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O’Malley’s Weekend Musings

Nine thoughts on Notre Dame’s remarkable run through March – plus the requisite spring football commentary – as Brian Kelly’s Irish break for Easter.

We Interrupt these pre-planned spring football musings for, well, obvious reasons…

1 – And Then There Was One: One program in America has advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite 8 in consecutive seasons…

2 – Auguste’s Remarkable March: Irish senior Zach Auguste needs his first two field goals to ring true Sunday night to, however temporarily, surpass the legendary Bill Walton’s career field goal percentage record in NCAA Tournament play.

Walton connected on 109 of 159 field goal attempts (68.6 percent) in his 12 tournament games. The minimum total to qualify for the NCAA Tournament record is 70 attempts, and Auguste is a robust 47 for 68 (69.1 percent) over his 8-game tournament career:

-- 16 for 23 through three wins this March
-- 28 for 40 in four 2015 tournament contests
-- An innocuous 3 for 5 in a loss to Iowa State in March 2013
(The Irish finished below .500 in 2014, failing to qualify for post-season play.)

Of note: if Auguste begins 1 for 2 Sunday against North Carolina he’ll dip to 68.5 percent for his career, just below Walton’s record mark of 68.6%.

3 – Slow Out of the Gates: Down 8 to Duke…behind by an insurmountable 19 to North Carolina…A dozen back of Michigan at the break…A grand total of 19 points vs. Wisconsin through last night’s opening 20 minutes.

With the exception of a nip-and-tuck battle vs. Stephen F. Austin, first halves have not been kind to Mike Brey’s Irish during tournament play this spring, but that’s not a recent development.

Notre Dame has been outscored overall in the first half this season (1,237 to 1,220) – remarkable considering a healthy dozen games occurred against *foes that were laughably overmatched in November and December.

(*And, well, Boston College in January, twice. The Eagles are terrible, one of the worst teams in the sport. And if that reality and source of disappointent makes a single BC fan unhappy I consider it comeuppance for that fateful day in November 1993. But I digress…)

First half scuffles aside, Brey’s 2016 Irish have more stones than the Thornton Quarry, but if they show poorly in the first half vs. the Tar Heels tomorrow they have no chance to advance to the Final Four. None.

A solid start is imperative Sunday, and a close game at the 15-minute mark of the second stanza would put game pressure squarely on the surging, confident Tar Heels.

North Carolina opened today as an 9.5-point favorite.

4 – Oh Yeah… I was supposed to write about football today.

This is one man’s opinion (actually, I have a feeling it’s shared by two others you hear from regularly), but I believe Malik Zaire will have to be markedly better than DeShone Kizer next August to win the starting quarterback job for Game 1. Any relative tie would (and should) go to Kizer after one of the all-time clutch performances, week after week in late-game situations, in program history last fall.

And I’m positive that no matter what you hear this spring, the status of “leader in the clubhouse” exiting spring ball is less important than what transpires behind the scenes this summer heading into training camp. 

5 – Pete on Point: Predictable “turn-the-page” chatter has been part of early spring interview sessions with Irish offensive assistants and players to date. Among the suggestions offered by the media through the session’s first two weeks is that we’ll see a more “balanced” offense due to the loss of All-American wide receiver Will Fuller.

It will be more balanced, but unfortunately that’s out of necessity. As offered by my colleague Pete Sampson last week, it would be doubtless preferred by everyone, from Brian Kelly to Mike Denbrock to Mike Sanford on down, if Irish quarterbacks could simply throw to Fuller 100-plus times as they did in both of the last two seasons.

6 – Winter of His Discontent? The media and message board highlight of spring ball to date was Brian Kelly’s Wednesday offering that early enrollee freshman Devin Studstill is running with the first team at free safety ahead of senior Max Redfield.

As one of our message board posters offered, that’s likely more Kelly motivational ploy than depth chart reality. Studstill has been on campus for three months, while Redfield has logged 23 starts in the blue and gold. Unless the former is second coming of Bobby Taylor fused with equal parts Jeff Burris and Luther Bradley, it seems unlikely that he could ascend to the top of the hypothetical depth chart after five practices.

Which begs the question: why would Kelly need to send the enigmatic Redfield – fresh off suspension and two seasons of scuffling at safety – any message at all? How has it not been sent and received in spades?

No one Redfield’s talent should need to be poked and prodded at this point in his career.

7 – Tall Task: Middle linebacker Nyles Morgan replaces a two-year starter and the defense’s unquestioned quarterback. James Onwualu is tasked with taking the massive step from solid piece of the puzzle to Saturday playmaker on the strong side.

But there might not be a bigger challenge among college football linebacker (or players, for that matter) than that facing weak side – junior Greer Martini (out, shoulder), sophomore Te’Von Coney (out, shoulder), and redshirt-freshman Asmar Bilal – of the Irish defense in its bid to replace, in congress, the Human Eraser, Jaylon Smith.

8 – Back to the Matter at Hand: Two Demetrius Jackson steals. A combined six clutch free throws by a trio of Irishmen. An 8-0 run to go from three down to a five-point win in the final 20 seconds.

Notre Dame’s closing fury Friday night ranks among the best moments in program history, but none of the above was as important – or more impressive in terms of basketball acumen – than Jackson’s driving layup in the wake of Wisconsin’s go-ahead three-pointer with 28 seconds remaining.

Instead of panicking and hoisting an ill-advised shot from beyond the arc, Jackson put his head down and took what would be, and is almost always, readily available: a layup, mildly contested at best when a defense leads by three and is afraid to foul.

The next 19 seconds belonged to the Irish and Notre Dame fans have a basketball game to watch Sunday night as a result.

9 – Let’s Be Clear: Considering the program’s place in the sport’s modern pecking order, Notre Dame’s ongoing tournament runs of March 2015 and 2016 rank in congress as the best in program history. With due respect to the back-to-back 1978 Final Four and 1979 Elite 8 squads, what Brey’s bunch has accomplished over the last 12-plus months, and finally, when it matters most, is remarkable.

Digger Phelps’ loaded 1978 team was replete with NBA talent – 10 were drafted from it, and the ’79 crew included eight of those 10. Conversely Notre Dame’s 2015-16 group has a maximum of four such talents (though it’s brimming with Euro-level future pros) with two already in the league.

The shift in college basketball power over the last 35 years – 31 of those seasons during the expanded NCAA Tournament era –  included the unceremonious disavowing of 1970s flagship program Notre Dame, and the Irish haven’t been close to the nation’s elite since David Rivers final season in 1988.

They’re officially back today.

And we’ll be back Monday with our regularly scheduled Musings… Top Stories