In other words, one can not automatically assume that because Notre Dame easily defeated West Virginia, and West Virginia controlled the game in beating Marquette, that Notre Dame will knock off MU this Saturday at the Bradley Center.
To be sure, the Irish will be a formidable foe. They are 2 – 0 in the Big East and 12 – 2 overall with a ten-game winning streak. They are not deep, but they have four excellent players and two solid complementary players.
For the season, Coach Mike Brey's squad ranks first in the conference in three-point field goal percentage at a very impressive 42.3%, first in rebounding margin at +10.3, and first in assists at 19.8 apg. They also rank second among conference teams in both free throw percentage (72.1%) and assist/turnover ratio (1.52/1.00).
It wasn't long ago that Notre Dame had a reputation as being dangerous on offense but, to be kind, suspect on defense. They played almost exclusively zone defense because they had so many weak man-to-man defenders. That's no longer the case.
In fact, playing man to man and zone in roughly equal doses so far this year, the Irish rank fourth in the league overall in field goal percentage defense at 37.9%, and they rank second in defensive rebounding.
In their conference opener, the Irish held West Virginia to 31.9% shooting from the field, including 20.0% (5 of 25) from behind the arc. Connecticut didn't fare very well either, hitting only 39.1% of their field goals, including an incredible 11.8% (2 of 17) on three-pointers.
The other rap on Brey's teams used to be that they played soft, that they weren't mentally or physically tough enough to reach the upper echelon of the conference. Anyone who has watched the Irish play this year or last year would never accuse them of that same offense. Middle linebacker/defensive end Luke Harangody, who happens to play the 5, is the poster boy for Notre Dame's new image. The Irish's football squad could have definitely used him this year.
But fellow sophomore, point guard Tory Jackson isn't far behind his classmate in terms of toughness. Nor are senior power forward Rob Kurz, an imposing physical specimen, or junior guard Kyle McAlarney. Both play hard on every possession as does sixth man Zach Hillesland. In short, the Irish are no longer a finesse team that can be bullied both inside and out. More often than not, they are the bullies.
Starters & Key Reserves
Tory Jackson – the 6'0" point guard is as quick as any starter at his position in the league. He has struggled on offense this season, averaging only 6.9 ppg on 37.5% shooting. For the year his three-point shooting has been atrocious – 19.2%. However, he showed signs of turning his offensive game around against West Virginia when he scored 12 points on 5 of 10 field goals, including 2 of 3 treys.
For his size, the sophomore from Saginaw, Michigan is extremely productive on the boards, averaging 4.6 rpg. In his last game against UConn, he had seven rebounds.
But his real strength is setting up teammates. He is averaging 6.1 apg for the season, which ranks second in the league; he had a remarkable 11 assists versus the Huskies, and over his last five games he's averaged 8.4 apg.
Jackson uses his quickness, along with a superb hesitation/stutter step and an excellent spin move, to beat his man off the dribble and get into the lane. Once there, he has an uncanny ability to find one of the post players underneath or kick the ball out to McAlarney or Ayers for open looks on the perimeter.
Jackson also excels at pushing the ball up court. In fact, his speed in the open court is the catalyst that makes the Notre Dame fast break effective. If MU's guards don't get back on defense, the Irish will have more than their share of easy buckets.
Finally, unlike a few other ultra-quick point guards in the conference, Jackson is a tough on-ball defender. He is hard to beat off the dribble, but he also is very adept at doubling down when the ball goes into the lane or low post and creating a turnover.
Last year MU's guards were unable to stop Jackson when the two teams met in South Bend as the then-freshman scored 21 points, pulled down 7 rebounds (5 offensive), and handed out 7 assists. Anything even close to a repeat performance will likely result in an MU loss on Saturday.
Kyle McAlarney – the 6'1" junior is the ideal complement for Jackson as he is one of the deadliest outside shooters in the country. For the season, he is shooting a remarkable 44.7% on three-pointers and is 7 of 11 on treys in conference play. He absolutely scorched UConn in his last game, hitting 6 of 7 from behind the arc.
However, two factors make the Staten Island, New York native more dangerous than the typical nationally-ranked long-range bomber. First, he is more than a spot-up shooter who relies on kick-outs to get a shot as he can create his own shot off the dribble. That means he doesn't need screens – either on-ball or off-ball – to get open. In fact, he is incredibly adept at taking two or three dribbles (usually to his right or toward the basket), stopping on a dime, and putting up his shot - in short a "stop-and-pop," a move MU fans should be familiar with since Travis Diener also perfected it his junior and senior seasons.
The other factor is that McAlarney is not one-dimensional on offense. He handles the ball as well as most point guards – which he was – and is quick enough to get past his man and take the ball to the rack. Plus, he has mastered a soft, high-arcing floater – a la Cordell Henry – which he manages to get over taller players who come to provide help defense. In essence, he is a handful. He presently ranks #15 in the conference in scoring overall at 14.9 ppg, but on many teams he could, and probably would, average 20+ ppg. Five times this year he's exceeded the 20-point mark with a high of 32 points against the Huskies despite the best attempts of UConn's guards, all of whom are well above average defenders.
Lest someone think the Irish off guard can't do anything but shoot and score, it should be pointed out that last year – when he ran the point the first portion of the season before being suspended from school – he averaged 5.4 apg and had an exceptional assist/turnover ratio of 2.50/1.00. This year, playing off guard, he is still averaging 3.8 apg, and his assist/turnover ratio is 2.52/1.00, good for a #4 ranking in the conference. In two Big East games he has accumulated 14 assists (7.0 apg) and only 1 turnover!
Whomever coach Crean assigns to defend McAlarney, that player will have his hands full.
Ryan Ayers - the son of former Ohio State coach Randy Ayers is more than the average complementary player. He is averaging 8.6 ppg and 3.7 rpg in 26.3 mpg. He is shooting a very respectable 44.6% from the field. However, the 6'8" junior plays a supporting role on this team given the superb talent of some of his teammates.
Ayers is hitting nearly half of his three-point shots – 49.2% - which ranks second in the conference. In other words, opponents can not focus all of their attention on the perimeter on McAlarney because if they do, the 6'8" junior can take up the slack. Five times already this season he has made three treys in a game, despite being the fifth option on offense.
Ayers can also be a force on the defensive end of the court. His height and long arms can cause havoc for opposing 3s, whether they are small forwards or part of a three-guard lineup. He is quick, and he has relatively good hops.
To get an idea of how talented Ayers is, MU fans might imagine a much quicker, more athletic version of Dan Fitzgerald, one that is perhaps a bit more consistent from behind the arc.
Rob Kurz – the 6'9" senior is probably one of the most under-appreciated players in the conference, at least among fans (other than ND fans). While he does not enjoy the name recognition that some of his teammates do, let alone the recognition of some of the other power forwards in the league, there is no question conference coaches recognize his value to the Irish. He is definitely one of the most talented, and one of the most versatile, big men in the Big East.
His stats – 13.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, and 2.4 apg in 27 mpg are certainly noteworthy, as is his field goal percentage of 51.3%. But those figures fall far short of telling the entire story.
What makes Kurz such a difficult match up is the fact that he can play inside or outside. He can score in the lane around the hoop, he can put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket from the perimeter, he has developed an excellent mid-range game, and he is a definite threat from three-point territory as his three-point percentage of 50.0% illustrates. MU fans should probably think in terms of someone with the skills and shooting ability of Lazar Hayward, only three inches taller and 10-15 pounds heavier.
Currently, the Pennsylvania native ranks ninth in the conference in rebounding (seventh in defensive rebounding) and twenty-first in scoring (ahead of both McNeal and Hayward). He is tied with Hayward for fourth in the league in free throw percentage at 82.6%, so he's not one of those big men that teams will foul rather than give up an easy basket. Plus, he is twelfth – two notches ahead of Barro – in blocked shots at 1.43 bpg.
Taken together, that's a pretty impressive portfolio. Yet, he doesn't get the headlines that Harangody, McAlarney, and even Jackson do. But MU fans shouldn't underestimate the potential impact Kurz could have on Saturday. If he has a similar game to his last one against Connecticut – 14 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 2 blocks in 31 minutes, the odds of a Marquette win decline significantly.
Luke Harangody – the public image of the Irish these days is that of the 6'8" sophomore with the crew cut and the nasty disposition. After all, he leads the team in scoring (18.2 ppg) and rebounding (9.5 rpg). The former figure ranks third in the conference; the latter ranks fourth.
But it's not just what he accomplishes that draws the attention of opponents, fans, and media types; it's also how he does it.
Harangody is an anomaly: he combines brute power/raw strength with terrific footwork, a variety of polished moves, and an incredibly soft touch. His favorite move is a jump hook, accurate out to 10 - 12 feet, in which he spins one way, then the other, and then back again. He also has an effective drop step that is difficult to stop. Facing the basket, the 6'8" sophomore can knock down the 15 foot jumper, though his release his unorthodox.
In short, he is undersized in terms of height to play the 5, doesn't jump very well, and looks more like a football player than a basketball player. But he is extremely skilled and probably has the most polished low-post game in the conference.
On top of all this, Harangody's intensity and "nastiness" on the court are reminiscent of MU great Maurice Lucas. His approach is just as aggressive as Mo's was, only without the glare.
Against West Virginia, the former Indiana high school star was absolutely dominant – 29 points and 16 boards. He was nowhere near as effective against UConn – though he still had a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds – primarily because Hasheem Thabeet, the Huskies 7'3" center, blocked five or six of his shots, including three in the first three minutes of the game. After halftime, Harangody didn't score a point, but he never backed down. He continued to take the ball right at Thabeet. He forced the issue at times, trying too hard to get the better of the match up.
Finally, Harangody is one of those players opposing fans love to hate. Part of that comes from his frequent complaining when he's called for a foul. In that sense, he's already NBA-ready. Another part comes from his incessant whining when an opponent makes even the slightest contact when he's shooting and no foul is called. It's ironic how physical the former Top 100 recruit can be on both offense and defense, yet how sensitive he is to even the lightest touch, especially when he has the ball.
However, the primary reasons he draws the ire of opposing fans is his unquestionable talent and the competitive aggressiveness he brings to the game, similar in nature to how opposing teams' fans used to despise Diener.
Unfortunately for Coach Tom Crean and MU fans, Marquette does not have an intimidating 7'3" defensive presence like Thabeet in the middle to contain Harangody. Last year he proved to be too strong and too quick for Barro, who played only 17 minutes due to foul trouble. Meanwhile, Harangody scored 22 points and pulled down 13 rebounds (nine offensive) in 29 minutes. Anything even close to that kind of production will likely spell "D-o-o-m" for Marquette. Zach Hillesland – the sixth man for the Irish, this 6'9" junior is the equivalent of the Energizer bunny. He provides a spark when he comes off the bench. While not a good mid-range or perimeter shooter (he has not taken a three-pointer in three years), he does score in a variety of ways around the basket.
He has excellent ball-handling skills for a 6'9" player, and he is deceptively quick, as well as fast. He occasionally drives to the hoop if he sees a lane open, but he's more likely to score in transition or on the offensive glass. In that sense, he might be considered a "garbage player," but he has more overall talent.
Hillesland does all the little things that don't necessarily show up in the box score – the ones that endear players like him to coaches. He sets picks, makes the right passes, dives for loose balls, and plays tough, aggressive defense.
For the year he is averaging 5.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, and 2.1 apg in 20.1 mpg, and he is shooting 47.2% from the field. His best game came in a one-point loss to Georgia Tech when he had 12 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals in 27 minutes.
Hillesland knows his role on this team. His job is to come in and give the team added energy, hit the glass, and play solid defense.
Luke Zeller - for the year the 6'11" former Indiana High School Player of the Year is averaging 4.9 ppg and 2.4 rpg in 13.4 mpg. In other words, he still has not lived up to the expectations many had of him when he joined the Irish program as a consensus Top 40 recruit (#34 on RSCI).
Zeller is an excellent outside shooter (50.0% on treys this year), but he has not developed an interior game. Surprisingly, he is a terrible free throw shooter (54.8% for his career). However, he hardly ever gets to the line; in fact, he has taken only 7 charity tosses this year and made only 3.
His first two games this season against Big East competition have not exactly been productive. He has yet to score (he's taken only one shot), has 1 rebound, 0 assists, 0 blocks, and 0 steals in 16 total minutes.
The Irish have a number of very talented players. Not many teams in the country can boast that all five starters rank in the Top 10 in their conference in at least one category. But Notre Dame can.
Harangody is #3 in scoring, #4 in rebounding, #7 in offensive rebounding, and #9 in free throw shooting; Kurz is #7 in defensive rebounding, #9 in overall rebounding, and #4 in free throw percentage; Jackson is #2 in assists (one assist behind the leader) and #10 in steals; McAlarney is # 2 in three-pointers made, #3 in three-point field goal percentage, and #4 in assist/turnover ratio; and, Ayers is #2 in three-point field goal percentage and #10 in three-pointers made.
On offense, ND can score from the perimeter or pound the ball inside. The Irish also run the floor extremely well and push the tempo at every possibility.
Defensively, they are respectable. They can play man or zone equally well, though given MU's recent performances against WVU's and SHU's zones, expect to see considerably more of the latter.
MU does not match up well with the Irish. Barro could not contain Harangody a year ago, and there's no reason to believe he or Burke can accomplish that task this year. Hayward will have his hands full with Kurz, who is three inches taller and can score inside or out as well as be a terror on the glass. Matthews will try to get his offensive game untracked against a decent defender who is 6'8", is quick, and can jump. MU's guards as tough on defense as they are, can not afford to leave McAlarney alone for an instant, and they have to play him honestly since he can create his own shot from deep, and he can drive. As whoever is guarding Jackson needs a much better defensive performance against him than James had last year when the Irish point guard got past him almost at will.
Notre Dame's one Achilles heel is lack of depth. Only Hillesland has been a consistent contributor off the bench, and there is a major drop off in the back court when either starting guard goes out.
To win this game Marquette must play with 100% effort all 40 minutes. They must compete on the glass against the best rebounding team in the conference. They have to avoid turnovers. And perhaps most importantly, they have to hit a significantly higher percentage of their outside shots than they have in the last two games. In essence, anything less than their A, or at least their A minus, game will likely lead to a conference record of 2 -2 instead of 3 – 1.