Irish Prepare For Trip to Motherland

The Notre Dame basketball team heads to Ireland next week to take on some international teams as part of the inaugural Emerald Hoops Program. The Irish started practice on Monday and are focusing on playing together as a team and preparing for the upcoming trip and season.

According to Tory Jackson, the early start that the Notre Dame basketball is getting by participating in the Emerald Hoops Program in Ireland will be just as beneficial to head coach Mike Brey as it will be for the players.

"(Coach Brey) can't feed us the underdog story no more. He can't feed us that no more, he's got to think of something new," Jackson laughed. "He's got a couple of weeks to work on it now while we're in Ireland. So I think this early start helps him too, a lot more than it helps us."

Brey agreed with his junior point guard.

"These old guys I've coached so long they know all of my material, so I'm going to have to work on some new material here over the next three weeks," Brey said. "I'm sure we'll come up with something, if not during this trip than for November."

But Jackson has an idea of what Brey may come up with.

"He might say we think we've reached the mountaintop. We heard that a lot this year coming from our strength coach," Jackson said. "‘You think you've reached the mountaintop already, but you haven't reached it yet.' We'll probably hear a lot of that."

While Jackson was making light of it, it's true that after last year's 25-8 season that saw them earn a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Irish won't be sneaking up on anybody in 2008.

"We have very high expectations for ourselves and we're ranked pretty high this year, it's not like we're going to be flying under the radar," senior guard Kyle McAlarney said.

The trip, which is allowed once every four years by the NCAA, gives Notre Dame the opportunity to hold some early practice sessions before heading across the Atlantic.

"To get to work with your team right now in August, especially this group of veterans, I think it's going to energize our whole staff," Brey said. "You can experiment with some things. You certainly can get a look at some of your younger guys who have not got much of a look yet to date in our program. It gives us some material to discuss in September in our preseason meetings."

The Irish will have nine or 10 practices before they head to Ireland on August 13. The team will be in Ireland for 13 days and will have six games - two vs. Ireland, two vs. Poland, one vs. Iceland and one vs. the Ireland All-Stars. Notre Dame will also get the chance to hold more practice sessions while in Europe and will also participate in a couple of clinics.

"It's an advantage there's no question about. I haven't really seen these guys play since March," Brey said. "I can't go in and watch them play 5-on-5, so even our returning guys. Is anybody doing anything a little different, more confidently?"

This Notre Dame team is a particularly tight unit and the players are just as excited to be playing together as they are about anything else.

"A lot of teams are at home and working individually while we're in here working as a team," said Jackson.

Junior forward Luke Harangody also recognizes the advantage that comes with the early start.

"We feel special because other teams in the country aren't in here right now," Harangody said. "We get to get together, we get a full 10 days of practice, that's great for us. It's almost like we're getting a head start."

Senior forward Zach Hillesland spent some time at home recently watching tapes from last season and says there is nowhere he'd rather be than with his teammates.

"This is what I like to do, this is how I set up my life: playing basketball and being around my best friends, which are my teammates," he said.

McAlarney is looking forward to exerting more of a leadership role this season and says that starts now.

"We're looking to get a head start on the season and really blend and grow as a group and start the season off right," McAlarney said. "I'm just trying to be there for my teammates and be a leader out there. I've really worked hard on my game in the offseason, but those things will come, the important thing for me is just to be a leader for these young guys."

McAlarney is one of four seniors on the squad along with Hillesland, Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller, who know that this is the start of their final year.

"We have a lot of eager guys after last year to get back out on the court and improve," Hillesland said. "I think everyone is in the right frame of mind as far as coming back and wanting to get better and realizing that this is a great opportunity to improve our season when the real thing kicks off in the fall."

One thing Brey will be looking for on the trip is somebody to replace the only senior from last year's team, Rob Kurz.

"Kurz's minutes are gone, does somebody jump up and take them? I think that's something that we can get a feel for," Brey said.

Hillesland definitely understands what Kurz brought to the squad and is one candidate to fill that role.

"It'll certainly be by a committee, I think. You'll see myself, Luke Zeller, a guy like Tyrone Nash will try to step up and fill those minutes," Hillesland said. "Rob did a lot of small things that don't show up in the box score as far as hustling and setting a work ethic and the tone for our team. Doing the dirty work I think there are a lot of guys that are ready to do that, it'll just be a matter of everyone chipping in to try to make up for that."

Notre Dame will have to get used to the different international rules, including a shorter shot clock, wider lane and less stringent goaltending calls.

"I think the biggest thing is going to be the shot clock. 24 seconds, all of a sudden you're into single-digits really quick," Brey said.

Brey said that the trip won't feature many scouting reports and that he anticipates a different starting five for each of the 12 halves.

"It's all about us and evaluating us," he said. "It's going to be different than the season. We've got to get some guys in there and let them play through mistakes and get some confidence."

While the trip will be more focused on the Irish, Jackson said that they are not going to overlook any opponents.

"It's competition for us. We want to go over there and treat them like they're Georgetown, like they're Syracuse, like they're one of the powerhouses in our conference. That's how we're going over there," he said. "We want to have the mentality like it's the month of March. Getting that championship mentality, that's what we want to work on and this is a great opportunity for us to work on it now."


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