Monday, March 12, 2007

Let's Dance | by Pat

After a very long three year hiatus, the ND hoops team is finally heading back to the Big Dance (more on the 6 seed later). And the reason they can do that is because the Fighting Irish pulled off one very entertaining, very exciting regular season that saw them perform better than nearly everyone's expectations. We hope that, like us, you were following this team all season at sites like Rakes of Mallow, Black & Green Irish Men's Basketball, and Notes From the Geetar because this year's team was an absolute joy to watch play. The whole regular season was filled with hustle, great chemistry, instant contributions from freshmen, and stellar veteran leadership. Basically, all the things that go into having a solid college hoops team. For those that are just coming up to speed on the team (for shame), here's a really quick recap.

Coming into the season the mood was decidedly pessimistic. Picked 11th in the Big East in the pre-season coaches' poll, ND seemed to be still moving backwards and Brey's seat was heating up by the game. It's fair to say that many fans were already starting to mentally pick possible replacements. But then the team started to score a lot of points, play some defense, and win a lot of games, something that didn't stop until ND finished the season 4th in the conference and came a few inches away from knocking off #1 seed and eventual conference champ Georgetown in the semi-finals of the Big East tournament.

Along the way, ND notched a perfect 18-0 record at home, giving it the 6th longest active home win streak in the country heading into next season. Coach Brey also put the kibosh on any job in jeopardy questions by being named the Big East Coach of the Year; a well-deserved honor. Perhaps his best coaching job was the way he handled the point guard transition from suspended starter Kyle McAlarney to freshman Tory Jackson. That kind of mid-season turnover is far from ideal but ND didn't miss many steps during the sudden switch. As a reward for their play, both seniors on the team, Colin Falls and Russell Carter, were named 1st Team All-Big East (along with 9 other players!) while Tory Jackson and Luke Harangody were named to the Big East All-Rookie team. Falls also broke not only the Notre Dame record for career three-pointers, but also the Big East record for career three-pointers in conference games. Like I said earlier, it was an exciting year.

To be fair, ND's schedule was on the easier side this season. To date the Sagarin strength of schedule ranking is 114, a drop from previous years (going back 5 seasons starting with last year it was 28th, 66th, 29th, 5th, and 51st). That is mainly due to a watered down out of conference schedule ranking (305th this year according to Ken Pomeroy). But part of coaching is getting your team ready and perhaps facing an early lineup of cupcakes is just what this young Irish team needed to quickly gel and gain confidence. Another big factor in the resurgence of the Irish program is a renewed dedication to defense. Under Brey the Irish have always been able to score, but defense has been a hit or miss proposition. This season though, the entire team (including a deeper bench than in years past) have showed the athletic ability and willingness to make it tougher for teams to score. As an example, last year ND's defensive steal percentage was ranked 276th in the country. This year; 36th. And this defense and how effective it can stay is what will ultimately determine just how deep a run in the tournament this team can make this season.

As for the tournament, the 6 seed and resultant match-up with Winthrop given to the Irish is definitely disappointing. If you don't believe me, check out the reaction of the team when they hear the news. That's the kind of applause you give someone for winning a race in which you finish runner-up. Others have already covered the curious seeding decisions of this year's brackets so I'll just point you in their direction for now rather than re-hash the same arguments.

Still, ND is in the Big Dance and, low seeding aside, has a great chance at winning a few games in the tournament. Who knows, if the low post game continues to complement the outside shooting and the defense is able to hold its own, this year's team might not be done surprising us.