Saturday, December 03, 2005

Roundball | by Dylan

Last year, I waited until after the fourteenth game to weigh in on the basketball team. Looking back at what I wrote then, I think that the season's trends were visible at that point and even earlier. Here's what I wrote at the time:

I have to say that, despite the gaudy 11-3 record, I am not terribly high on the Irish right now. At the end of last year, I was terrifically optimistic about the returning team, particularly with the addition of Latimore. I had visions of a top 10 squad and a return to the Sweet 16. But when I look at the schedule and the dearth of RPI-bouncing wins, I see a ten-loss Irish squad (potentially 9-7 in the BE) once again bubbling down the stretch to an eventual date with East Tennessee State or somesuch in the NIT.
It sucks to be right sometimes. As it stands right now, after today's home loss to Big 10 middle-of-the-roader Michigan, I'm afraid the trends are equally predictable. The Irish are 2-2 and heading into their last real test (at Alabama on Wednesday) before a month-long stretch of also-rans prior to getting into conference play on January 4th. By that time, the Irish may have the same type of "nice on paper" record as last year, likely 9-2 or 8-3. Unfortunately, my gut tells me that it's going to be a struggle for this year's squad to achieve even last year's mediocre results.

First of all, a couple of caveats. Number one, I've seen exactly one-and-a-half games (N.C. State and Michigan). Not exactly a scientific sample. Second, there are players getting their first real chance (Russell Carter, Zeller, Kurz) who may grow as the season progresses, making this kind of early-season prognostication as valuable and insightful as the Harris Poll. In other words, salt grains are available, cheap.

I have been a consistent defender of Mike Brey since he's been the coach. The sweet sixteen run and the team that did it pointed to a bright future. After all, we were competing at that level with 2nd tier talent. Our guys played over their heads and, the thinking went, when Brey capitalized on that run with similarly successful recruiting, the program would make strides toward becoming a perennial top-20, NCAA tournament caliber team. The reasons why it hasn't happened are numerous, and many of them have nothing to do with Brey (injuries, deteriorating team chemistry, facilities). But rebuilding Notre Dame into a solid winning program cannot be a ten year project, and Brey is in his sixth year. Unless things turn around this year, I see next year as Brey's swan song, although it's possible (and would be understandable, should we finish the way I think we will) that he won't make it to the summer.

Looking at the schedule, I'm having a hard time finding more than seven Big East wins. Among the nine losses, I see some truly epic blowouts (at Villanova, at UConn, at Louisville) looming. I think we're going to end up 15-12, give or take a game, prior to hitting the road for an NIT date. Needless to say, this scenario doesn't bode well for Brey.

Here's my take on what I've seen so far:

The Good

Torin Francis is playing very well. He seems healthy, strong, and motivated. He's always been a funny player around the basket, opting for up-and-under moves over more powerful drives to the basket, but he seems to have refined his footwork a bit. I'd guess this is due to the lack of pain in his back.

Quinn is managing the point pretty effectively. He's not as flashy as Thomas, obviously, but he's doing a good job of beating his man to the lane. He's also moving really well without the ball, setting up back-door cuts for layups. He's only going to get better in this role.

The Bad

The three guard lineups continue. All last year, I felt that we were forced by circumstance to run out small, three guard lineups. This year, it seems to be a choice. In my opinion, it's a bad one. My complaint last year was that we were too "guardable", and that was with Chris Thomas in the backcourt. This year, it's even worse, with Quinn, Carter, and Falls. Carter is a solid, athletic player, but he is not the offensive threat that Thomas was. What we end up with is a lazy, high-low game in which no one demands a double-team. No double-team means no rotation which means no open jumpers for Falls which means there's no point in the three guard offense. Falls took three shots today and made none. That's a failure of coaching.

I'd like to see Kurz, Francis, and Zeller on the floor at the same time with Francis and Zeller sharing time at center and with Kurz and Zeller pulling their larger defenders out to the wings on occasion. Quinn and Falls would be the guards, with Carter (at 2 or 3) and Cornett (3) rotating in frequently. We have to face up to what we are. We are not going to make Louisville pay on ball reversal, nor are we going to extend our defense to the half-court line. We simply can't do it. We need to work the middle. We need to rebound. We need to collapse the other guys' defense. That's how Falls will get his shots, not on skip passes.

The Ugly

We were a solid defensive team last year. This year, four games in, we're atrocious. We can't stop penetration and we can't cover the wings. We play a very compact 2-3 zone a lot of the time which, when you compare it to what Syracuse or Louisville do, looks amateurish. It's rare that we cover beyond the 3-point line. We are not physical inside, despite the presence of a healthy Francis.

Worst of all, and this goes back to Brey, we don't appear to be in good shape. Falls, McAlarney, Kurz, and Quinn all seem to be, I don't know, a little bit doughy. Francis, Cornett, and Zeller are the only guys who look like they spend time on conditioning. These guys play in the best league in the country, and they don't look physically prepared. Maybe this one will work itself out through the season. But we look sloooooow, and that doesn't bode well for us.

This is going to be an interesting year, the first in which we'll get a really good look as to what kind of coach Mike Brey is. He's going to need to do a good job, because we're not going to win by just throwing guys out there. Seasons like this one are where you earn the right to coach at a program like Notre Dame. Here's hoping we read this post next year and it's as wrong as last year's was right.