What a Finish!

Notre Dame's abrupt reversal of fortunes helped the program land a seventh-seed in the Big East tournament this week (ahead of nationally ranked Georgetown) and all but assured an NCAA Tournament berth on Selection Sunday. IrishEyes looks back at Saturday's upset win at Marquette, and the coaching adjustments that made this four-game winning streak possible.

Ramping Up – Carleton Scott

Over the last three games, Carleton Scott has produced 43 points, 36 rebounds (8 offensive), 6 blocked shots, 6 assists (7 turnovers), and 4 steals while shooting 16-26 from the field, 6-11 from beyond the arc. Yeah, there's no way he could have contributed before late February…

Scott sent Saturday's game into overtime by calmly drilling a last-second 22-footer from the left wing. That shot, more so than any other this season, is responsible for the likely forthcoming NCAA Tournament bid.

Scott has played 115 total minutes over the last three contests; 177 since earning the first start of his career on February 17 at Louisville (a five-game span and, due to several overtime periods contained within, 215 possible game minutes). Those 215 minutes are the most impressive the Irish team has played, as a group, this season.

Luke Harangody is the team's best player. Tory Jackson is its MVP and leader. But Carleton Scott is the reason Notre Dame won't play on St. Patrick's Day in front of 2,000 fans as an NIT afterthought.

Wearing Down? – Tim Abromaitis

It's an odd headline for a player whose 5 of 6 effort from the charity stripe in the final 13 seconds of overtime won the game for the Irish. But the honorable mention Big East selection appears to have hit the rookie wall (he is, after all, a first-time contributor to a college basketball team).

Abromaitis has connected on just 2 of his last 20 three-point attempts. In other words, he's gone from the nation's best shooter as of February 25 to the team'sworst outside shooter over the last three games and 10 days.

But Abro's style of play allows him to score through various means. His knack for finding an open space on backdoor cuts and flashes across the paint, and his willingness to draw contact on penetration and near the offensive glass afforded the redshirt-junior a game-high 18 points Saturday. He added nine rebounds and three assists in 41 minutes while supplying the game-clinching free throws.

This Irish squad is better-equipped for a deep run in the Big East Tournament than any of its predecessors, but extra games next week could be a detriment to Abromaitis in NCAA Tournament play…he needs to get his legs back more so than any player on the Irish roster.

Hounded – Tory Jackson

Jackson's Kryptonite – smaller, quicker defenders – were in ample supply Saturday in Milwaukee. Both Maurice Acker and David Cubillan spent the better part of 45 minutes harassing Jackson and his backcourt mate Ben Hansbrough on every dribble. Jackson finished with just nine points and a season-low one assist (plus two steals) while (big surprise) playing the entire 45-minute contest.

More important, he played within himself and the confines of the new offense, hitting four of nine shot attempts while committing just two turnovers (one costly) without receiving a moment's rest.

Like St. John's diminutive but solidly-built Malik Boothe before him, Acker was able to deny Jackson penetration with a low defensive base. It's up to Jackson and the coaching staff to allow Hansbrough (or Tyrone Nash) to handle the ball in these situations and let Jackson work the lane and attempt to gain low-post position vs. smaller defenders. Jackson's a much better player closer to the basket anyway – it's the next logical adjustment to be made to Notre Dame's highly successful Burn offense.

Note: More on Jackson in a forthcoming Big East Awards column.

My Kingdom for a Jump Shot – Tyrone Nash

Would Notre Dame be a national contender if Tyrone Nash had a jump shot (or ability to knock down a spot-up set sho, a la Jonathan Peoples)?

I only point out the major flaw in his game because the junior power forward/point center can do just about everything else asked of a developing college forward on the basketball court. He's become the perfect short-supply player for Mike Brey's Irish:

  • Nash serves capably as a third ball-handler, a key role as the team's small forward, Tim Abromaitis, is a bit shaky vs. defensive ball pressure
  • He's the team's primary post option, but is much better in this capacity with limited opportunities
  • Nash is likewise a key facilitator of Brey's half-court offense, relying on his vision and passing ability on the low block or in the lane
  • He's a solid, though unspectacular defender: one capable of limiting though not stopping the opponent's best post scorer, but one also prone to unnecessary foul trouble
  • Most important, he's an improved free throw shooter that has completely revamped what was a hideous shooting stroke (Nash has hit 19 of 26 during the team's four-game winning streak, numbers which were beyond comprehension at this point last season)
  • He hasn't hit or attempted more than one set-shot/jump shot this season (I vaguely remember a 10-foot attempt with no rotation on the ball in December).

Nash is the Jack-of-All-Trades/Master of None, for Mike Brey's Irish. Saturday, his right-handed jump hook (Nash is a lefty) on the team's first overtime possession served as the only field goal the Irish hit in the decisive extra session. If he avoids foul trouble, the Irish will be a tough out in two upcoming tournaments.

Working for Next Weekend – Ben Hansbrough

The senior off-guard could use a change of scenery…as in, new opponents. The Big East book on Hansbrough likely has a few worn pages in the chapter discussing how to defend the Irish penetrator. Opponents have clamped down on Hansbrough as of late and the formerly efficient offensive threat has connected on just 1 of his last 14 field goal attempts including an 0-10 slump from long range (Hansbrough registered as a 45% three-point marksman prior to his recent struggles).

Wednesday's opponent – either Seton Hall or Providence – should provide a brief respite as Seton Hall plays a wide open style and Providence is one of the most disinterested defensive basketball teams known to mankind. But should the Irish prevail, likely opponents to follow include Pittsburgh and top-tier perimeter defender Jerome Dixon (Dixon matched up mainly with Abromaitis in the team's first meeting) and either West Virginia or Louisville, two teams dedicated to hard-nosed pressure and help defensively.

The Irish need Hansbrough to get back on track…a solid shooting effort in a Wednesday win and breakout opening NCAA weekend would be fine with me.

Hansbrough was Saturday's unsung hero with his alert offensive rebound and kick-out to Carleton Scott for the game-tying three-pointer.

Super Sub? – Luke Harangody

If Harangody's knee is structurally sound he needs about 20 minutes per game, because Abromaitis, Nash, and Scott would each thrive – and remain fresh – with 32-34 minutes of court time, and Jack Cooley needs 5-7 minutes of defensive hustle in an effort to beat up, frustrate and foul opposing big men.

While its unlikely Harangody can fully assimilate into Notre Dame's new style, he is nonetheless a rebounding and scoring threat and should not be used in the familiar substitution patterns afforded previous relief players such as Scott and Jonathan Peoples.

Brey's next challenge is turning Harangody into the hungriest sixth-man in the history of the Big East Tournament and Field of 64. At worst he should be the dominant half of an offense/defense platoon situation in late-game situations. He'll need consistent minutes to remain dialed in each night.

Get Loose – Jonathan Peoples and Jack Cooley

The best-case scenario this week has Notre Dame playing three or four games in three of four days. Peoples will need to show up with defensive intensity vs. three-guard lineups and knock down the open 20-footer. He can serve as a third ball handler in the burn offense though is much better suited as a spot-up player with the clock winding down than as a dribbler expected to create offense in shot-clock situations.

It's not too late for the senior captain to make an impact for the comeback Irish.

Cooley was rightly withheld from the contest vs. Marquette (the Golden Eagles feature eight players 6'7" and under and he couldn't have stayed with any of them, defensively), but Cooley muststay in the Irish defensive rotation (for reasons outlined above). To reiterate: Notre Dame is now one of the league's toughest teams. They cannot sit (for the entire 40 minutes) Jack Cooley in favor of scorers. Hard fouls are the name of the game in New York.

About Face – Mike Brey

Entering Saturday's contest vs. Marquette, Notre Dame had lost seven of its last eight overtime contests (the lone victory an 81-74 decision over Providence in late January 2008).

Five of the extra session defeats took place in the snake-bitten 2006 season but the current group had dropped two straight, both at Louisville. The first, last January 12, sent the Irish into a seven-game losing spiral and eventual NIT berth.

The most recent, a February 17 double-overtime downer turned the Irish season around with the resulting four-game winning streak planting Notre Dame firmly inside the friendly confines of NCAA Bubble Protection Program.

Irish fans will be spared the dreaded "last four in" vs. "last four out" verbiage. The seventh-place Irish, 10-8 in the nation's toughest conference (and its close) will be, barring Selection Committee sabotage, dancing in mid-March. And possibly in late March, as the team's sudden commitment to defense, rebounding, patience, and perseverance could propel it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003 and just the third time since Danny Ainge took out a heavily favored Notre Dame squad with a coast-to-coast killer in the final seconds of the 1981 Sweet 16.

Mike Brey deserves plenty of criticism for the aforementioned overtime futility. And for a 31-36 record in games decided by 3 points or fewer over his 10 seasons at the helm.

He likewise deserves credit for the 180 performed by this unlikely group, one operating without its best player who also happens to be a three-time 1st Team All Big East performer – one of 11 in the history of the conference.

The new Irish share the basketball. They share defensive responsibility. They share the load on the glass. And they share the credit for the most unlikely four-game winning streak since December of 2002 when Brey's unranked Irish buried three consecutive Top 10 teams in a six-day span (plus rival DePaul).

Notre Dame won't win the Big East Tournament or National Championship this season. But for the first time in decades, they're unlikely to bow out without a title-worthy fight.

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