WSU-Notre Dame Commentary: Dictating tempo

IT ISN'T COMPLICATED, Washington State's matchup with second round opponent Notre Dame Saturday in the NCAA Tourney. The game, tipping at 3:40 pm PT, will be won or lost on the Cougars' defensive end of the hardwood -- whomever best dictates the tempo there will advance to the Sweet 16. And how's this for going out on a limb: If the Irish's big man scores 20 points, so much the better.


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For the Cougars, their success always depends on limiting transition buckets but against the Irish, it's paramount. That's because Notre Dame, whether they go outside or inside, likes to shoot early in the shot clock.

Very early.

Indeed, Notre Dame will often push the ball up the floor, cross-court it to one of their waiting three-point shooters on the wing and let fly. On the occasions Notre Dame is forced to play in the half-court, they're a very good passing team who run through several different types of screens to get their perimeter players clean looks. True fact, they lead the nation in assists.

Third, but certainly not least, just when teams get used to Notre Dame launching it from the cheap seats, they pound the ball inside.

But from this chair, stopping Big East Player of the Year Luke Harangody is not the key to a Cougar win. And a proven way to beat the Irish is to not constantly double team Harangody. Indeed, the best thing for WSU might be if he gets his 20-plus points average.

Really. As long as what comes with it is WSU effectively fighting through the screens and putting the clamps on the Irish from the outside.

Washington State vs. Notre Dame

NCAA Tournament 2nd Round
Washington State (25-8, 11-7) vs. Notre Dame (25-7).

Take away the perimeter. In Notre Dame's seven losses, Irish big man Luke Harangody has averaged a whopping 24.4 points, but the Irish's long distance game was off the mark.

CBS, 3:40 p.m. PT.

Yes, (1080i).

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WSU by 2.5.

WSU 71, Notre Dame 68

IN NOTRE DAME'S SEVEN LOSSES, the common thread running through each Irish defeat was an opponent who took away the perimeter. And if and when Harangody started filling up the hoop, so be it. Harangody averaged 24.4 points in those seven games. And the Irish lost every one of them.

Take Notre Dame's loss to Marquette. Harangody hung 29 points on the Golden Eagles and grabbed 14 rebounds. But the Irish were pummeled 92-66. They turned the ball over 24 times. Rob Kurz and Kyle McAlarney each went 3-for-8 from the field.

Doubling down constantly on Harangody could be a recipe for loss because the Irish's sharpshooters are just that -- Kurz hit 40 percent of his treys this season and Kyle McAlarney was even better -- 45 percent from 3-point land.

In a 90-85 Irish defeat to Louisville, Harangody's numbers were even more dramatic. He put up a ridiculous 40 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. But Notre Dame went down to defeat because McAlarney scored only seven points on 3-14 shooting (1-8 on 3-pointers), while Kurz went 3-for-9 (1-5 from downtown) in scoring nine points.

Harangody is not particularly tall, he checks in at 6-foot-8. But nobody has figured out a way to stop him this season in the paint. This season, Harangody averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds, scoring in double digits in every game but one and that was a game Notre Dame won by 33. And shutting down talented big men hasn't been WSU's strong point.

And Harangody shoots the ball. A lot.

He's hit on 51.5 percent from the field this year -- lower than most celebrated big men -- but he's attempted a whopping 501 shots. For comparative purposes, Derrick Low leads the Cougars with 353 attempts. No other Cougar has more than 274 shot attempts (Kyle Weaver).

THE KEY FOR WSU is if they can effectively extend their defense -- as they did the latter half of the year and in the early second half against Winthrop after the Eagles proved they could hit the three. Don't count on WSU waiting a half to extend out against the Irish shooters, however. And if WSU plays their brand of D outside for 40 minutes, point man Taylor Rochestie and the Cougs will dictate the tempo, and their chances for coming out of Denver with a win greatly increase.

Notre Dame's offensive success outside and inside -- they average 80.7 ppg and shoot 46 percent from the floor -- is wholly a product of how they push the ball and in how they run their screens to get clean looks from the outside. But on paper, they do not figure to get their usual number of open looks against Washington State.

They also haven't played a team who gets back on defense as well as do the Cougars which should take away a good number of the quick strike opportunities. With some notable exceptions, the Cougs have for the most part taken a coming-in-hot long distance shooting team and either neutralized them or allowed a player the quietest 15 points he's ever had -- and a loss to go with it.

The wildcards here are how well WSU gets around the variety of Irish screens -- teams screened more effectively against WSU in the latter half of the year -- and then to perhaps a lesser degree, the Cougs' interior defense.

Sure, Wazzu's cause would naturally be helped in doing a better job inside than they did against Pac-10 big men. And yes, a stout crimson triangle in the paint of Robbie Cowgill, Aron Baynes and Caleb Forrest defending Harangody could indeed end up being a tipping point. And it will also be interesting to see if the Cougs pick their spots to front him.

But overplaying Harongody will likely leave a perimeter man open and when the Irish hit a rhythm, they can score in bunches from outside. For WSU, the road to victory might just be a classic: Play him tough, but Harangody is probably going to get his points and has all year. So take away McAlarney and Kurz, or anyone else on the outside, and make sure they're not getting theirs.

WHEN THE COUGARS are on offense, the Notre Dame coaching staff figures to make Kyle Weaver the priority -- if news reports are to be believed. But if Weaver and the Cougs take Notre Dame out of their rhythm by dictating the game's flow, something they've been successful at, the Cougs as a whole figure to have the offensive firepower to get the job done.

"The X factor to me is Kyle Weaver," Notre Dame assistant Gene Cross told a Chicago paper after studying up on Washington State Thursday and Friday. "He does all the little things that people don't pay attention to, but coaches pay attention to."

NOTRE DAME HAS a reputation for being a so-so defensive team but that might be a bit of a misnomer. True, the Irish rank No. 211 out of 328 teams in scoring defense. But that's also a product of how quickly they themselves shoot the ball and therefore, the opposing team's higher number of possessions. Indeed, in field goal percentage allowed, Notre Dame rates a more eye-catching No. 55 in the nation.

Their tight man-to-man defense against George Mason forced GM into taking bad shots. Terrible shots, really. The veteran Cougars don't figure to be as impatient or to frustrate as easily.

Notre Dame will look to open fast and establish the pace, but the start of the game and even the first half are unlikely to decide much of anything here. If WSU is ahead at the break, Irish fans know their perimeter players are well capable of raining down threes and going on a run at any time. If the Cougs trail at halftime, Coug Fans have watched WSU consistently come out in the second half and crank up their shooting percentage, make prescient adjustments, and tilt the scales in their favor when the clock reads zeros.

So, in the end, what happens when a relentless offense clashes against a stifling defense? Chances are, it should be a fascinating game to watch.

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