Better Still?

With a Big East title-game in site, a still-improving Notre Dame team has at least one more adjustment to make to keep its magical conference run and 2010 season alive beyond next weekend.

Notre Dame's 50-45 victory over No. 2 seed Pittsburgh last night has been played up nationally as an upset.

Dead-even Las Vegas betting line notwithstanding, yesterday's conquest of the proud, gritty Panthers was no upset.

As currently constructed, Notre Dame is a better basketball team, and they've proven that fact twice in a 15-day span.

And unlike the Panthers, unlike tonight's semi-final opponent West Virginia, unlike 12 other Big East teams (with the exception of Georgetown) and unlike the vast majority of squads across the country, the Irish could continue to improve over the next two or three weeks as the season comes to a close.

It was head coach Mike Brey's vision for the team on Media Day and was re-stated (and greeted with eye rolls) as late as the end of January. The Irish leader continued to believe in his troops' potential when most of the program's followers had already written them off as a mid-level also-ran.

"I felt because we had guys in new roles that we could keep changing up until March," Brey noted last night.

"Now I didn't think it would be this kind of change (injury); but as I've noted, it certainly helped because Carleton Scott got to start. And that was a great confidence boost for him, playing more minutes.

"Other guys got to do more and we won. So it was a perfect storm."

Below, we examine if the storm can continue to pick up steam.

Garden Reminiscence

Notre Dame's ball movement in the game's first five minutes last night conjured up memories of a Garden squad 35 years previous. The confident Irish starting five moved the ball with a purpose, involving each member of the quintet, but they ultimately scored their first 12 points through the post thanks to the vision and patience of junior forward Tyrone Nash.

Nash hit classmate Tim Abromaitis on a feed underneath for an easy two. He followed that with a rebound and kick-out to a wide open Tory Jackson for a three-pointer that resulted in Notre Dame's first lead – one they'd never relinquish sans a momentary tie late in the half.

Nash then worked his way across the lane to hit an open Carleton Scott for a mid-range jump shot, while later finding Ben Hansbrough for an easy layup and 9-4 advantage.

Strong post position (and a feed from Scott) earned Nash a split pair of free throws which he followed shortly thereafter with an uncontested layup on a beautiful feed from Hansbrough in penetration.

Five minutes and 12 seconds had elapsed; Notre Dame had a 12-4 edge; Nash had a hand in every point scored and had combined with each of his four starting teammates in the process.

Madison Square Garden's favorite team: the early 70s Knicks, would have approved.

Balancing the Weapon with the Workers

As noted above, Notre Dame's starting five thrives on ball movement and has shown the ability to carve up a defense with patient, unselfish, high-IQ basketball. Each of the five starters has impressive court vision with the possible exception of Abromaitis, but the team's best shooter makes up for that minor deficiency with his ability to play off the ball; thereby benefitting from the passing acumen of his teammates.

(Nash, for Irish fans new to the proceedings, is an especially skilled post passer, one that has thrived with the increased emphasis on spacing in the Burn Offense.)

Since the advent of the Burn, Mike Brey has admirably performed the politically difficult task of limiting the court time of his returning star, Luke Harangody.

But the assimilation of the former All American will become trickier with each remaining contest. Harangody has played the good soldier since his spot-duty return in the regular-season finale at Marquette. He was the game's MVP in the first-round handling of Seton Hall on Wednesday, and the game's hero yesterday with a clutch rebound and cold-blooded game-sealing free throws in the final 15 seconds.

But he's appeared a fish-out-of-water in two of three said contests. His tentative play at Marquette was understandable given the expected rust, lack of game conditioning, and culture shock of joining an offense that did anything but feature his skill set.

What's slightly more troubling was his bottom-line impact last night in a game ultimately decided by each possession:

  • Notre Dame outscored Pittsburgh 23 to 13 during Harangody's 18 minutes on the bench.
  • They were outscored by the Panthers 32 to 27 when Harangody was on the court (22 total minutes).

Plus-minus analysis is hardly an absolute given the ebb and flow of a basketball game, but the difference between the Irish last night with a not-yet-100% ‘Gody was stark, both in terms of overall ball movement and more important, in the team's overall defensive performance.

Harangody's impact will increase along with his game conditioning and the former ironman could reach upwards of 30 minutes of court time in next week's first NCAA Tournament game.

He's handled the surreal situation and return with class. Why shouldn't he, you say? Imagine taking sick leave as your company's high-profile boss and returning three weeks later; now-ranking as an intriguing new hire...except the company has since changed its philosophy and thrived in your absence.

He's even tossed in a few doses of good-natured, self-deprecating humor with the local media.

One Way to Win

Old court habits die hard. And the difficult shot attempts that Harangody earned over the course of his career are no longer part of the equation for a program that's playing at its highest level since March 2003 – its last run to the Sweet 16.

It's now incumbent upon the Irish star to continue to subjugate his game to fit with the team's now-proven approach (a practice that includes using defensive fouls since he no longer must be continuously available for the Irish to compete).

But a related burden likewise rests on his frontcourt teammates, namely Nash and Scott, who both tend to revert to submissive tendencies when the Big Dog roams the floor.

There's no reason Nash shouldn't continue to establish strong post position with Harangody on the floor. There's no reason Scott can't continue to crash the glass, to find open spots to unleash his elongated jump shot, and to continue to bring the weak side defensive help that turned the Irish season around.

Equally relevant is that the four-year star and face of the Irish basketball team is likely a victim of the old adage: Familiarity Breeds Contempt.

And an "I-told-you-so" mentality has infiltrated fans, pundits, and detractors alike. In Harangody's case, familiarity has at least bred a quizzical attitude from fans and followers who notice how crisply the ball moved among the players in his stead, and conversely, how stagnate the Irish offense sometimes appeared in the three-plus seasons and 120-plus game in which it ran through his able hands.

The Irish are better and have a higher tournament ceiling with Harangody and he's come through twice in two Tournament wins this week.

But they won't continue to improve, and this unlikely run won't reach unexpected heights if their senior leader, best scorer, and most talented, driven basketball player can't continue to adapt to his new surroundings.

Don't judge the Irish or ‘Gody by tonight's probable grind: he's a wounded warrior playing on what must be a tender knee for the third contest in a 74-hour span.

But rest for the weary Irish is just around the corner. After that, the NCAA Tournament, an opportunity for which Harangody can thank his teammates for providing.

He can pay them back by playing the most intense, focused, and team-oriented basketball of his life for 20-25 minutes each night.

And his frontcourt understudies can thank him for three years of tutelage by returning the favor.


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