But if the Irish fall short of the Hoop Promised Land, it won't be for lack of conditioning or mental toughness. Head coach Mike Brey made that point crystal clear Wednesday afternoon at the squad's annual Media Day at the Joyce Center.
"We're in great shape earlier than we have ever been," Brey, beginning his seventh year at the helm, stressed. "And when you're in shape, you're confident."
Just how fit are the Irish? On Tuesday, Brey applied a mandatory conditioning test for his 13-player roster (11 scholarship, two walk-ons). The players broke into three groups, and toed the baseline in The Pit. The mandatory requirement was to run four lengths of the court in 22 seconds.
Sounds easy for a varsity athlete, correct? Four 94-foot sprints in 22 seconds? Try doing it 22 times, with no more than 45 seconds of rest in between each set. Every member of the team passed the test comfortably.
"We all did it, no problem," said sophomore point guard Kyle McAlarney. "We were all proud of ourselves, but not surprised. We've been working exceptionally hard all summer."
Brey used another word for the Irish off-season work ethic: Maniacal.
"This is the hardest working group we've had," he said. "I sure hope people respect the heck out of these guys. They have been fighters."
And the Irish will need to be to put behind them the memories of a 6-10, 12th place finish in the 2005-06 Big East Conference standings. Because of that – and the graduation of all-conference performer Chris Quinn (now with the Miami Heat) – Brey's crew will be picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference again.
Not so fast, though. Brey was quick to point out that of the 22 players on the all-Big East first- or second-teams, 19 have graduated. Eleven of those players were among the top 33 choices in the 2006 NBA Draft. "So there is all sort of opportunity for players to come out of nowhere to excel this year," Brey said. "Why not some of our guys?
"It's like I told them earlier this week," Brey continued. "At this point last year, nobody was expecting anything out of (national champion) Florida, and (Final Four participant) George Mason was George Mason."
The Irish return two valuable seniors – 6-5 Colin Falls and 6-4 Russell Carter. The former was the most prolific three-point shooter in the Big East last season (102-for-257) and the latter averaged 17.7 points per contest in his final eight conference tilts, displaying a slashing inside-out game that had fans believing that Notre Dame had a Ray Allen-esque Big East player.
"And everyone should expect more from me this year," said Falls, who has a defined set of arms and stretch marks on his chest indicative of a laborious summer in the weight room. "I want to be more than a shooter."
Carter, who sat patiently for two years before blossoming late last winter, could be the player Notre Dame turns to for a final shot in close games. "It's a challenge I've been waiting for, dreaming about," he said.
The one junior – 6-9 forward Rob Kurz – looks to be Notre Dame's top rebounder. "He has changed drastically physically," said Brey. "He wants it so bad, I have to remind him to smile once in a while on the court." Kurz averaged 6.4 points and 5.1 rebounds while playing 21 minutes per game last year. Brey projects all those numbers to go up, as do his teammates.
"Rob Kurz," said Carter, "is going to be an outstanding college player. I've been saying that ever since I played against him in AAU when we were both 16."
The four Irish sophomores – 6-8 Ryan Ayers, 6-9 Zach Hillesland, 6-11 Luke Zeller and 6-1 McAlarney – may be the secret weapons for this team.
"For Ayers, the light bulb went on for him in the Michigan game (of the post-season NIT)," said Brey. "He's ready to contribute. McAlarney is going to be the man. He will be our point guard and wants the ball in his hands. We're driving to find the right combination for Zeller. He prefers to play outside, but he's making progress with an inside game. And Hillesland is really going to emerge for us. He's a smart player who sets screens for you and gets you extra possessions."
And the Irish debuted four freshmen at the media day. Luke Harangody, a 6-8 banger, will wear No. 44. Joe Harden – looking every bit the Californian with long blonde hair – will wear No. 11 and look to make his 6-7 presence felt low. Point guard Tory Jackson is Chris Thomas-quick, and inherits the No. 2 jersey Quinn wore with such dignity and success. And 6-3 Jonathan Peoples not only wears No. 20, but bears a striking resemblance to the former captain who last wore that uni, Torrian Jones.
It appears Jackson will get serious court time early. Brey talked excitedly about "changing ends better than we have in the past. With our two guards (Jackson and McAlarney) we will be able to push the ball better than anytime since I've been here." Harangody has an imposing presence and, with practice beginning Friday, "we'll have an idea in short order how much he can help us," Brey said.
And Brey – who last pre-season confounded some observers by saying his team was primarily aiming to qualify for the Big East Tournament – has a more optimistic view now.
"I don't want these guys selling themselves short," he said. "We may be looking at stealing a bid (to the NCAA Tournament). The complexion of the league has changed and if we continue to develop, anything can happen."
If Notre Dame can go from 6-10 Big East, 16-14 overall, to the NCAA Tournament, Brey's seventh year will indeed be magical. But, on this day at least, with the sweat equity this team has accumulated, it was appropriate to dream large.
(IrishEyes Magazine Editor-in-Chief Alan Tieuli will have a thorough preview of the 2006-07 Notre Dame men's basketball team in the December issue of IrishEyes Magazine. For subscription information please click HERE.)
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