Sept. 11, 2007
A year ago, head coach Mike Brey pondered about the youth of his Notre Dame team. With just three upperclassmen (two seniors and a junior) returning, the Irish mentor knew that the success of his squad would determined in part by the development of his sophomore and freshmen classes. He understood that in getting back to the NCAA tournament, after a three-year hiatus, he was going to have to rely on the contributions of his underclassmen.
While Notre Dame entered the 2006-07 campaign with many question marks, no one was more excited about the opportunities and challenges than Brey. A no other time during his seven-year coaching tenure with the Irish was the basketball court more of a teaching ground. Brey embraced the moment as it brought him back to his basketball roots as a former high school coach.
At the start of the preseason, few thought the Irish would be capable of making a run at an NCAA tournament bid, let alone finish in the top four of the BIG EAST standings. Picked to finish 11th in the league's Preseason Coaches Poll served as incentive and motivation for the Irish coaching staff and players throughout the year.
Notre Dame became one of the surprise stories in '06-'07 recording its fourth 20-win season in seven years with a 24-8 record, matching the most wins during the Brey era. The Irish also equaled its best-ever record in conference play with an 11-5 record --its fourth 10-plus win campaign since the 2000-01 season. Brey's squad also produced a sparkling 18-0 record (most wins ever at the Joyce Center) at home and the third time in 39 seasons that an Irish team produced an unblemished mark at home.
With its success, Notre Dame was rewarded with its fourth NCAA tournament bid since 2001 and Brey was tabbed as the BIG EAST Coach of the Year for the first time in his career. Seniors Russell Carter and Colin Falls, the squad's top scorers were named to the all-conference first team, while freshmen Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson garnered all-rookie team honors. The Irish return a veteran group in 2007-08 with aspirations of getting back to the NCAA Tournament and playing farther into March.
"I think our personal expectations as a group will be higher this year based on our success a year ago," Brey says. "This team wants to get back to the NCAAs and to get past the first round. That's what they have talked about since losing in the first round to Winthrop. We got to understand that as a team and as a staff we lost two very key seniors in Carter and Falls. We've got to replace our two leading scorers, but I think we have the personnel to make up for their losses."
Carter and Falls contributed 17.1 and 15.3 points per game, respectively, as Notre Dame averaged 81.0 ppg., its highest scoring average since the 1976-77 season. Both were exceptional perimeter shooters as Falls finished as the school's career three-point leader.
The departures of Carter and Falls obviously leave some question marks for Brey and his staff, but with eight returnees, the eighth-year head coach knows his team will return with a great deal of confidence.
"In comparison to last year's team, I would expect that this group is going to be more confident early on." Brey says. "Last year's squad worked hard in the summer, dreamed big dreams, but like all young teams, they weren't sure about some things. I think that the veteran group we have returning will come in more confident. That's helpful to a coach when you have a confident crew."
Notre Dame began the season a year ago "under the radar," and that very well may be the case when the '07-'08 campaign commences. Even with eight returnees and three starters back in the fold, Brey expects there to be wait-and-see attitude.
"I think that there is a lot of respect for the guys coming back, but with losing Falls and Carter I sense that there are going to be people out there that aren't going to know what to expect from us. And that's a good thing because one of the things that helped push last year's group was that there was no one really talking about us so they had a sort of "chip-on-their shoulder" mentality. There will probably be some of that again where we're not going to be the first name of people's mouths when they talk about the BIG EAST."
Many of the victories a year ago were the result of a balanced inside and outside attack and a timely defense that helped the Irish net 81.0 points per game, the highest single-season scoring average during the Brey era. The cornerstone to another successful campaign will be Notre Dame's ability to generate scoring in the post and from the perimeter.
The Irish will use to their advantage the their ability to put several different lineup options on the floor. The variety of matchups available to Brey and his staff should make Notre Dame a tough team to defend.
Rob Kurz, the lone senior on the team, leads an experienced frontline unit that also will include sophomore Luke Harangody, who started the final 16 games of the season, and juniors Luke Zeller and Zach Hillesland.
"Considering the four guys that we have back and the minutes they gave us, I feel good about our frontline," Brey says. "Our guys up front are very skilled and have a great basketball IQ. They can catch and pass and really understand the game. Most importantly, they are easy to play with and make our perimeter players better."
A staple under Brey in Notre Dame's arsenal has been his team's ability to generate offense and scoring from the perimeter. Despite the absence of a senior in the backcourt, the Irish will not lack leadership in this area.
Junior Kyle McAlarney
and sophomore Tory Jackson
offer a unique option for Brey as the playmakers and floor generals. McAlarney started the first 12 games of the season at point guard while Jackson was at the helm for the final 20 contests. With the two paired together in the backcourt, look for Jackson to assume the point guard role while McAlarney becomes Notre Dame's primary long-range shooting threat.
The versatility of this duo will create matchup problems for opposing defenses. McAlarney could emerge as adept a three-point shooter as Falls (who graduated as the school's and BIG EAST Conference's career three-point scoring leader), while Jackson is the engine for the Irish at both ends of the floor.
Brey also will look to Ryan Ayers as a viable scoring option from the outside. Ayers showed at time last year that he could hit the big shot from the perimeter, but needs to work on his consistency from long range. Sophomore Jonathan Peoples' minutes also should increase this season because of his versatility on the court. Peoples plays with a great deal of confidence and has the skills to play both guard spots on the floor.
Notre Dame welcomes four freshmen into the fold this season -- guards Tyrone Nash and Ty Proffitt and forwards Tim Abromaitis and Carleton Scott. A talented group with a variety of skills, they, unlike Harangody and Jackson, will have the chance to settle in and learn the Irish system before being pressed into duty and playing significant minutes.
"We have a good deal of depth this season," Brey says. "Starting with our eight returnees, I don't think I'm afraid to put any one of those guys into a game for an extended period of time. How the minutes are allocated may depend from one game to the next. They've all proven themselves in our program at key times. Our nucleus will include those eight and then it will be a matter of which of those first-year players emerges and becomes part of the rotation.
"I feel good about that fact this year that our freshmen will have the chance to develop their game and learn our system before we rely on them to play significant minutes."
Notre Dame's frontcourt had a dominating and physical presence in the low post a year ago, thanks to the play of senior Rob Kurz (Lower Gwynedd, Pa.) and sophomore Luke Harangody (Schererville, Ind.). The duo played together as starters throughout most of the BIG EAST season and return as the team's top returning scorers and rebounders.
Kurz, who averaged career-bests of 12.6 points and also a team-leading 8.0 rebounds per game as a junior, has clearly asserted himself as the Irish leader on the floor. Over the course of his career, he has flourished under Brey's system as the consummate team player at both ends of the floor. A year ago, he led Notre Dame with nine double-doubles.
Kurz has a great understanding of the game, runs the floor well and is a good passer. He can play down low, but also can step out to the perimeter and hit the three-point shot. Most importantly, he plays with a great deal of intensity and demands the same from his teammates.
"Rob is a great example of the kind of what we having going on here in our program -- development over four years," Brey says. "He's a four-year guy who has just gotten better each season. His work ethic is the best we've had since I have been here and that's really paid off for him.
"I consider Rob one of the top forwards in the league; he's a physical player with a high basketball IQ and sets a good example with his intensity and how hard he plays. He worked hard to make himself into a very good basketball player."
Kurz' counterpart, Harangody, also brings a strong work ethic and hard-nosed style of play to the team. A member of the BIG EAST All-Rookie team, he was fourth on the team in scoring (11.2) and second in rebounding (6.2) a year ago. Harangody played in all 32 contests and made 16 starts during his freshman season.
He's quick around the basket and is a strong rebounder. Harangody has improved his shooting range and has developed a solid shot when he is facing the basket. Like Kurz, he can be the kind of player that can record a double-double on any given night.
"I see Luke climbing the ladder this season in terms of elevating his game," Brey says. "Heading into this season, he's in great shape and asked him to work on his conditioning over the summer. Luke responded to what we asked of him.
"He's developed many areas of his game, including a mid-range jump shot when facing the basket. That's something that we wanted him to have. I want Luke to play with a great deal of confidence; he's our best low-post option and we don't want him to forget that."
Zach Hillesland (Toledo, Ohio) is a unique player in Brey's system because of his versatility and quickness. He can rebound, score and most importantly, hustles at both end of the floor. Hillesland played in all 32 contests and made four starts a year ago while averaging 5.8 points and 4.8 rebounds.
He has a great understanding of what is expected of him and does so many things well around the basket. Hillesland is great in the open floor because he knows how to handle the ball. He also is an effective player for the Irish defensively and knows how to make a key defensive stop.
"Zach has a great voice in our locker room, a high basketball IQ and a unique personality," Brey says. "Our players respect him and will listen to him because he knows our system so well. His quickness and ability to put the ball on the floor make him a difficult matchup for opposing teams.
"He's a unique guy because of his ability to rebound and defend. Zach is going to do all of that again this year, but I would also like him to become more of a team leader."
A highly skilled offensive player, Luke Zeller
(Washington, Ind.) made strides a year ago in becoming a more physical player on the court. As a sophomore, he played in all 32 contests and started the first 16 while averaging 3.8 points and 2.2 rebounds. He developed his inside game, but still remains most comfortable and effective when playing along the perimeter.
Zeller has an excellent shooting touch for a player his size and sees the court extremely well. He's an unselfish player and one of the best passers on the team.
"Luke became physical last season which was a key and threw his body around," Brey says. "I think as the year went on we (as a coaching staff) figured out how to use him better and get him out of the post and facing the basket so that he can make the open jump shot.
"He's an excellent passer and offensive rebounder and I would like to see him improve his defensive rebounding. Luke needs to continue to be work on becoming more of a physical player for us."
Freshmen Tim Abromaitis (Farmington, Conn.) and Carleton Scott (San Antonio, Texas) will add depth to the Irish frontcourt. Both are highly skilled players and offer a variety of offensive and defensive skills.
A two-time first-team all-state selection, Abromaitis averaged 24.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists during his final scholastic season. He is a versatile player who can play a couple of different positions on the floor. Brey believes that he is a great fit for what Notre Dame does offensively.
"Tim's got a lot to work with," Brey says. "My coaching staff and I were attracted to him because he can score, has good hands and can shoot the ball. He improved his overall strength during his senior year of high school and that should benefit him this season.
"Tim has a great feel for the game and he's got a certain toughness about him. We're going to bring him along slowly, but with time he is going to be a very good player for us."
A long and lanky player, Scott gives the Irish the body type that the program hasn't had. A player with good length and wingspan, he is extremely skilled for a player his size and is going to be a defensive presence on the floor. He averaged 16.7 points and 8.5 rebounds and 4.6 blocks en route to earning first-team all-state honors as the San Antonio Player of the Year.
"We're excited about Carleton's length and skill level," Brey says. "We've got to work on his strength and get him stronger, but he is a player with a great deal of potential because of his athletic ability. Carleton has great skills and abilities that are going to allow him to become an important player within our program."
Junior Kyle McAlarney (Staten Island, N.Y.) and sophomore Tory Jackson (Saginaw, Mich.) make up Notre Dame's newest tandem and should comprise one of the BIG EAST's most dynamic backcourts. Both are point guards, but McAlarney is expected to become Notre Dame's primary shooting guard, while Jackson will handle most of the point guard duties.
Brey is looking forward to playing both of these talented guards together on the floor at the same time because of their skill level and versatility. He likes the idea of having two players that can play with the ball and off of the ball.
"I'm looking forward to having two quarterbacks on the floor because Tory is so good defensively," Brey says. "We may be smaller in the backcourt, but I don't think we'll be hurt by this because of Tory's defensive ability. He can guard bigger guys and is so physical. Tory plays bigger and stronger than someone six foot.
"Both of these players are very confident so having both of them out there on the floor at the same time we help me communicate with the team even better."
McAlarney played and started the first 12 games of last season and averaged 10.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists. In addition, he shot 48.8 percent from the field and 46.4 percent from three-point range. McAlarney should emerge as the Irish's leading three-point threat as he moves from primarily playing point guard to becoming Notre Dame's chief shooting guard.
"We need Kyle to be a leader for us on the floor and we need him to play with the confidence he displayed last season," Brey says. "He also needs to concentrate on becoming one of our primary scorers and to get better defensively off of the ball.
"Kyle is fearless and this year's team needs the aggressiveness and moxie that he showed last December. Our team found its identity in the second half of the Maryland game and it was his moxie that drove us and got us confident. We want his confidence and we need his leadership."
Jackson was thrust into the starting point job 12 games into last season and finished the year by earning starts in 20 contests. A BIG EAST all-rookie team honoree last season, he netted 7.8 points, grabbed 3.3 rebounds, dished off 4.3 assists and made 1.8 steals per game while averaging 27.8 minutes.
Jackson's development as a player throughout his freshman season was remarkable, but his defense proved to be a real catalyst for the Irish. His defensive skills certainly gave the Irish more scoring opportunities in transition and improved Notre Dame's play at both ends of the floor.
"The way Tory handled himself after being thrown into the mix was truly remarkable," Brey says. "He has great leadership skills and this year I want his voice in our locker room as well. He is respected by his teammates. We need Tory's juice, energy and personality on the court.
"He makes us confident and we certainly need his defense on the ball, pushing it in transition and making people run with him. Tory needs his outside shot, but I think that will come. He learned towards the end of last year the shots he needs to take, what to take and when not to force it. Most importantly, we need his competitive hunger because he simply makes us better."
Ryan Ayers (Blue Bell, Pa.) has positioned himself to contend for a starting job on the wing. As last season progressed, Ayers gained more confidence in his outside shot and hit some key shots for the Irish in big games. He played in 30 games and earned one start while averaging 3.8 points per game.
Brey is looking for Ayers to become a consistent shot maker for the Irish and to continue to be a confident player on the floor. He also is a good defender and gives Notre Dame good minutes at both ends of the floor when he is in the game.
"There's a slot for Ryan to move into so it's his to chase down," Brey says. "He gave us good minutes at key times last year and made big plays for us. I was happy to see his shooting percentage climb throughout the year because I always thought that he was going to be a good collegiate shooter.
"Ryan has a very good basketball IQ and knows how to play. He is a very underrated defender because he's got great length. Most importantly, we're going to need his stroke and for him to knock down jump shots."
Look for Jonathan Peoples (Bellwood, Ill.) to be somewhat of a utility player for the Irish in his second season. Peoples was a backup at point guard last season, but can also play at any of the perimeter spots. In addition, he is a tough defender along the perimeter. Peoples played in 26 games as a freshman and averaged 1.2 points, but should see more playing time in his sophomore campaign.
"Jonathan showed us last season that he really knows how to play," Brey says. "He's really a versatile player for us because he can play at any of the perimeter spots and can guard anyone on the perimeter. He knows how to play and is an excellent passer.
"Jonathan understands our system and what is role is for us this season. His conditioning has been a big step and has gotten himself into great shape. He plays with confidence and is beginning to realize how good he can be for us."
Tyrone Nash (Queens, N.Y.) is perhaps the most physically ready of any of the four Irish freshmen to come in see noteworthy playing time. After graduating from Lawrence Woodmere Academy in 2006 where he averaged 24.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists during his senior season, Nash spent the 2006-07 campaign as a fifth-year senior at Lawrence Woodmere Academy and averaged 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds while leading his team to a 23-5 record.
Nash is a great fit for Notre Dame's system and his style of play will fit in well in the BIG EAST. He's a strong defender and rebounder and a solid all-around player at both ends of the floor. Because of his versatility, Nash will be able to play a couple of different positions in the lineup as well as around the basket.
"Tyrone is the most physically ready of our freshmen because he's a little bit older after spending last year at a prep school," Brey says. "He's a real "fit-in" guy; he knows how to play with others players.
"One of his greatest assets is that he is a very good passer and can defend any position on the court. Tyrone rebounds the ball well and just understands how to play. He plays the game a lot older than he is so I think that makes him ready to come in and contribute this season."
Ty Proffitt (London, Ky.) is a combination guard with an excellent outside shot. He is the prototype guard for the Irish system; a strong perimeter shooter with good ball-handling skills. He averaged 17.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists in his senior season and led his prep team to the Kentucky state championship as a sophomore.
"Ty has a great feel for the game and handles the ball extremely well," Brey says. "He's a winner who has played in some big games during his high school years and made some big shots in those contests. There's a fearlessness about him and that's what I like most about what he has to offer our program."