Oct. 30, 2008
When Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey talks about his basketball program these days, a word he frequently uses is momentum. If the past two years of winning 49 games and registering a 75.4 percent winning percentage are any indication, then the Irish certainly have momentum on their side.
With the return of four starters, including reigning BIG EAST Player of the Year Luke Harangody and first-team all-BIG EAST honoree Kyle McAlarney, this year's Notre Dame squad may prove to be Brey's most talented in his nine-year tenure.
"I've told the players that I want them to dream really big dreams this year," Brey says. "We're not going to put any cap on what we dream about and what we achieve. I think that you can take it in segments, but this group has great potential to think about playing for big things this season. Over the course of the past two seasons, we have methodically built up to the point where we are today."
During each of the past two seasons, the Irish have proved the preseason pundits wrong. At the start of the 2006-07 campaign, Notre Dame was picked to finish 11th in the BIG EAST preseason coaches' poll, but surprised many with its fourth-place finish (matching a program best at the time with a final 11-6 conference regular-season mark) and a final 24-8 overall record.
After losing two first-team all-conference selections off of that '06-'07 unit, the Irish were picked ninth in that same conference preseason poll at the start of the 2007-08 campaign. Once again, Notre Dame exceeded the expectations and predictions by finishing with a program-best 14-4 BIG EAST record en route to tying for second in the final regular-season standings and recording a 25-8 overall record (the third most wins in school history).
Following one of the most successful campaigns in program history and with just one starter and monogram winner lost from that team, Brey and the Irish will find themselves in different territory to start the season as a team with a target already on their backs.
"I like the momentum of our program right now," Brey says. "We've got very confident players who have learned how to win together the past two years and have improved each of the last two years as a team.
"We've got the chance to achieve some special things this season, but we need to remember what got us to this position and the recipe that we used. We know that other teams will be ranked higher than we ever have been to start the season. All I want us to do is play to win, not protect anything and continue to play fiercely.
Notre Dame will head into the season riding a 37-game home win streak (the second-longest in the country) at the Joyce Center, which includes 18 consecutive games versus BIG EAST foes. Both streaks date back to the end of the 2005-06 campaign. The Irish's 18-game conference win streak ranks second all-time and is just three shy of breaking the league's all-time record. Notre Dame has been undefeated at home each of the last two seasons and is the first school in BIG EAST history to finish undefeated at home in back-to-back seasons.
Experience and maturity will be the hallmarks and strengths of this year's Irish team and are two of the reasons why Brey is so excited about his squad. Six of the returnees have been in the starting lineup for better than 10 straight games during their careers.
"I think our overall experience could really work to our advantage this season," Brey says. "We have guys who have played a lot of basketball together and have a great feel for what to do on the court. We understand who we are individually and how we fit together as a nucleus. I think the biggest strength that we have is that we know who we are and don't try to get outside of our roles."
In addition to Harangody and McAlarney, the core of Notre Dame's returnees also center on seniors Ryan Ayers, Zach Hillesland and Luke Zeller and juniors Tory Jackson and Jonathan Peoples. Notre Dame also will boast versatility at both ends of the floor. The key to success for the Irish again this season will be getting contributions from a variety of players. In addition to the starting five, look for three or four others to play a significant role off the bench.
Potent has described the Irish offense throughout Brey's tenure, and this season should prove to be no different as Notre Dame's lineup boasts a very dominant inside-outside attack. The Irish have led the BIG EAST in scoring each of the past two seasons, averaging 81.0 ppg., in '06-'07 and 79.0 ppg., in '08-'09.
"With the group that we have coming back and their ability to put up numbers, I think that we are once again going to be a tough team to stop offensively. But I do think that we are going to be very strong at both ends of the floor.
"We've really improved defensively and have done a great job of being more effective on the offensive and defensive boards. Our physicality in the paint has improved and that's a big reason why we have won 25 BIG EAST games over the past two seasons."
Irish teams under Brey always have displayed a unique unselfishness, which is why his motion offense has been so effective over the years, especially the past two seasons. Notre Dame led the nation in assists a year ago at 18.4 per game. Jackson has led the Irish and BIG EAST in assists during his first two seasons and averaged 5.8 assists per game.
Few college teams this season enjoy the combination of Notre Dame's strong inside-outside game, thanks in part to Harangody's physical play inside and McAlarney's three-point shooting ability. The play of both became well documented a year ago and will pose challenges again for opponents as will the Irish's overall all-purpose game plan that allows for great freedom in Brey's rotation.
"We've got a team that understands how to play inside/out and knows how to cut and move without the ball and knows how to get open areas off our low post players. It's a group that has learned to play this way and play well together in this system."
Notre Dame's lone loss is forward Rob Kurz. A starter for the better part of two-plus seasons, he was the perfect complement player for the Irish system and an individual who made everyone around him better. Kurz was the third-leading scorer (12.5), second-leading rebounder (7.1) and top shot blocker (48). His unselfishness and leadership will be greatly missed by the Irish this season.
"In all of my years of coaching, Rob Kurz was one of the best leaders that I have ever been around," Brey says. "He had the respect of everyone on the team and led our team in a quiet, yet effective manner. Rob did a lot of the little things on the court that didn't show up in the box score. We're going to need a couple of guys to step into the role he had for us."
Notre Dame's 37 consecutive win streak is the longest in the 40-year history of the Joyce Center and is one game shy of the school's all-time record of 38 straight victories (1943-48). The Irish are just three shy of breaking Pittsburgh's mark of 20 consecutive home victories set from 2001-04.
Most impressive is the fact that Notre Dame's streak spans the better part of two seasons and that the Irish have been undefeated at home each of the past two campaigns. By compiling a perfect 17-0 record last season at the Joyce Center, Notre Dame became the first school in conference history to finish unbeaten at home in back-to-back seasons.
"Our guys have been amazingly confident playing at home," Brey says. "I am selfish about the streak, as are the players. We are very proud of what we have accomplished here and would like nothing better than to see our name in the record books. You always want to be good at home, but to do what these guys have done here at the Joyce Center the past two seasons is really something amazing. There is a belief and a confidence that we have playing at home."
Reigning BIG EAST Player of the Year and All-American Luke Harangody (Jr./Forward/6-8, 255/Schererville, Ind.) leads the Irish frontcourt following a breakout sophomore campaign. He averaged a team-leading 20.4 points and 10.6 rebounds per game last season and was just the second player in conference history to lead the league in both scoring (23.3) and rebounding (11.3).
Since becoming a BIG EAST member in 1995-96, Harangody became the third Irish player to earn conference player-of-the-year honors, joining Pat Garrity (1997) and two-time recipient Troy Murphy (2000 and 2001).
In just two seasons, he has brought a mental toughness to the Irish that has not been seen in some time. Notre Dame enjoyed a nearly +5.7 rebounding advantage a year ago, thanks in part to his relentless play underneath the boards.
Harangody's development a year ago included the addition of a jumpshot that gives him an inside/out game. His presence inside demands respect from opponents and his all-around play makes him one of the toughest players to defend.
"Luke has really improved as a passer and that is something that he is going to need to get even better at considering the number of double teams that he will face," Brey says. "He certainly has guys on the perimeter who can hit shots so that will help ease the double teams he'll face. Luke also has to continue to be patient.
"The teams we face aren't going to be able to jam it in on Harangody for long periods of time because we just have too many guys who can score from the outside."
Zach Hillesland (Sr./Forward/6-9, 228/Toledo, Ohio) gives the Irish a unique set of offensive and defensive skills. A starter in the final 16 games last season, he averaged 6.1 points and 5.2 rebounds, while also dishing off 80 assists, making 24 steals and blocking 14 shots.
Brey refers to Hillesland as his utility player because he does so many of the little things well that contribute to the overall success of the team. He is a difficult matchup because he handles the ball well in transition and rebounds well at both ends of the floor.
"Zach continues to be a unique energy guy for us," Brey says. "He does well at handling the ball in transition and many times has the assignment of guarding the opposing players' top big guy.
"He rebounds at both ends and is one of our better screeners. He makes things flow. As a senior, he is going to be one of our more vocal leaders and one of the best teachers of our system to our younger guys."
Luke Zeller (Sr./Forward-Center/6-11, 245/Wash-ington, Ind.) came off the bench in all 33 games as a junior while averaging 5.7 points and 4.6 rebounds. Heading into his senior season, Brey expects him to play a bigger role this year and see more playing time.
Zeller became a much more physical player in the post last season, but also continued to be able to be a threat from the perimeter.
"I expect Luke to be a key guy for us this season and I expect that he is going to have a very good senior year," Brey says. "There is more opportunity for him this year and he knows it. With the loss of Rob Kurz, we're going to need more of his physicality this season, but also his ability to make shots from the outside because that is going to stretch defenses out."
Tyrone Nash (So./Forward-Guard/6-8, 228/Queens, N.Y.) is expected to see increased playing time this season. Similar to the niche Hillesland has carved for himself, Nash will be a player asked to do a little bit of everything this season. As a freshman, he played in 15 games and averaged 1.0 points and 1.3 rebounds.
"We need Tyrone to be a rebounder, screener and to guard people in the post. He has some distinct skills that can really help us, but one of things that I've talked to him about and challenged him to do is play harder. Tyrone knows that if he works hard, he can become a factor for us this season."
Tim Abromaitis (So./Forward/6-8, 232/Unionville, Conn.) also is a second-year player who will be vying for more playing time this season. Abromaitis played in 12 games last season and averaged 1.7 points and 1.0 rebounds. He is a threat to score the ball offensively as one of the perimeter wing players
"Tim has a bright future in our program and is most comfortable on the wing," Brey says. "He just needs to continue to get game experience, but one of the things I've talked to him about is becoming a better defensive player."
While he did not see playing time as a rookie, Carleton Scott (So./Forward/6-7, 215/San Antonio, Texas) has the raw talent and athletic ability to contribute for the Irish this season. He suffered a broken foot last March while practicing with the team prior to the BIG EAST Championship, but has fully recovered from the injury. Scott is an extremely unique player because of his length and ability to make shots. Since last season, he has worked hard in the weight room and gained 17 pounds.
"Carleton is the type of player that we have not had in our program before," Brey says. "We've never had anyone like him. He can defend with his length, but also has the ability to make shots. Carleton will give us that athletic body type that will make us better defensively. He also runs the floor and gets to loose balls."
Tim Andree (Jr./Forward/6-8, 213, Colts Neck, N.J.) is in his third season as a walk-on with the program and gives the Irish depth at this position in practices.
Notre Dame always has enjoyed terrific play from its guards, but the combination of Kyle McAlarney (Sr./Guard/6-0, 195/Staten Island, N.Y.) and Tory Jackson (Jr./Guard/5-11, 193/Saginaw, Mich.) makes up one of the best backcourt tandems in Irish history and will rank as one of the top duos in the country this season.
As a junior, McAlarney was Notre Dame's second-leading scorer, averaging 15.1 ppg. He set the Irish single-season three-point record with 108 three-point field goals made, while shooting 43.6 percent from the field and 44.1 percent from beyond the arc. McAlarney set the Notre Dame single-game three-point record when he made nine against Syracuse (Feb. 24. 2008) in a victory at the Joyce Center.
McAlarney can also play the point (115 assists) when Jackson is on the bench, but is a main scoring threat for the Irish as the shooting guard. A first-team all-BIG EAST selection, he was one of the league's most confident players by the end of last season.
"I expect that Kyle will be one of the most confident basketball players in the BIG EAST Conference," Brey says. "He has become a leader for us on the court and in the locker room.
"He's a guy who plays with a lot of confidence and certainly there isn't a more dangerous outside shooter or clutch guy in the BIG EAST than Kyle McAlarney. He has the ability to change the whole tempo of a game with just one shot."
Jackson has become the heart and soul of the Notre Dame in terms of the spark he gives the Irish both offensively and defensively. He led the Irish and BIG EAST conference in assists (193, 5.8 per game) for the second straight year, while also averaging 8.0 points, 5.1 rebounds and a team-leading 1.8 steals.
He displays a toughness and competitiveness on the court and has the uncanny ability to get the ball into the hands of the right people at the right time. Jackson has the mentality of the consummate point and always is working towards making those around him better.
"Tory has learned to use all of the weapons around him," Brey says. "Few players are tougher than him at both ends of the floor. He makes us believe.
"Tory is a unique kind of player because normally you don't have point guard that can get to the boards and rebound. I want him continue to play fearless and with confidence because that is what makes us better."
Perhaps no player has made more strides in improving his shooting game than Ryan Ayers (Sr./Guard/6-7, 210/Blue Bell, Pa.). Ayers averaged 7.8 points and 3.2 rebounds as a junior and shot 45.7 percent overall from the field and 45.1 percent from three-point range.
He played in 33 games and started the first 16 games of the season, but gave the Irish great minutes coming off the bench. Ayers is at his best when he aggressively hunts his shot and is not timid offensively. He has improved his overall defensive player, but Brey is looking for him to improve his rebounding numbers.
"Ryan Ayers is most effective for us when he is looking for his shot and taking it," Brey says. "This season we want him to continue to be a strong offensive player, but also are looking for him to become a better defender. Ryan should be a confident player because he is going to play and his coach wants him to take shots and be aggressive."
Jonathan Peoples (Jr./Guard/6-3, 215/Bellwood, Ill.) offered solid guard play off the bench a year ago and is expected see more playing time this season. Peoples averaged 3.3 points and 1.6 rebounds and can play both guard positions on the floor. His overall game fits well into the Irish system and he is a reliable shot maker for Brey.
"Jonathan is a veteran now in our program," Brey says. "He knows how to play effectively in our system, knows where the ball needs to go and can make key shots for us. Jonathan has really matured over past two seasons and is ready to take on a bigger role this year."
Tom Kopko (So./Guard/6-2, 184/Chicago, Ill.) begins his second year on the squad as a walk-on.