Roster RundownPlayer of the Game – Luke Harangody: Over the last calendar year, I've written that Harangody's evolution as a player has occasionally had a negative impact on the Irish (I believe he needs to consistently fight for better post position and spend more time down low than on the perimeter). In this same span I've questioned his defensive improvement (along with the rest of the team, of course) and his ability to pass efficiently out of constant double-teams.
Tuesday night, Luke Harangody absolutely carried Notre Dame to victory. They might not win three Big East games without his services. He's one of the best players in college basketball, and its appropriate to reiterate that all criticism thrown his way is relative to his three-season All-America status. His presence allows Notre Dame to have a team and product to watch rather than a brand-new empty blue arena.
As an aside, it was nice to see Harangody ratchet up his game and intensity level after an mid-first half skirmish with Bulls guard Chris Howard (Harangody scored 12 points in the ensuing four game minutes and was booed by the home crowd every time he touched the ball). He's a force to be reckoned with when opponents challenge or bait him.
Leadership Award – Tory Jackson: Jackson shot 3-12 from the field including a 1-4 effort beyond the arc – and I hardly noticed. He had a season-low 3 assists (and per usual, just one turnover)…I'd have guessed 6 to 8 assists prior to reading the box score. Tuesday night was a game that the Irish would have lost (going away) with the senior's leadership and determination. It was Jackson who took on the second half task of guarding red-hot big guard Dominique Jones (and Jackson who harried Jones into two tough misses in the final two minutes).
He didn't control Jones throughout the second half...only when it mattered most.
I was critical of Jackson last season for failing to guide the Irish through the season-crippling seven-game losing skid. I thought his game had hit a plateau after a breakout sophomore season, and not until he was benched at UCLA (and responded with a strong game in the blowout loss) did he snap out of a near season-long funk.
There's no evidence of a funk this season, though Jackson needs to make a better percentage of his shots for the Irish to make a run at an NCAA Tournament bid, but the senior leader put forth a quality, "winning" effort vs. South Florida and the Irish escaped with a crucial road victory.
A poor free throw shooter (for his position), Jackson was 4-4 on the evening, and more importantly, in the clutch, as each of the four freebies helped stem the tide during the Bulls second-half run.
Confidence Boost – Tyrone Nash: I wasn't surprised by Nash's 11 points and 7 rebounds (6 offensive) in 31 minutes. It's nearly expected and completely necessary that the junior power forward produce at that level over the team's next 15 conference contests. What was shocking however, were the two most pressure-packed free throws of his career.
The sub-60 percent free throw shooter nailed both to give the Irish a two-point lead with 56 seconds remaining (the Bulls tied the score with their final bucket 28 seconds later) and his poise in the situation was admirable, as the home team and crowd had completely seized momentum with the visitors obviously rattled and struggling to find an offensive rhythm over the game's last 10-plus minutes.
Nash worked tirelessly in the off-season to become a more confident free throw shooter (his form is greatly improved though his release point is still low). Simply put, the Irish would not have won without his six points (including an offensive rebound bucket) in the final 4:42 of the contest.
If at first you don't succeed… – Tim Abromaitis: Abromaitis stepped on the court for Tuesday's night's second half in a 4-14 (2-9 from long range) shooting slump. He struggled over the course of 32 minutes vs. a superior player (Stanley Robinson) at Connecticut and the problems resurfaced in a quiet first half (1-5 and 0-3 in 18 minutes) while primarily guarded by Bulls swingman Mike Mercer.
But the nation's sixth best 3-point marksman, to his credit, came out firing in the second stanza, finishing with 10 points including two layups and a resulting free throw in a 30-second span that began a 15-2 Notre Dame run. Abromaitis added a steal and drained a 3 during the run – an informal announcement that the first year contributing junior won't fold under road pressure in future contests.
Road Woes – Ben Hansbrough: The senior guard has been a hit in South Bend but has noticeably struggled in three of his four games away from the Purcell Pavilion. During the team's two-game swing through Connecticut and South Florida, Hansbrough hit just 5 of 17 shots from the floor including a 1-6 effort Tuesday in Tampa and attempted a total of six free throws. Coach Brey mentioned that Hansbrough (and Abromaitis) need to play well for the Irish to beat top teams. I think we can safely stretch that comment to include about 13 of 15 games remaining on the Irish conference schedule.
Hansbrough had a tough defensive assignment vs. Bulls powerful shooting guard Dominique Jones (and eventually yielded that cover to Tory Jackson…neither could stop the South Florida star who finished with 26 points on 20 shots), and the senior-transfer in turn had trouble penetrating vs. Jones on the offensive end – a staple to Hansbrough's success at Notre Dame to date. (Hansbrough did provide a key drive and dish to Nash for a layup after the Bulls had again trimmed the Irish lead to two.)
Look for a much better effort from Hansbrough vs. West Virginia on Saturday, but his road struggles can't continue if the Irish are to garner Win No. 2 away from home anytime soon.
Road Woes Part II – Jonathan Peoples: The senior went scoreless (0-3) in a combined 22 minutes (1 assist 3 turnovers) on Notre Dame's two-game road trip…this on the heels of a career-best 23-point performance to open the conference season vs. Providence. While he's highly unlikely to flirt with a 15-20 point night again, zero is an unacceptable total from the team's current sixth man and senior tri-captain.
Peoples likely needs more court time to be effective, but fans can't expect Coach Brey to leave an under-performing guard on the floor, either.
Quality Time – Carleton Scott: Huge blocked shot; blocked shot; defensive deflection; defensive board; offensive board…those are my notes on Scott's effort off the bench upon his initial check-in at the 9:58 mark of the first half until his removal for Nash at 5:07. The Irish will win 10 Big East game's if Scott can bring that energy and production on a nightly basis.
The redshirt-junior finished with three points, hitting his only field goal attempt (a corner 3 that sent Nash, set to sub-in for Scott after a costly turnover, back from the scorer's table to the bench) and five rebounds in just eight minutes. He added an assist to Harangody and the aforementioned turnover that resulted in a breakaway layup for the Bulls.
There is no doubt that Scott needs to double his playing time from Tuesday (around eight minutes per half rather than per game) for the Irish to contend with four of their next five opponents.
Traveling with the team – Freshmen Mike Broghammer, Jack Cooley, and Joey Brooks: DNP – CD. No one can tell me Joey Brooks, with a Big East-ready body (for a freshman) can't help with 3 to 5 minutes per half. Likewise, Broghammer and Cooley are aggressive, 6'9" 245-pound players with obvious basic skills. This team can't win without someone else banging in the paint, at least in the first half to give Harangody a break, over the course of the season.
But we've been down this road before …
- The Situation: The second half of a two-game road trip, Notre Dame's Tuesday night tilt in Tampa could be crucial as the Irish will likely look to bounce back from the season's first conference loss. The Bulls will be well-rested for their Big East home opener after opening conference play at. Louisville six days prior.
A win's a win in conference play, and the NCAA Committee will in no way penalize the Irish for a close road victory.
On TapThe Irish welcome No. 8 West Virginia to South Bend. The Mountaineers are 12-1 overall (3-0 in conference) and beat the Irish twice last season: 79-68 in Morgantown and 74-62 at Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament.
A preview of the West Virginia contest will appear Friday.