July rankings aren't the best predictor of what we'll see in March, but top ten expectations are recognition for the ability, experience, and accomplishments of Notre Dame's players and coaches. You'll find ND in the top ten consistently, as high as fourth in a couple of cases.
Expectations are high because a team full of talented seniors and juniors is rare in college basketball. ND will have four returning seniors – Kyle McAlarney, Zach Hillesland, Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller – and two juniors – Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson – who have been starters in the past. Harangody and McAlarney were first team all conference as juniors, Harangody the Big East Player of the Year. Add returning reserve Jonathan Peoples and one or two of the talented sophomores to the rotation, and you'll see that the team is experienced and deep.
Irish basketball fans should be excited.
Busy Off Season
With just one senior, Rob Kurz, leaving the team and no freshmen enrolling, the off season was to be uneventful. Not quite.
Outstanding assistant coach Gene Cross became the head coach at the University of Toledo. Much like Anthony Solomon's intensity was missed when he left ND to be St. Bonaventure's head coach in 2003, Cross's departure left a big void in ND's staff. He's an excellent coach who commanded the players' respect.
Fortunately, Solomon was available. Notre Dame announced his return to the staff at the end of May. Void filled.
With the staff solidified, it was time to assure Mike Brey's ongoing participation. Just a few weeks ago, ND announced Brey's contract extension through the 2014-15 season.
Last fall's empty recruiting class was disappointing, but two transfers after the end of the season concerns about the program after the four seniors complete their eligibility. Mississippi State guard Ben Hansbrough and Purdue forward Scott Martin enrolled at ND this summer and will be eligible to play during the 2009-10 season.
Hansbrough, a 6'3" combo guard, averaged 10.5 points per game as the Bulldogs' starter last season; and Martin, a 6'7" wing player, averaged 7.3 points as a sometime starter for the Boilermakers. Hansbrough will have two years of eligibility after sitting out this season. Martin, a very highly touted recruit just a year ago, will be eligible to play another three seasons. While the two transfers can't play this season, they'll add an unusual level of competition to ND's practices. That will be important if this team is to excel.
The program is on solid footing. Recruiting is progressing with commitments from big man Jack Cooley and guard Joey Brooks while other quality players are showing interest. The Joyce Center renovations will begin in the fall. Leaving our hope that a new basketball practice facility will be a priority in the able hands of new AD Jack Swarbrick, all of our basketball related attention can go to the upcoming season.
The Irish will travel to Dublin for the inaugural Emerald Hoops International Series in August. The event will feature Notre Dame and the senior international men's teams from Ireland, Poland and Iceland. While these are hardly the EuroBasket All Stars, it's a nice trip to play against teams that will compete hard from opening tip to the final tin whistle.
We won't learn much about the team from the August games. It's a chance for extra practice time. It's a chance for younger players to start gelling with the veterans in game situations. It's not great competition, and ND should dominate.
The roster for the trip to Ireland is based on last year's squad; so Hansbrough and Martin can't make the trip. Sophomore Carleton Scott, who did not use eligibility last season, can travel and play.
The Non-conference Schedule
Irish fans haven't been fond of recent non-conference schedules. That shouldn't be the case this season. The December home schedule won't be much more exciting than usual, but neutral site games against good to excellent teams and a February road game at UCLA will challenge the veteran squad, bolster the NCAA Tournament resume, and entertain the faithful.
It starts with a loaded Maui Classic in late November. ND, North Carolina, Alabama, Indiana, Oregon, St. Joe's, and Texas will join host Chaminade for the annual basketball festival in Hawaii. Pairings haven't been announced, but every team will play three games. Every team that doesn't play Chaminade will have three quality games, and at least one clash of preseason top ten teams is inevitable.
The Irish will return from Maui to the Midwest with a week to prepare for a contest with Ohio State at the brand new Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on December 6th. Thad Matta's Buckeyes have become one of the Big Ten's top programs, and a game against an excellent team in a football stadium is a great simulation of a regional final. We can only hope the Irish will get to put the experience to good use in March.
The final non-conference game takes the Irish to Pauley Pavilion for a long overdue renewal of the series with UCLA on February 7th. Ben Howland has restored UCLA's program to prominence, so the game will once again simulate tournament atmosphere with a loud, hostile crowd. Playing in the Pacific Time Zone will help prepare for the possibility of being sent a considerable distance to play tournament games. Regardless, it's UCLA. It's about time!
Notre Dame isn't the only Big East team pollsters regard highly heading into the 2008-09 season. Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Louisville, and Marquette have found their way into various polls' top 10; and Villanova, West Virginia, and Georgetown can be found in the top 25. The conference schedule will be a gauntlet, especially because UConn and Louisville are two of the tree Big East teams the Irish will play twice. St. John's is the third.
ND's record Joyce Center winning streak stands at 37 games, one short of the school record for consecutive home victories set in the Field House between 1943 and 1948. That record should fall against one of the easier teams ND will play at home in December. The Irish are also closing on Pitt's Big East record 20 consecutive home victories in conference games. ND has won 18 home conference games in a row. With UConn, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, and Villanova among the teams on the home schedule, expect the conference to make the Irish earn the record against a tough January slate.
Notre Dame has earned a Big East Tournament bye after finishing in the top four the last two years. All 16 teams will make the tournament this season, so the bye to the quarterfinals bypassing the first two rounds will make a top four finish that much more important. With the conference's quality and depth, that's going to be an extraordinary challenge even though this is Brey's best team.
When it comes to NCAA Tournament success, seeding is everything. There are always one or two interlopers, but most teams that make the round of 16 don't have to play a top four seed en route.
Notre Dame's weak schedule has cost it a few rungs on the seeding ladder the last two years and forced it to play better teams in early rounds. There is no good reason ND couldn't have advanced farther anyway, but advancing is always more likely against lower seeded teams.
ND's mission for this season is to earn a high seed come tournament time, four at least and preferably higher. The Irish have the schedule to build a strong resume. Their early season performance in Maui and Indianapolis will be important. The conference road record will be important. This is a veteran team that must play like it.
Keys to the Season
Are the Irish really a top 10 team? It depends on some key factors.
Will Harangody become a better defender? Notre Dame finished fifth in the conference in field goal percentage defense and fourth in rebounding margin. Those are good rankings, but ND was first in rebounding margin and second in field goal defense in early February only to falter down the stretch. Post defense was a big problem, in part because Harangody was matched against a bigger man so often. He is working on his technique for moving men away from the basket without fouling before the ball gets to the post. If he does it well, opposing post players won't have the ball in easy scoring position and they'll be easier to box out of rebounding position. It isn't all on Harangody, but he will be the man most often responsible for defending the opponent's best post player.
Will Zeller approximate Rob Kurz's toughness in the lane? Zeller showed sparks of the aggressiveness he'll need to fill Kurz's shoes, but he needs to show it full time. ND needs Zeller's to defend centers and rebound. ND needs him to pass well and grab some offensive rebounds. How well he does those things will determine whether he's a 30 minutes per game player or a 15 minutes per game man.
Is Jackson past the days of trying to force the spectacular to happen? Jackson is capable of amazing feats, but he tried to make them happen at the beginning of last season instead of letting the opportunities come to him. Turnovers resulted. Jackson led the conference in assists but did not make the top 15 in assist/turnover ratio. As the season progressed, Jackson showed more patience and had fewer turnovers. Jackson's assist/turnover ratio was a stellar 2.3 over the last six conference games, a number that would have been fifth in the Big East; but he was at 1.5 for the first two thirds of the conference slate. Jackson needs to start this season with the same maturity he showed last February if the Irish are to do well against the tough early season schedule.
Will Jackson make shots from the free throw line? A reliable mid-range jump shot will make his drive more effective, and the need to shoot free throws well is self-evident. Both shots improved throughout last season. They need to start the season as they finished last season and improve from there.
Will McAlarney put the ball on the floor more often? At an amazing 46.3%, McAlarney led the Big East in three-point shooting by more than five percentage points. Count on opponents to overplay his long range shot. McAlarney has shown the ability to score in the lane, but even a dribble or two inside the arc for a two point shot will keep defenders honest as they challenge his three point shot. An outstanding shooter with above average quickness only needs a couple of reliable moves to be unstoppable in man-to-man defense.
Will Hillesland's 12-15 foot jump shot Zach Hillesland become a consistent weapon? Opponents often sagged off of him in scoring position, causing him to charge on the drive or pass instead of taking what should have been a high percentage shot. Hillesland countered by adding a short jump shot to his game during the season. If he can take the short jump shot with confidence, he will become a double digit scorer.
Will one of the sophomores be ready for the rotation, not just to eat minutes but to be an important contributor? Someone has to replace whatever part of Kurz's minutes and productivity Zeller can't. Tyrone Nash is the most likely candidate because he played in some meaningful situations last year, but Carleton Scott and Tim Abromaitis will have their chances. Ty Proffitt will have to compete with Jonathan Peoples for time in the guard rotation, and it's going to be hard to get from men who have been important contributors for two or more seasons.
What are your keys to the season? Talk about it on the Irish Hoops board.