Head coach Mike Brey mentioned at Media Day that this team wanted to dream big. The goal: entry into the NCAA Tournament. Some may have laughed at the comment because Notre Dame lost its best overall player in Chris Quinn and two down low presences in Torin Francis and Rick Cornett. It appeared to be a year of rebuilding and work in progress for the future. Through 15 games, this team appears extremely capable of achieving the Big Dance goal.
A staple of a Brey-coached team at Notre Dame is its ability to put the ball in the hoop. Scoring has never been a problem. Last year, the Irish averaged 76 points per game. In 2006-07, they're even better. Notre Dame scores 85 points per game, good for first in the Big East. The nine point per game improvement might be traced to more balance. Last season, the Irish had four players averaging in double figures. This year, the number is five, although one of those players, Kyle McAlarney, has been suspended indefinitely from the team.
Russell Carter has taken it upon himself to be scoring threat No. 1. The senior guard is third in the Big East in scoring, averaging 17 PPG. When he's on, Carter is one of the best players in the league. Against Alabama, he torched the Crimson Tide for a career-high 27 points. Two games later, he one upped himself when he got 28 in a win over Portland. He's been the leading scorer in eight of 13 contests. Carter can be streaky though. In the loss at Georgetown, he was 5-of-15 from the field. However, so far, so good this year. He's shooting 47 percent from both the field and three-point distance. A consistent Carter that takes high-quality shots is the best medicine for the Irish.
How does the higher scoring translate to the other end of the court? It's helped a bit. Last year, Notre Dame allowed 70 PPG. This season, they're surrendering 63 PPG, good for sixth in the Big East. It's led towards the Irish have a +22.3 scoring margin. That's second in the league to West Virginia's +22.4 margin. The Mountaineers visit the Joyce Center on Tuesday night.
The depth of this team is obvious. Eight players average 16 minutes per game or more. Five of them are sophomores or freshmen. This allows Brey to keep players fresh and rotate groups as he sees fit. McAlarney's suspension allows one of the younger members of the team to see more floor time. Depth is critical in any conference and it's a needed asset when competing at a high level.
The depth is evident in the down low play. Notre Dame has two players in the paint that gives matchup headaches to opponents. The best overall player on the Irish team is junior Rob Kurz. He's a double-double threat every game. On the year, he's averaging 14.8 PPG and 8.7 RPG. Last year, Kurz was averaging six PPG and five RPG. Brey has said that late last season, he could see his big man down low becoming a good Big East forward. Around the basket, Kurz is money and strong with the ball.
He's complimented by freshman Luke Harangody. The 6-8 forward weighs in at 250 pounds but he plays much bigger than that. Harangody is averaging 12 PPG and five RPG. The big body and physical nature he plays with gives the Irish two options down low and forces opponents to not only respect Notre Dame's three-point shooting but paint presence as well. Kurz and Harangody's play have stretched out defenses and forced them to play the whole court, not just the area around the arc. They can also rebound the ball. The Irish are third in the Big East in rebounding, a stark contrast from the past few years where teams would dominate them on the boards.
Colin Falls has the chance to light it up for 20 on any night. The senior guard can get hot from three-point land. Maybe more importantly, he's a captain and a source of leadership for the young Notre Dame team. He's averaging 12.7 PPG and part of the reason why the Irish are first in the conference in three-point percentage.
One of the players Falls is leading is freshman Tory Jackson. McAlarney's suspension and 46 percent shooting from behind the arc puts a lot of pressure on the new point guard. Jackson is just 4-of-22 from three-point land and defenses can sag in the lane when guarding him. But his playmaking ability, coupled with his quick speed, should do Notre Dame wonders on the fast break. Jackson needs to be careful about protecting the basketball. On the year, he's dished out 33 assists but turned it over 32 times. McAlarney's assist-turnover ratio was at 2.5-1.
Brey has players that give him little pieces of the puzzle that's helped generate the fast start. Sophomore Luke Zeller is a 6-11 forward that can step out and shoot the three. Zach Hillesland does a little bit of everything and his hustle and intensity are never in question. Sophomore Ryan Ayers has struggled to find his shot but the athletic ability is present. Jonathan Peoples, a 6-3 freshman guard, might see a bit more time with McAlarney's suspension. Brey has a lot to work with and the chemistry on this team appears to be quite high.
Can the roll continue? Tuesday will tell a lot about this team. Notre Dame is coming off a deflating blowout loss to Georgetown. They return home to face West Virginia. The Mountaineers are 13-1 on the year and a perfect 3-0 in league play. How does this team rebound from a disappointing defeat against an top-tier team? Brey will have a challenge on his hand but sticking to the formula that got the team to 13-2 should make this group NCAA Tournament-bound come March.