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Men’s Basketball: McAlarney lives up to hype

Bobby Griffin | Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Irish freshman Kyle McAlarney came to Notre Dame thinking he knew it all, and he had a high school resume to back it up.

McAlarney was named New York Class A Player of the Year following his senior season. He scored a Staten Island-record 2,566 points in four years of varsity basketball.

It was the fourth highest total in the history of a state that has a reputation for sending top point guards to successful NBA careers – among them Mark Jackson (retired), Kenny Anderson (retired), Stephon Marbury (New York Knicks) and Sebastian Telfair (Portland Trailblazers).

And McAlarney’s statistics, along with his attitude and command of the court, caught the eye of Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who has started his freshman five times already this season.

Built more like a strong safety than a traditional point guard, McAlarney showed a high degree of confidence Oct. 13 during media day – the first opportunity for media access to players. He spoke about taking over point guard responsibilities after current senior point guard Chris Quinn’s graduation. He advertised his own explosiveness to the basket.

He was sure of himself, but this attitude evolved when the Irish jumped out to a 1-8 start in the Big East. It’s not that he lost the confidence, but McAlarney – who dominated his league at Moore Catholic in New York City – was now just another freshman trying to find his way in arguably the toughest league in the country.

“Coming out of high school into a big time Division-I college basketball league, you think you know everything about the game,” McAlarney said Wednesday after his team’s 90-63 win over Rutgers. “You really learn a lot [and gain experience] from your mistakes. I learned a lot from my mistakes.”

Learning from mistakes? A strange situation for a player one season removed from averaging 34.8 points per game.

McAlarney retains his scorer’s mindset. He shoots when he is open and creates opportunities for his teammates when he penetrates. But the freshman point guard has learned this season there is more to basketball than simply scoring.

“It’s definitely a humbling experience, because you realize in high school a lot of people get caught up with all the media and all the points and you think you’re the greatest thing in the world,” McAlarney said. “But then you come here and everybody is better than you, everybody is faster than you and stronger than you and bigger.”

McAlarney has made strides in protecting the basketball. He works on staying in control and managing the floor rather than being the primary option on the court. He said he has focused specifically on improving his assist to turnover ratio – arguably the most telling statistic of a productive point guard.

The freshman understands his teammates with more experience at the college level must use it to the team’s advantage, so he knows the best way he can contribute right now is by excelling in the smaller facets of the game.

“You just have to adjust your game,” McAlarney said, “and my game at this level is just going to be running the team, running the show, and being tough out there.”

It is clear McAlarney has not completely abandoned the ingrained toughness that makes him the player he is. In a Jan. 28 loss to Villanova, the Irish were in the midst of a comeback when McAlarney drilled a 3-pointer from the corner over Wildcats forward Jason Fraser.

Before getting back on defense, McAlarney stared his opponent down – a look far stronger than his 200-pound frame would evoke otherwise. After the game, McAlarney said Fraser hadn’t done anything to warrant the glance, but rather, the look was just an example of him being a “dumb New Yorker,” he said jokingly.

Then there was the preseason game against Lewis University. It was McAlarney’s first appearance in a college basketball game, and he was welcomed with a hard screen at midcourt. McAlarney returned the favor minutes later, crediting his father for teaching him to always play tough against bigger opponents.

McAlarney has not lost his confidence – both in his on court actions and his ability to smile about it afterwards. But he has gotten smarter, and more mature as a basketball player, something that only can help the Irish as the freshman develops in the program.

“I thought Kyle not turning the ball over two straight games was fabulous,” Irish coach Mike Brey said Feb. 8 after a win over Rutgers and two days after a loss to Louisville. “He’s been really good there, and smart with the basketball.”

McAlarney’s improvement has earned him an interesting role on this year’s team. He is the one freshman who consistently sees significant minutes during games. He has become a major role player in this year’s team.

But he is also responsible for developing with freshmen Luke Zeller, Ryan Ayers and Zach Hillesland in practice, forming a core group for the future.

This reality became visible at the end of the Rutgers game, when the four freshmen took the court along with sophomore forward Rob Kurz. At that moment, McAlarney was the only member of that game’s starting five still on the court. He was running the point, and fans got a possible glimpse of Brey’s future team.

“When the other freshmen come out and we’re on the floor together, I have to handle the ball more and just be a leader, because I’ve gotten the most minutes out of everybody and I have the most experience,” McAlarney said. “[Playing with the other freshmen] is a lot of fun, because we know we have three more years of this and we’re going to be playing a lot more together.

“It’s the future.”

But just a minute later, McAlarney was pulled from the game and joined his older teammates on the bench to watch the end of the 90-63 victory – a symbolic moment considering his current situation.

“It is a big change in the guard,” McAlarney said about playing with the freshmen and then coming out of the game. “I’m playing with Chris Quinn and Colin Falls, and they’re so easy to play with. I assume a secondary roll as far as handling the ball and just being solid.”

McAlarney’s role will change with time. When Quinn graduates, McAlarney knows he must step in and assert himself more on offense. But for now, the Notre Dame guard is content with working on the little things and leaving his mark in more ways than just by scoring points.