Even casual Notre Dame basketball fans can accurately point to Ben Hansbrough's self-described strength as a weakness in last year's disappointing offensive attack.
And with the exception of the low-scoring Jackson and maybe ex-transfer Dan Miller or former 1st Team Big East swingman Russell Carter (both were more adept as finishers and shooters as well), no Irish player has earned a living going to the bucket over the last 6 to 7 seasons.
But that's exactly what Notre Dame's new senior guard brings to the table.
"One thing this team does is pass the ball," Hansbrough explained when asked about his ability to find the open man. "We pass; we get in the lane; and we create for other people."
Through 13 career games at the school, the redshirt-senior transfer has emerged as the team's chief creator of offense, ranking second on the squad in assists; third in scoring; and sixth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. For the first-year contributor, its all about playing hard every moment he's on the floor.
"We have a lot of people that play really hard," Hansbrough points out while noting that Harangody is an obvious constant in this regard. "When you play really hard and attack – my dad always told me – free throws are always an indicator of how hard you're playing."
Hansbrough has attempted 52 free throws (second on the squad to Harangody's 85) and connected on 75 percent of those chances.
"He can kind of control the game with the ball…get to the free throw line, get to the lane and we're going to see that night-in and night-out from him," Harangody observed in mid-December. "He's one of those players that can draw some fouls and the good thing about that is we're in the bonus early too, and that kind of opens things up for us."
The Irish have attempted nearly four more free throws per game than last season's non-conference effort, shooting 285 (113 more than their collective opponents) through 13 matchups. The increase is notable considering the Irish were forced to salt away three non-conference games at the free throw line last season (and have not been in that position yet this year).
By the Numbers
- Points: 12.9
- Rebounds: 2.7
- Assists: 64
- Turnovers: 18
- Assist-to-Turnover Ratio: 3.69 to 1
- Steals: 14
- Blocks: 1
- FG/FT/3-Point Percentages: 53.7/50.9/75.0
(The above indicate Hansbrough's averages through the now-completed non-conference season).
A Closer LookHansbrough started quickly (hitting 9 of his first 11 three-point attempts); suffered through a one-game (killer) slump vs. Northwestern, in which he missed each of his seven shots from beyond the arc while still bothered by an ankle injury; and since regained his stroke, knocking down 12 of his last 20 shots from long range (and 21 of his last 31 field goals overall).
That defensive stressor and level of accuracy has been a near-constant for head coach Mike Brey over the course of the coach's tenure at ND, but Hansbrough's ability to drive, distribute, and finish makes him a much tougher cover for opposing guards, and Brey knows his new weapon must take full advantage of his skill set.
I like the fact that he took jump shots that he had tonight," said Brey of his senior vs. IUPUI (22 points). "We never want to (limit) his driving because the driving ability is obviously a great strength, but when he has an open look he has to take it because he's a great shooter."
More a playmaker than shooter, Hansbrough has connected with teammates for 18 assists vs. just 4 turnovers over the last four contests (and if not for a few botched layups and missed opportunities by the pass-catchers, the former number would be noticeably higher).
And though this unsolicited advice is unlikely to bear fruit, I believe Hansbrough represents the team's best end-game option as a ball-handler and decision-maker. Jackson is admittedly a better pure point guard and Coach Brey has long-relied on the team's lead guard to manufacture and take the final shot(a continual error in my opinion).
But with his dual shooting/playmaking ability, placing the ball in Hansbrough's hands in these situations puts the most final-play pressure on an opposing defense...a situation the Irish will face often by season's end.
How Can Hansbrough Improve?After watching Hansbrough vs. the dregs of Notre Dame's early-season schedule, I had the senior pegged as a top tier rebounding guard (and thus a dangerous complement to backcourt mate Tory Jackson in that regard). At 2.7 boards per contest that hasn't come to fruition but Hansbrough has the inherent toughness to help the Irish, a team that could struggle to earn extra possessions and keep opponents off their backboard, in this category.
He's likewise a little less effective than advertised in terms of his one-on-one perimeter defense – a possible side effect of his early season ankle injury, but nonetheless an aspect of his game that must improve vs. guard tandems from upcoming opponents such as Providence, Connecticut, and Villanova. Hansbrough's consistent defensive fundamentals need to catch up to his willingness and desire.
Finally, Hansbrough's shooting form is not that of a 75 percent free throw shooter. The Irish are giving away points at the charity stripe if the aggressive senior doesn't focus and knock down 80 percent of his freebies.
Greatest StrengthsHansbrough off-handedly mentioned it was his ability to find the open man and I certainly agree. And while he's a knockdown shooter and determined penetrator, the senior's most important basketball quality is one not often seen on the Irish roster over the last few seasons: attitude.
Hansbrough's the type of player that believes every rebound and every loose ball is his. He contests fast breaks defensively; he attacks his defender and fights through the holds and intentional knees that often deter would-be penetrators; and he welcomes contact vs. out-of-control opponents near the hoop.
More importantly, Hansbrough is a scrappy, almost chippie player, and that's a necessary addition to a team that I believe was Charmin-soft last season. It's a good thing that he'll be involved in a few shoving matches over the next 19-plus contests.
Final Thoughts"Hansbrough's a difference-maker," offered IUPUI coach Ron Hunter after the player scored a game-high 22 points vs. his Jaguars. "He'll make Harangody's job a lot easier because you just can't double him."
First, it was the summer announcement that Luke Harangody would withdraw his name from the NBA Draft and return for his senior season. Then in early October, junior transfer Scott Martin was lost for the season due to a knee injury. And as the season began and the bullets started to fly, the emergence of redshirt-junior Tim Abromaitis took center stage for Irish basketball fans.
Lost along the way was Hansbrough's solid body of work (when healthy) and the likelihood (in my opinion) that the senior will emerge as Notre Dame's second-best basketball player through the course of the Big East season.
Yes, his presence as a shooter compliments Harangody, but that skill has yet to be in short supply during the Brey era. Hansbrough gives the 2010 team another guard that makes those around him better. He gives the squad a guard that can score from three spots on the floor (deep, finishing at the rim, and at the line), and he gives the group a new identity and versatility it lacked over the last two years.
On a team as thin as Notre Dame, each starter represents the difference between an NCAA bid and the disappointment of the NIT. And though Hansbrough likely ranks third in overall importance behind Harangody and the leadership of Jackson, he's likely to emerge as a fan and purist's favorite if the Irish indeed play meaningful basketball after conference play.
Note: Previews for the following players will appear prior to Notre Dame's Big East opener on Wednesday: Carleton Scott, Tyrone Nash, Jonathan Peoples, and Luke Harangody. Freshmen Mike Broghammer, Joey Brooks, and Jack Cooley will appear together in one preview column as well.