Luck Of The Irish? Hardly.Posted by jstevrtc on February 9th, 2011
Walker Carey is an RTC contributor.
Just before the start of this season, not much was known about this year’s edition of Mike Brey’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Over the course of the last four seasons, Notre Dame’s roster has had three consistent standout performers in forward Luke Harangody, combo guard Kyle McAlarney, and point guard Tory Jackson. Even with the services of Harangody and Jackson last season, the Irish posted a campaign that was widely viewed as a disappointment. ND finished last season with a 23-12 record, and their season ended when Old Dominion upset them on the first day of the NCAA Tournament. Needless to say, there were many questions about a team that underperformed last season and graduated their two best players.
One thing the Irish did have on their side entering the season was an experienced starting lineup. Ben Hansbrough, Scott Martin, Tim Abromaitis, Carleton Scott, and Tyrone Nash are all either fourth or fifth year players. Martin entered the season, however, having not played the past two — he sat out the 2008-‘09 season after transferring from Purdue and the ‘09-‘10 season after tearing his ACL last preseason. Scott also entered the season without much experience, as prior to this season he was not a regular in Mike Brey’s rotation. Even though Hansbrough, Abromaitis, and Nash had varying levels of experience, questions still remained regarding all three of them. Hansbrough and Abromaitis had battled inconsistency throughout their Irish careers, while throughout his time as an Irishman, Nash had played second fiddle to Harangody in the frontcourt.
To the surprise of just about everybody, though, the Irish have raced out to a 19-4 start and find themselves in sole possession of second place in the ultra-competitive Big East. A major reason for this remarkable season up to now has been the play of senior guard Ben Hansbrough, who has contributed several star performances throughout the season. The adjustment from playing a supporting role to Harangody and Jackson to playing a starring role has gone almost flawlessly for the captain from Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Along with leading the Irish in scoring, Hansbrough has displayed remarkable toughness and an innate knack to lift his teammates to another level with vocal leadership. Following Sunday’s hard fought victory over Rutgers, Brey said of Hansbrough, “The dragging teammates along come hell on high water — there’s a lot of flashbacks of (Christian) Laettner.” A tremendous compliment, that, since it’s coming from a man who, as a Duke assistant, had a front row seat for Laettner’s collegiate heroics.
While Hansbrough has undoubtedly been Notre Dame’s star, their role players have also been vital to this season’s success. Tim Abromaitis has still battled the inconsistency issues that plagued him last season, but he has supplied some scoring to go along with his high basketball IQ, and the many non-box-score intangibles that he brings to the table. Scott Martin has shown no ill effects from last season’s knee injury and has thoroughly thrived in his role as a third scorer and a defensive stopper. Tyrone Nash, who has played a bulk of the post minutes, has effectively battled many of the Big East’s premier big men. Carleton Scott — the squad’s lone injury victim, missing four games with a hamstring injury — has served as, in the words of Coach Brey, “the team’s emotional leader.” While Brey is notorious for sticking to small rotations, he has gotten admirable contributions from reserves Eric Atkins and Jack Cooley. The freshman Atkins has shown a very un-freshman-like flare for the game and effectively filled the injured Scott’s void in the starting lineup. Cooley, a sophomore, has provided the brawn needed off the bench.
A major theme of Coach Brey’s tenure has been the success of his teams at home. This has been no different this season, as the Irish are a perfect 14-0 at the Purcell Pavilion. While his teams have commonly been successful at home, they’ve been just as unsuccessful on the road. That trend continued at the beginning of this season, as the Irish suffered setbacks in their first three Big East road games, but their fortunes changed when they went into the Petersen Events Center on January 24th and knocked off the then-second-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers. Following the victory, Brey called the win “probably the biggest since I have been here.”
Sitting in sole possession of second place in the Big East, Notre Dame has a real possibility of taking home the regular season Big East title. If the Irish are able to stay healthy, take care of business at home and take advantage of winnable away games (they have four road games left), then this come to fruition. When the NCAA Tournament begins, Brey will hope to lead his team to their first Sweet Sixteen since 2003, and beyond. With this squad’s senior leadership and the star power that Hansbrough provides, such a finish should surprise nobody.