Burning Brightly

To the restless fan's dismay – The Burn offense is here to stay.

Be careful what you wish for, Irish fans:

Nine seasons of meaningless assist-to-turnover ratios; three-point bombs; and a green light to shooters across the board yielded nothing but tournament frustration for Basketball Program mavens and casual fans alike.

They lamented the lack of commitment to team defense and rebounding and scorned the reliance on three-point shooting and players that toiled below the rim.

In case you've missed the last 14 days, things have changed in South Bend.

Help-side defense, team rebounding pride, and controlling the tempo reign supreme.

Last night, I left press row for the first time this season to sit in our season ticket seats with my wife. I listened as (and at some points, empathized with) the hometown fans collectively groaned, consistently begging for action as the purposeful Irish grinded out a 40-minute, 8-point victory over Connecticut.

Aesthetically pleasing, high-scoring losses are in the past. The beauty lied in the effort, the execution, the toughness displayed, and the final score.

Head coach Mike Brey's late-season adjustment and the resulting Burn Offense has put the Irish on the precipice of an NCAA bid that would have been considered a pipe dream three weeks prior.

IrishEyes reviews the season's final home game with a few thoughts on the players that helped turn around the team's fortunes.

Player of the Game – Tory Jackson

And considering how the end of the regular season has morphed into an NCAA audition possibly the team's, most valuable player of the year.

Jackson put the Irish on his back in the second half last night, dominating the basketball and his defender, sophomore point guard Kemba Walker, to the tune of 20 second half points on 7-10 shooting from the field and a 5-6 effort from the charity stripe in the final 20 minutes.

Per usual, Jackson didn't rest until the game was put on ice, at which time he received a huge ovation from the appreciative crowd. Jackson saved his best basketball for the final half of his senior season. He's the team's best perimeter defender; a gritty scorer regardless of his defender or game pressure, and has improved his outside shot immeasurably over the last three weeks. In short, he's become the player fans expected following his sophomore season.

His 22 total points served as a career-best home court scoring output.

All Grown Up – Carleton Scott

On January 30, Notre Dame lost at Rutgers. Their star missed 18 of 26 shots and Carleton Scott contributed the dreaded: DNP-CD.

What a difference a month makes. Scott now serves as the cornerstone of the Irish interior defense: the program's first legitimate weak side shot-blocker since Ryan Humphrey graduated following the 2002 season. He cleans the defensive glass (14 boards last night including 11 after Huskies misses) and negates opponents' penetration with long arms, timing, and a defensive mindset that has helped turn the previously Pamper-soft Irish defensive interior into no-man's land for opposing guards.

Scott added three blocked shots (and at least three more altered attempts) to his 14-rebound effort while contributing 12 points on eight shots including a 2-4 effort from beyond the arc.

Three weeks ago I lamented the fact that Scott needed at least 20 minutes per game, and that he was much better when afforded extended court time.

Never did I think the redshirt-junior would play 73 combined minutes in a two-game stretch and serve the team's most complete front court contributor in the two huge victories.

Tough Sledding – Tim Abromaitis

Shooters have off nights. Over the course of the season, Abromaitis has transformed himself from a reliable knockdown shooter into a collegiate scorer and there's a distinct advantage to the latter. But last night, and for the second time in as many meetings, Connecticut super-athlete Stanley Robinson shut-down the Irish junior marksman with sticky man-to-man defense in every half-court set.

The end result was a 4-12 shooting night, including 0-3 from long range (the first game this season in which Abromaitis failed to connect on a three-point shot). It was a 38-minute struggle for the Big East's most improved player. To his credit, Abromaitis did attempt to get to the bucket, but the night's officiating crew was inconsistent (on both ends) and plays that have been deemed fouls for most of the year ended in turnovers, blocked shots, and ugly sequences throughout the evening.

Abromaitis, in turn, helped limit Robinson to a season-low six points in 35 minutes (more on that at the bottom of the column), and he deserves credit for playing intelligent, focused defense vs. the explosive forward.

Which brings us to a final, major criticism on the evening: the team's best free throw shooter wanted no part of the basketball in the final two minutes. Not because he was afraid to go to the line for pressure free throws (far from it), but because he lacks confidence in his ability to protect the ball vs. traps and full-court pressure. Something to work on this off-season…

No Buckets, One Win – Ben Hansbrough

Hansbrough met his athletic match last night in Huskies power guard Jerome Dyson. The 1st Team All Conference defender overpowered the Irish senior, negating his patented penetration and kick skill set and forcing the usually reliable shooter into an 0-8 night from the field.

Hansbrough complimented Dyson's effort in a post-game interview, but the determined guard returned the favor on the other end, limiting the Huskies leading scorer to 10 points on a 2-14 shooting performance while forcing five turnovers in 36 frustrating minutes.

Though he appeared to tweak his previously injured ankle late in the contest, Hansbrough did not miss a minute of action, contributing six points, four rebounds and four steals in the victory.

No Room in the Inn, err...Paint – Tyrone Nash

Notre Dame's point center has improved greatly over the course of the season, but Nash's patient post play was rendered ineffective by a quintet of 6'10-plus defenders last night. He netted just five points on 2-8 shooting while corralling just three rebounds in 34 minutes.

He did (again) serve as an extra ball-handler vs. man-to-man pressure and found Abromaitis and Jackson for two beautiful backdoor buckets on passes inside the lane.

Expect a bigger contribution from Nash Saturday in Milwaukee vs. the smallish Golden Eagles, assuming he can continue to stay out of foul trouble in extended minutes.

The New 6th Man – Jack Cooley

Eight minutes, three offensive rebounds, three points, two field goal attempts, and two fouls. More important, one physical message delivered in the lane to a road-graded Husky who thought setting a screen on the big man might have merit.

The freshman center has plenty of holes in his game at this stage of his career, but he brings effort, energy, and a big body in the paint, and he does not yield post position as readily as his predecessors of the last two seasons at the position. He's improved defensively vs. high-pick-and rolls and needs to play 5-8 minutes per game even if All American Luke Harangody returns from injury.

At the Ready? – Jonathan Peoples

Honored with a start (and two minutes of playing time) on Senior Night, Peoples has been surpassed by Cooley in the rotation. He could serve as a necessary third defensive guard for 8-10 minutes vs. undersized Marquette on Saturday and if the Irish are to make either a Big East or NCAA Tournament run, Peoples will need to provide at least one, if not two more halves of quality basketball along the way.

The novel idea of inserting freshman Joey Brooks, a superior athlete that's stronger and quicker, not to mention four inches taller, is also out there for discussion. At least on the website.

Peoples played well off the bench vs. Marquette last season, scoring 8 including a pair of three-pointers.

Leftovers...

  • Remind me to pick against UConn in my NIT bracket next month
  • Carleton Scott should tie his right arm behind his back for two hours per day in the off-season: he needs to develop a left hand…ditto Tim Abromaitis
  • Paging Stanley Robinson...Mr. Robinson, please report to the security office, your offensive aggressiveness and desire have been stolen. How does a player that torched the Irish for 22 points and 16 boards attempt four shots in 35 minutes with the season on the line?
  • Notre Dame's BURN offense matched up vs. St. John's and its commitment to man-to-man defense and plodding offensive attack has the potential to result in the lowest scoring game in Big East Tourney history
  • The Irish need to designate two Most Improved Awards this year: One for the season, to Tim Abromaitis; and one for the latter stages of the year, for Carleton Scott.
  • Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Marquette's Buzz Williams, and Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon each deserve Conference Coach of the Year mention…Mike Brey is the Coach of the Last 14 Days
  • The Burn, while effective and ultimately rewarding, really zaps the life from the home crowd. Hopefully ND won't return to the Purcell Pavilion for the NIT this season, because no one wants to find out what happens when 2,000 disinterested fans doze off in public
  • Message to casual Irish basketball fans: The team's transformation late this season is the football equivalent of Charlie Weis losing his starting quarterback, subsequently adopting the Wishbone offense in November, and finishing 3-1 or 4-0 as a result, instead of 0-4.

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