Game, and team, MVP – Ben HansbroughThe 11-year Mike Brey era has witnessed its share of talented or tough-minded point guards. None of the position's predecessors possessed the attribute that defines Ben Hansbrough.
He's a closer.
And through nine games of his final conference season, the senior has proven to be the team's top shooter, creator, perimeter defender and its beating heart.
He draws fouls with determined drives – the end result of earlier trips to the free throw line for he and his teammates due to the foul bonus. He improves his position to hit tough pull-ups; he finishes at the rim in traffic; and he finds the open man, whether it be cross court, inside-out; kick-ahead, far more often than not.
Monday night vs. the Panthers, Hansbrough played perhaps his most impressive game to date. A quiet first half was highlighted by a reverse layup at danger time – just after Pittsburgh had extended its lead to seven, 28-21 with two minutes remaining.
And he finished – with a flourish – accounting for 23 of the team's final 31 points on field goals or assists. He added a steal up top that resulted in two more.
And in the game's final minutes, Hansbrough executed three consecutive high pick-and-rolls (twice with the aid of screener Scott Martin) to hit a pull-up jump shot, a blow-by layup around center Gary McGhee, and another layup, this time after a stutter dribble vs. guard Ashton Gibbs. The Panthers scored twice in between but Hansbrough's buckets drove the Irish lead from two to four before the senior again beat Pittsburgh off the dribble, this time with a perfectly executed spin move and drop step for a layup and the game's deciding points – 56 to 51 with just 19 seconds remaining.
Notre Dame has seen dozens of outstanding individual efforts in recent seasons: considering the location, opponent and stakes, Hansbrough's Monday night was the best finishing performance of them all.
The difference-maker – Carleton ScottFrom the 17:07 through 12:12 of the first half, Notre Dame failed to score and saw an 8-5 lead turn into a 14-8 deficit. Carleton Scott drained a stare-down three-pointer, cutting Pittsburgh's lead in half, followed that with a blocked shot that resulted in a bucket on the other end, and the Irish once again began to trade buckets with the Panthers for the bulk of the half.
He knocked down another triple off an in-bounds pass and contended a Panthers layup one the ensuing possession with weak side help.
Scott tends to produce in streaks, but since that occurrence generally includes both ends of the floor, it's worked out nicely for the senior red-shirt from San Antonio.
His clutch shooting continued in the second stanza, hitting back-to-back three-pointers to erase a six-point deficit over a 45-second span. Six minutes later, after the Irish had taken their first lead since early in the first half, Scott knocked down a triple from the corner, drawing a foul in the process. His four-point play gave the Irish their largest lead, 46-41, a margin that remained at the final buzzer.
Notre Dame is a non-contender without Scott, who missed part or all of three Irish losses this winter due to a New Year's Day hamstring injury. He's the team's best defensive rebounder, weak side shot-blocking presence, and mid-range shooter.
He's a three-point weapon(he still shoots too many with more than half of his attempts from long range); a quality perimeter defender that can guard three positions, and is an underrated facilitator of the half-court offense when the Irish aren't in BURN mode.
With him, they're of Sweet 16 quality and a tough out vs. any team in a season bereft of a dominant team in college basketball.
Stepping up – Scott MartinHe's not (yet?) at the level purported by his head coach ("most talented offensive player he's ever coached) or by respected game analysts Dan Dakich and Jay Bilas, both of whom were effusive in their praise of the former Purdue transfer.
But Martin has fought through obvious rust (two seasons away from the court, the latter due to a knee injury) to contribute in recent games. Monday night he set the tone with back-to-back three-point shots to start the contest – the first of which opened the door for Ben Hansbrough's dominance on the high pick-and-roll later in the contest.
Pittsburgh opened the contest by "hedging" vs. the pick-and-roll – that is, using the screener's defender to cut off Hansbrough's driving lane, but not switching, the hedging defender would then scramble back to cover the "roll" after Hansbrough's initial defender recovered to defend the Irish guard again.
The standard defensive tactic is rarely employed by Notre Dame, nearly always utilized by teams such as Marquette, Louisville, and Villanova, and backfired on Pittsburgh early as Martin found open space for easy 3-point shots as the Panthers failed to rotate after the hedge.
Head coach Jamie Dixon's adjustment to simply switch defenders on the high pick-and-roll later in the contest ultimately burned the hosts as Hansbrough dominated the game's final minutes.
At 6'8" with decent feet and (according to Brey) the team's best vertical leap, Martin has been the key piece to the team's suddenly effective 2-3 zone: his height/length at the top next to Hansbrough offers a better deterrent than does the 6'1" and slightly built presence of backup guard Eric Atkins (or last year's occupant, 5'11" Tory Jackson).
Still a touch off in his mid-range game and post-up – both alluded to as strengths in the pre-season, Martin missed seven jump shots (including one post turn-around) Monday night. But his last five outings have yielded season highs in rebounds (11 in a loss to Marquette), free throws made and attempted (8 of 10 in the rematch win), field goal attempts (16, twice), and minutes played (36, twice).
Continued improvement over the next nine games would bode well for a Notre Dame offense missing the skills Scott Martin possesses.
And if you're inclined not to listen to his head coach or game announcers – to a man, his teammates offered the same overview of his offensive game.
Key to the future – Tim AbromaitisQuick prediction: Notre Dame will never again win a game in which Tim Abromaitis plays nearly 30 minutes without an official field goal attempt. The returning second-team All Big East selection has struggled away from the Purcell Pavilion for the better part of his conference career, but his passivity Monday was the first sign that he lacked confidence in his game.
At his best, Abro is more than a three-point specialist: last season he cut up defenses with backdoor moves, bulled his way to the free throw line for at least five attempts per night, and consistently finished strong at the rim. That was absent Monday, and in road tilts this season, though the senior does lead the squad in rebounds and still ranks second in scoring.
After scoring in double digits in 17 of 19 to start the season including 10 straight, Abromaitis has just six points on six attempts over 62 games minutes – but the Irish have won both contests.
His return to form is mandatory if the Irish are to contend for more than an NCAA berth.
Tyrone Nash – Back in tandem……With Carleton Scott. Without his classmate alongside him on the front line (four games), Nash averaged eight points, attempted only 22 shots, corralled just 17 rebounds, suffered as many assists as turnovers, and was in foul trouble in each contest (4 or 5 fouls).
Since Scott's return vs. Cincinnati, Nash has scored 31 points, grabbed 15 boards, committed eight total fouls, and has seven assists vs. three turnovers.
And the Irish are 3-0.
In addition to forming a much better defensive front line, Nash routinely finds Scott for open jump shots and the two in tandem give the Irish a chance on the defensive glass vs. the myriad athletes of the Big East conference.
The most improved free throw shooter in program history – he was legitimately awful as a freshman – Nash opened the season at 73.5 percent from the charity stripe. He's since hit just 14 of 25. Considering he serves as a third ball-handler and the team's only post presence, Nash needs take his father's off-season words to heart: "Get in the gym, Ty."
His performance at the foul line will decide at least two more close games this season.
Undervalued – Eric AtkinsUndervalued, undersized, and underappreciated if you're not an avid follower of the program. The freshman ranks as one of the steadiest first-year performers in Brey's tenure, committing just 18 turnovers in nine Big East games (266 minutes played) while dishing out 30 assists.
He kept the Irish afloat in the comeback win vs. Marquette (4-5 with 12 points in the first half) and allowed Hansbrough 22 minutes off the ball again in Monday's upset. His second half playing time has decreased since Scott returned to action – something Brey must account for as Atkins' quickness, decision-making, clutch shooting (he's hit 16 of his last 27 field goal attempts including eight of his last nine since Scott's return) will be invaluable when the Irish offense inevitably bogs down vs. aggressive foes.
Atkins ranks as an ideal sixth-man for a senior-laden group – a point guard that can hit the open shot in rhythm and rarely commits needless turnovers – he needs to maintain 25 minutes per night over the remaining conference games for the Irish to be at their tournament best.
Earning it – Jack CooleyThe Irish scored 37 of their 56 points Monday night with less than 10 seconds remaining on the shot-clock. Two of those arrived courtesy a calm, heady layup by Cooley. He added a blocked shot at the rim, altered another, and set solid screens for Hansbrough, but it was his seemingly simple finish at the end that will keep him in the rotation – albeit for varied minutes – as the season progresses.
Cooley's coordinated and he can finish after the catch jumping off one or both feet (he looked like a player on the rise vs. lesser competition in November and December), and at 6'9" 250, that's a valuable commodity for an offense that can't function if even one player is incapable of catching, passing, and finishing when the opportunity arises.
Notre Dame won't win more than two Big East Tournament games without a solid effort from Cooley. The same will hold true in the Tournament that matters in March. But he has to earn his minutes: Monday, he did.