High Hopes for Irish

At Media Day last year, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey set the bar high for his basketball team. Brey said they would aim high and the ultimate goal was a trip to the NCAA Tournament. With a team that had a few uncertainties, this sounded like the usual coach speak. But Brey and the Irish backed it up with a 24-8 record and an invite to the Big Dance.

The big glitch was what happened when Notre Dame got to the NCAA Tournament. The Irish were bounced by underdog Winthrop in the first round. Notre Dame will try to erase the painful memory in 2007-08 as practice kicks off on Thursday. The Irish have to deal with the graduation losses of Colin Falls and Russell Carter. But the roster is filled with eight experienced players who know what it takes to get to the Big Dance.

"This group walks around a little differently," Brey said on Wednesday at Media Day. "They have to continue to back it up. All eight, at times, all had a hand in some good stuff last year. They have every reason to move forward and feel good about themselves. There's nothing like having experience coupled with success. That's a positive."

These eight players were part of the 2006-07 team that won 20-plus games for the fourth time in seven years and the 24 victories tied for the most ever under Brey. An 11-5 Big East record saw Notre Dame earn a bye in the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. Despite then-freshman Tory Jackson putting the Irish on his back, late heroics from Georgetown's Jeff Green gave the Hoyas a semifinal win. For their effort, Notre Dame was awarded with a sixth-seed in the NCAA Tournament and sent to Spokane, Washington to play Winthrop.

The trip was a short one as a late Irish comeback attempt fell short as Winthrop pulled the upset. Now, Notre Dame will try to build from the surprising season. A good place to start is eight returning players back on the team, coupled with four freshmen. Another trip to the NCAA Tournament would be a starting point for the 2007-08 Irish.

"When you have eight veterans back, that's the tone to work back and do more," Brey said. "Can we do more? Can we exceed? Can we play deeper? Can we earn the bye again? That's all been discussed among the eight veterans. The four new guys have been absorbing it since June 20th, which is a great advantage. I didn't really have to spell out specific goals. They know what the deal is."

Offense has never been a big problem under Brey. But the Irish must replace last season's top two scorers. Carter averaged 17 PPG and was often the most athletic player on the floor. Falls was a sharpshooter from three-point range and really stepped up his production as the season progressed, averaging 15 points a contest. Both these players could light it up from anywhere on the floor and stretched defenses out.

"Those were two real big shot makers," Brey said of Carter and Falls. "They really helped us lead the league in scoring. You had to come out and guard those two guys, as you did other guys. The floor was always spread. We had great spacing last year and most years since I've been here because that's how we play. But it really created opportunities."

Brey hopes that junior Ryan Ayers can be one of the players to fill the void from the perimeter. Ayers, a 6-7 junior, saw his minutes increase as the year progressed and averaged just under three points a game in 11.9 minutes of action a contest.

Another player Brey is banking on is Kyle McAlarney. The junior was kicked out of school last season after being arrested for possession of marijuana. McAlarney applied for readmission back into Notre Dame and was accepted by the university. The junior was back on campus in the summer and will be the starter in the backcourt opposite Jackson.

Before his arrest, McAlarney was having a productive sophomore season. The Staten Island native averaged 10 PPG and shot a blistering 46 percent from three-point range. McAlarney's ability to hit the perimeter shot will be vital for the Irish offense. The junior has waited a long time to get back on the court and Brey knows McAlarney has a lot of built-up excitement in anticipation of practice starting on Thursday.

"I'm afraid he's going to run through a wall tomorrow," Brey joked. "His energy level is real high. When he got back on campus in June, he was ready to roll. He was organizing things. There's a lot of energy there. I probably have to pace him there. He's in great shape. I think it's a great story."

The combination of McAlarney and Jackson in the backcourt should be one of the Big East's best duos. Jackson sprang on the scene last year after McAlarney's dismissal and his play was stellar. As a freshman, Jackson finished with 7 PPG and four assists a contest and got better every time out on the court. The Saginaw, MI native also was a solid defensive player and earned Big East All-Rookie honors.

In the paint, Notre Dame has another productive combination. The only senior on the roster, Rob Kurz, and sophomore Luke Harangody should make it tough for the opposition to guard both scoring threats. Kurz averaged 12 PPG and eight rebounds a contest in 2006-07 while Harangody chipped in with 11 PPG and six rebounds a contest. Brey said Harangody lost 10 pounds over the summer and is down to around 245 pounds. All-energy player Zach Hillesland, Ayers, Luke Zeller and Jonathan Peoples round out the eight returners.

There's also four freshmen making their first go-around in college basketball. 6-8 Tim Abromaitis, 6-7 Tyrone Nash, 6-4 Ty Proffitt and 6-7 Carleton Scott have been on campus since June 20th and working out with the veterans. On Thursday, the four will go through their first official practice. Brey said Nash is the most physically ready of the bunch because of the year spent at prep school. The group has one characteristic that fits well with the older players on the team.

"I love the maturity level of our freshmen," Brey said. "Our freshmen, and I told them this at the end of the August workouts, they joined eight veterans that are amazingly motivated and really know how to work at a level that's got to be in the top two to three percent in college basketball. I told them at the end I was proud of them and they sat up in their seats in the team meeting. They didn't screw up the veterans. That's kind of where they need to be now. But they've done a great job and proven themselves to the older guys."

Can the 2007-08 team match what was done last season? Can McAlarney pick up where he left off? Will Jackson continue his skyrocketing development? The first game is slated for November 12th against Long Island at the Joyce Center. The Big East slate starts on January 3rd at home versus West Virginia. Notre Dame will now play 18 conference contests, as opposed to the 16 of previous seasons. A few publications have already picked the Irish to finish in the middle of the Big East standings. Brey and the team is aware of the predictions and Notre Dame is focused on obtaining another successful season.

"I kind of like that," Brey said of the predictions. "That's where I thought we'd come in by talking to people this summer. I haven't seen McAlarney or Jackson rated in any of the top backcourts. That's all good stuff for me and the group to keep the edge and keep it going."

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