a look if possible. GO X!

P.S.- I've started praying again, not for world peace or another season of The Critic, but for a Xavier-Notre Dame 1st round matchup in the NCAA tournament. Nothing would make me happier than to ruin the incredible run the Irish have been on in the 1st round while also showing them how superior Xavier is. Sweet dreams Matthew.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Rapid Fire Reactions

I feel the need to chime in before the last couple weeks of the season with some quick reflections on the Irish resurgence and thoughts on what's to come.

1. Rally Sons of Notre Dame

Mike Brey deserves a lot of credit for getting role players who got limited minutes (like Carleton Scott and Jack Cooley) to make major contributions over this great little four game stretch. The players deserve even more credit for not folding when their leading scorer and rebounder went out. Everyone from Tory Jackson to Mike Broghammer has handed in gutty performances during this win streak and even in the tight overtime loss to Louisville.

The questions I have for Mike Brey is why it took an injury to incorporate these guys (Scott/Cooley) with extended playing time and why Peoples was relegated to this role on the bench only after Harangody went down (he's averaged 4mpg in this three game win streak, the only three games all season where he played less than 10 minutes)?

2. Now That's What I Call Defense (Volume I)

For the first time in all my years of watching Notre Dame Basketball under Mike Brey I watched a team that was truly committed to defense when they shut down UConn. The Huskies have much better athletes at every single position but thanks to some great hustle and execution of a perfect gameplan the Irish smothered them.

This was the ultimate debunking of the myth that ND can't play good defense against the more athletic top-tier teams in the Big East. All it takes is effort and commitment. If they can keep this up over the next twelve months the Irish will be in the tournament in two weeks and a legitimate force to be reckoned with next year.

3. Great Scott

In the preseason predictions we did on the site with K-Mac and Ayers I chose Carleton as my "Player Most Likely to Surprise." The last two weeks have totally solidified my man crush on our rail-thin forward with the condor wing span. Despite the fact that he would be a middleweight in Bengal Bouts he's shown he possesses game-changing ability on the defensive end. He's a fantastic weakside help defender and someone who opponents now must think about when they drive into the lane. Whether he gets a hand on a shot or not he usually redirects the path of it thanks to his Manute Bol-esque arms.

Jay Bilas has to wear a bib when he watches Scott's tape. Also, I'd like to request that the band plays this song whenever he makes a big play before a timeout. Scott should probably learn the dance too--it'd probably shoot him up to #1 on my list of all-time favorite players if he did.

4. A Wise Man Once Said "Know Your Role"

When Luke Harangody comes back he must adjust the way he's been playing. There's a huge body of work that scouts can look at from this year to determine whether they think he can hack it in the pros, now it's time to focus strictly on what will help the team. He needs to channel Freshman Year "Bam Bam" Harangody, the guy who lived inside and roughed people up on both ends of the court. He needs to toughen up on the defensive end and worry about getting shots in the paint rather than camping out by the three point arc. A lot of people thought he had to shoot 20 times a game in order for the Irish to do anything this year. The last few weeks have proven that belief wrong.

This team has been playing incredibly well in his absence and I think a large part of that is the personnel fits Brey's scheme a bit better. Tyrone Nash is not the offensive force that Luke is, but he plays with his back to the basket, has a nice little arsenal of post-moves, and has FANTASTIC vision and passing ability for a big man. As we touched on earlier, Carleton Scott has added a new dynamic on defense while Cooley has added the bruising minutes Harangody used to supply his first couple years. Obviously you're not going to plant Luke on the bench when he comes back, but the time has come to tweak his game for the good of the team down the homestretch.

5. Don't Start the Dance Yet...

Everyone seems to think one more win gets us in. I disagree completely. We need two more whether it's Marquette and our first round Big East game or two in the Big East tournament. Yes, we're playing very, very well right now and have had some quality wins (Pitt, GTown, UConn, WVU), but it seems like everyone has conveniently forgotten that we have some pretty brutal albatrosses hanging around our necks right now (losses to Rutgers, Northwestern, and--gulp--Loyola Marymount).

Right now we're on the good side of the bubble but it's hardly a comfortable position. Should we drop one of these next two games suddenly the pundits (and selection committee) will remember the sub-par RPI, the weak SOS, and the fact that we've got some bad, BAD losses. There's an easy way to take care of that and it's W-I-N.

6. My One NCAA Tournament Wish

If the Irish squeak into the tourney, please for the love of God match them up against Xavier in round one. Mikey and I have been praying for this matchup since we were 16 years old. It would lead to a flurry of trash-talking posts that could only be topped by a Notre Dame-Penn State football game. The bet would be hefty, but no amount of money or on-demand pushups wagered could match the pride that would be on the line.

And for the record, we'd curb stomp those Muskiqueers.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Along Came a Spider

As I'm sure everyone's noticed by now, the Atlantic 10 is one of the best conferences to watch in the country. Its teams have proved that they can win against high level competition (just ask Villanova, Florida, Missouri, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma St. and Louisville) and the result has been an incredible leap in national attention and respect as 7 teams are being considered for NCAA bids. Xavier, Temple and Richmond are all in very good shape currently and are playing more for seeding than anything, but Rhode Island, Dayton, Charlotte and St. Louis are still holding out hope of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday, although they've been killing themselves late in the season. Maybe if they can repeat this success next year Rick Majerus will actually be content being in a league this impressive (but I doubt it).

Over the past few weeks, Xavier moved itself back into a tie at the top of the standings with significant wins at Charlotte and St. Louis. The Charlotte contest was never really close as the Muskies got up big early and held the 49ers at bay for the rest of the game. The loss dealt a huge blow to Charlotte's NCAA chances, but with the bubble as weak as it is there's no question they still have a shot at dancing. St. Louis may not be in the same, optimistic position however. The Billikens (what the hell is a Billiken??) were dealt their first A-10 home loss of the season by X on Wednesday night as they fell 73-71. Xavier was down 6 at half but used an early 16-0 run in the 2nd half to jump in front of St. Louis by 10 on their way to controlling the rest of the game. The loss was crippling for St. Louis and they will now need to win their 2 matchups this week against Temple and Dayton, along with a deep run in the A-10 tournament, to jump back into consideration for a bid.

Xavier's time at the top of the A-10 seemed in serious trouble this past weekend though. Sunday showcased a premium national contest between X and the Richmond Spiders, a team that has taken down quality opponents all season and is charging towards its first NCAA tournament appearance in 6 years. There was no doubt in the minds of the fans that this was going to be a hotly contested battle that would come down to the wire. The first half of the game was back and forth as Xavier continually jumped out to small leads but were quickly answered by Richmond, almost always with a deep 3 ball. At the end of 20 minutes the Muskies had the lead by 4 but it might as well have been tied.

The 2nd half was a great deal like the first with ties and lead changes dominating the scoreboard.
Jason Love and Jamel McLean were cleaning up inside for the Muskies and the Spiders had practically no answer for them all afternoon. X had a couple 6 point leads but Richmond quickly responded each time, usually with guards David Gonzalvez and Kevin Anderson (who were outstanding). Xavier settled into a 3 point lead with 24 seconds left on the clock, but Gonzalvez responded again, nailing a 3 to tie the game (I was almost sick when it went in). X called a timeout and tried to set up a play for Jordan Crawford but all he could get off was a 30 foot heave that hopped high off the back rim and pushed the game to overtime.

In the first overtime, there were again multiple ties and lead changes and the margin was not larger than 2 points by either team. Again, Jason Love played leader and made the final basket for the Musketeers in overtime, tying the game at 70 with 1:42 to play. Crawford again had a chance to win it, but his jumper near the right baseline was errant which sent the game to a second overtime. The teams gave the fans their money's worth in the second OT period as well. Terrell Holloway made his presence felt even more, opening with a triple atop the 3-point arch to give Xavier a 73-70 lead. After an Anderson bucket, Holloway charged hard through the lane on the next two offensive possessions, which translated into a lay-up and two free throws. The foul shots provided X with a 77-72 lead with 2:30 left. Richmond narrowed the gap to two points at 78-76 and had the opportunity to tie and extend the game yet again, but Justin Harper missed a reverse lay-in attempt and X escaped with a victory. The game took nearly 3 hours, I couldn't see by the end of it, Jerry Springer was in attendance, it was heaven.

This game really personified the way the Atlantic 10 has played out this season and the way every game is going to be a tough one. Xavier is now tied at the top with the Temple Owls at 12-2 in conference play and is rolling along having won 9 of their past 10 contests. Jason Love is the absolute epitome of a senior leader and if you saw his Top 10 play on Sportscenter last week you'd see why (a one-handed putback at St. Louis while falling to the ground for those who missed it). The Muskies play at Rose Hill Gym tonight in the Bronx as they take on the Fordham Rams, losers of 20 straight games (some kind of record I imagine). Xavier's RPI will probably drop 8 spots just for playing the game but that's also why the RPI shouldn't mean as much as people think IMO. Regardless, X's winning streak has set them up for a great showing in Atlantic City at the A-10 tournament and hopefully for a high seed in the Dance as well.