The Road to 2-0

IrishEyes examines the contributions needed from each player in Mike Brey's rotation if the Irish are to return from New Orleans with two victories and a berth in the Sweet 16.

Three foregone conclusions exist regarding Notre Dame's upcoming game with Old Dominion:
  1. Tory Jackson will compete – The senior guard could shoot 1-8 and still have a positive impact on the contest.
  2. Notre Dame won't deviate from The Burn – The deliberate approach works, and the team has accepted that defense and rebounding will determine the outcome of every contest.
  3. Luke Harangody will see his playing time increase – The former All American needs to respond and play within the parameters of the offense.

What else should we expect from the Irish on Thursday vs. Old Dominion, and possibly Saturday vs. the winner of the Baylor/Sam Houston State contest? What do the Irish need from each player in the rotation to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second time in eight seasons?

I'm glad you asked:

Beyond the First Break – Tyrone Nash

An overlooked aspect of Notre Dame's new offensive approach is the early-game emphasis placed on Nash. From the opening tip through the game's first set of substitutions, the Irish run nearly everything through the junior power forward in the low post.

The floor is spread evenly; an entry pass is made to Nash in a one-on-one situation; and generally, offensive success ensues. Consider the quarterfinal win vs. Pittsburgh:

    The Irish jumped out to a 12-4 lead before Pittsburgh called timeout to stop the bleeding at the 14:56 mark. Notre Dame scored on the following plays:
  • A layup by Tim Abromaitis on a feed from Nash
  • A 3-pointer by Tory Jackson after an offensive rebound and kick-out pass from Nash
  • A baseline jumper by Carleton Scott after Nash took an entry pass on the left low block, worked his way across the lane to his off-hand, then fired a kick-out pass to Scott for the 15-footer.
  • A backdoor cut and layup by Ben Hansbrough on a high-post feed from Nash
  • A Nash free throw (he hit 1-2) after working his way to the hoop with a spin-move in the post
  • A Nash layup, slipping behind his defender and accepting a feed from a driving Hansbrough.

ND 12 Pittsburgh 4 with 14:56 remaining. Nash (and Abromaitis) go to the bench. Upon Nash's return at the 11:36 mark, the Irish lead had been trimmed to 15-12. Two plays later, one of which included a Nash steal and assist to Luke Harangody, the lead was back to a healthy margin, 20-12. But aside from a few more rebounds and another nice assist from the post, Nash ceased to be the focal point of the Irish half-court offense.

Should the entire operation always run through Nash? Of course not. Jackson and Hansbrough create with penetration; a not-yet-right Harangody can still exploit mismatches as he did vs. Seton Hall in the opening round of the BE Tourney, and the starting lineup (especially) functions as a cohesive, patient unit thanks to The Burn offense.

But the Irish should continue to feature Nash as a distributor and patient post-option from the low block, and not simply in the game's opening minutes. It's their best form of offense at this point in the season.

Nash has also emerged as a second defensive stopper (along with Tory Jackson, in most cases). Nash held Big East Tournament MVP Da'Sean Butler without a field goal in the final 12-plus minutes of the semifinals after Butler had burned the Irish for 24 points on numerous jump shots in the game's first 28 minutes.

In Good Hands – Tory Jackson

Over the last 11 games Jackson has converted 55 of his 111 field goal attempts. The number of shots he's attempted has risen; his assist-to-turnover ratio has fallen; and Notre Dame has outscored its opponents 755 to 693 with seven crucial victories and four losses by a total of eight points.

The Irish are a better team when Jackson attacks. An assist-to-turnover ratio of 7-2 is a figure on which a coach can point to as a positive in a somber post-game press conference. But it's unrealistic to expect Jackson (or Hansbrough) to play for 40 minutes against top tier competition and not make the occasional mistake. And if they do, its likely neither created much offense, either.

Jackson's playing the best ball of his career. And though he may not make it through a two-game run in New Orleans with two victories or a pretty stat sheet, he'll be the player most responsible for an 0-1, 1-1, or 2-0 record by the time we reconvene on these pages for a game recap Saturday night.

If Jackson can run the show effectively Thursday afternoon (knock down the open shot; contest defensively; set up others with penetration while finishing at the rim), the Irish will get past a solid Old Dominion squad.

His true test will occur in a potential second-round matchup vs. the Baylor guard duo of LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter. Jackson will likely take on the bigger Dunn (6'4" 205) while Ben Hansbrough will attempt to stay in front of the speedy, explosive Carter (5'11" 185). We'll have more on these matchups should the Irish conquer the Monarchs on Thursday.

Who are you, and what have you done with…Tim Abromaitis?

Abromaitis joined the Notre Dame starting lineup on December 6 (he eased his way into the new role with 31 points). From December 6 through February 24 – a span that includes 15 Big East games – Abromaitis converted 120 of his 230 field goal attempts (52.1 percent) and head-shaking 60 of 122 shots from beyond the arc (Abromaitis led the nation in three-point field goal percentage at an even 49 percent as of February 24).

In the six games played since (five wins, it should be noted), Abro his converted 23 of 66 shots from the floor and an eye-opening 3 of 26 shots from long-range. Throw in the fact that four of his aforementioned 23 successful field goals were run-out dunks when the Irish were salting away a victory, and Abromaitis is 19 of 62 from the floor with the game in relative doubt (30.6 percent).

What's been the difference? I blamed the proverbial "rookie wall" after Abro's two-game shooting skid following wins over Georgetown and UConn (the redshirt junior is in his first year as a contributor). Others have blamed the Nike basketball (Abro prefers the Wilson). Everyone can point to advanced film study by opponents and frankly, focused, athletic defenders that are consistently up his grill the moment he steps on the court.

Abromaitis contributes in many ways to the 2010 Irish: backdoor cuts, defensive rebounding, solid post entry, and, most important, he's a (vastly) improved defender.

But the kid I referred to as "The Nation's Best Shooter" on February 25 has to knock down shots this weekend if the Irish are to survive and advance.

Back on Track, and Just in Time – Ben Hansbrough

It's been a season of streaks for the senior transfer:

  • Games 1-3: Hansbrough 15-22 FG (10-13 from beyond the arc); 16 points per game.
  • Games 4-7 (including a hip and ankle injury): 3-17 FG (2-12 from long range); 5 ppg.
  • Games 8-16 (including the first two outings of the Big East season): 40-79 FG (19-38 from beyond the arc); 14.3 ppg.
  • Games 17-22 (the Irish were 3-3 in this span): 14-36 FG (6-20 from long range); 8 ppg.
  • Games 23-30: 40-80 FG (21-46 from beyond the arc); 15.3 ppg.
  • Games 30-33 (a span in which he faced three top-tier defensive guards in four matchups): 5-29 FG (2-18 from long range); 4.5 ppg.
  • Game 34 vs. West Virginia: 5-12 (4-7) a team-high 17 points, including 11 in the final four minutes – 9 of which were served up in the "facial" variety with 6'9" athlete Devin Ebanks hanging all over him.

The point? If West Virginia was the start of hot streak No. 4 this season, the Irish will be a tough out over the next two weekends. They can win without a hot-shooting Hansbrough (see games 30-33 in which the Irish finished 4-0)...but they'll continue to improve in mid-March if he and Abromaitis can chip in with consistency from the perimeter.

Hansbrough's entire game opens up when he penetrates and creates for his teammates – his first 20-30 minutes vs. ODU on Thursday should give fans an early inclination of what the Tournament holds for Hansbrough.

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