Sunday, March 14, 2010

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.


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