Two out of Three Would SufficeYesterday, we discussed the impact of Luke Harangody's return on Carleton Scott's overall game. And while I believe increased production and renewed confidence for Scott is essential if the Irish are two win two or three tournament games this month, Notre Dame won't win one game this weekend if both Scott and Harangody play at the same level shown in Manhattan last week.
Including Tyrone Nash, it's of primary concern that two of the Irish trio of power forwards/rebounders find and maintain a rhythm today and through the weekend. Old Dominion pounded CAA opponents throughout the season on the glass and regularly held its own vs. the top six teams on their schedule (Georgetown, Missouri, Richmond, Northern Iowa, Mississippi State, and Dayton).
Nash, Scott, and Harangody will have their hands full on the boards this afternoon. Two of the three must find a way to augment each others' skills if the Irish (favored by 2.5) are to avoid the mild upset.
Always Listen to DadBack in the dog days of December, and at a time when the Irish were running through a host of tomato cans masking as college basketball opponents as part of their non-conference slate, senior guard Ben Hansbrough had a particularly effective night courtesy of multiple trips to the charity stripe.
"My dad used to say a good indication of how aggressive you are is how many free throws you shoot," Hansbrough noted at the time.
Mr. Hansbrough, of course, was correct in that observation. (It should also be noted that Ben's older brother Tyler is the NCAA's all-time leader in free throws attempted.)
In 9 of Notre Dame's 10 losses this season, Hansbrough has attempted four or fewer free throws (the notable exception was the double-overtime thriller vs. Louisville, a game in which Hansbrough took over the extra sessions, hitting 10 of 12 foul shots).
Conversely, the Irish are 8-0 when Hansbrough shoots more than five foul shots.
That's probably my best strength – getting into the lane, creating, seeing everything." Hansbrough's self-assessment prior to the start of Big East play rings true in mid-March.
Notre Dame is a destructive offensive force when Hansbrough can beat his man off the dribble, stress the defense in the lane, and use his vision (the best on the team) to set up his teammates.
No Shining MomentsThursday afternoon in mid-March. Little-known mid-major vs. one of the most famous brands in sport. It's why casual basketball fans will call in sick to watch two basketball teams, on which they can likely name one total player. Its why this weekend is the best in sports and why we remember names such as Bryce Drew and Harold "The Show" Arceneaux. The Irish defense has been solid over the last three weeks. Not spectacular, but certainly solid, limiting opponents and their best players consistently over a six-game winning streak.
- February 24 vs. Pittsburgh: Held leading scorer Ashton Gibbs to 11 points on 4-9 shooting. Gibbs had previously scored 24 points vs. both West Virginia and Syracuse earlier in the season.
- February 27 at Georgetown: Held future Lottery Pick Greg Monroe to just four made field goals (15 points). Monroe was scoreless from the field in the final 14:59 of the contest.
- March 3 vs. Connecticut: Held Jerome Dyson to 10 points on a 2-14 shooting effort. Dyson averaged better than 17 points for the season and had erupted for 32 in a Huskies win over then-No. 1 Texas.
- March 6 at Marquette: After leading scorer Lazar Hayward buoyed the Golden Eagles to an early 11-point lead, scoring 10 points in the first 9:08 of the contest, the Irish held Hayward to 8 points (3 FG) in the game's final 30-plus minutes in the OT win.
- March 10 vs. Seton Hall in the Big East quarterfinals: Limited Jeremy Hazell, who had previously burned the Irish for 35 points in early February, to 15 points on 16 shots, including a 1-9 showing from long range.
- March 11 vs. Pittsburgh in the semifinals: Ashton Gibbs again, this time the team's leading scorer and recent recipient of the conference's Most Improved Player award, finished with four points in 33 minutes.
One opponent, West Virginia swingman Da'Sean Butler, personally derailed the Irish winning streak with a 24 point-effort (though 21 of his points came in the first 36 minutes and he was held without a field goal for the game's final 12:09) in the Big East semis last week.
It could take a Butler-esque effort from one of Old Dominion's upperclassmen to take out the Irish today and the likely candidate, the player the Irish must hold near his season-average, is senior big man Gerald Lee.
If the 6'10" 250-pound Lee works for his usual 14-15 points on 10-11 field goal attempts with 6-7 boards, the Irish should advance to Saturday. But if Notre Dame's post defenders don't contain Lee; if they get into unnecessary foul trouble and allow him to live at the free throw line, or if they allow the economical three-point shooter (7-11 on the season) two ill-timed three-point bombs, the Irish will be sent packing in the first round for the third time in the Brey era.
Even StevenA first blush, Mike Brey's 5-5 record five NCAA Tournament appearances with the Irish seems decidedly mediocre.
Consider, however, that five losses in five years are given for most programs. And consider that only one loss (Winthrop) falls into the category of an upset loss, and that its balanced out by one upset win (Illinois in the second round of the 2003 Tourney).
The Irish have handled three other relative underdogs (Charlotte in '02; UW-Milwaukee in '03; and George Mason in '08) while battling one heavy favorite to the end (No. 1 overall seed Duke in '02) and succumbing to one superior team by a large margin (Arizona in the '03 Sweet 16).
Critics can, and should point to Brey's 1-2 record Tournament record vs. what should have been considered "toss-up" foes (Xavier in '01, Ole Miss in '01, Washington State in '08). And another two-and-done, or worst-case scenario – The Overnight Bag/One-and-Done – loss today would lessen the positive vibes that once again surround the team after Brey's late-February rescue of a program that appeared headed back to irrelevance.
The Irish carved out a six-game winning streak and consequently the program's sixth NCAA berth in 10 seasons focusing on one defensive stop at a time. They have the chance to do the same, one game at a time, over the next two weekends.