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Men’s Basketball: Notre Dame’s hustle crucial to its success

Joe Meixell | Monday, January 22, 2007

Mike Brey calls it energy.

Colin Falls calls it playing hard.

But South Florida coach Robert McCullum summed it up best.

“They made a lot of hustle plays,” he said. “They got every loose ball and long rebound.”

That’s how it’s been all season for this young Irish team. This was supposed to be a rebuilding campaign, but now, in mid-January, Notre Dame finds itself 16-3 overall (4-2 in the Big East) and ranked No. 20 in the country.

So how did a lightly regarded and inexperienced squad find itself in contention for the conference title?

Hard work.

It started this summer with conditioning, and it has carried over into games. The Irish dive for every loose ball, crash the boards on every missed shot and help out in the paint on defense.

That hustle was key in Sunday’s win over the Bulls. Trailing 24-21 early, the Irish went on a 21-2 run to end the first half, keyed by several offensive rebounds and the fact that they hit the floor every time the ball came loose.

“The loose balls, we had bodies on the floor,” Brey said. “The end of the half was symbolic of our season. We were fighting, clawing and working in the paint. That gave us the lead.”

And much of the reason Notre Dame collects so many loose balls and key rebounds is its depth – a weakness in the team’s last few seasons when Brey rarely strayed from his core group.

This season, the Irish are always fresh because Brey’s bench goes nine deep. And with a quick, hard working rotation including forward Zach Hillesland and guards Jonathan Peoples and Tory Jackson, there’s never a loss of energy.

“It’s helped us,” Brey said. “When you can keep fresh guys out there and they can all catch, pass and make shots, that really helps.”

Of course, the season hasn’t been perfect. Notre Dame still hasn’t won a game on another school’s campus. The last time the Irish tried, last Wednesday at The Pavilion at Villanova, they lost 102-87. Falls said it was one of the few times this season that Notre Dame got outworked.

“I think we got out-hustled on Wednesday and we took that personally so we made a point of getting the loose balls [against South Florida],” Falls said.

Falls hit on a key point.

This Irish team may be good. They may be deep and they may be quick. But they cannot expect to be outworked and win, especially on the road. They’re overachieving right now because they put in more work than their opponents.

And if it lets up, Notre Dame will not achieve its goals this season.

The Irish saw a hint of that lesson last week against Villanova. And instead of looking complacent against a less talented South Florida Sunday, they blew them out of the gym.

Now let’s see if they remember it the rest of the way. Games against St. John’s in the Garden on Tuesday and the rematch with the Wildcats Saturday won’t go well for the Irish unless they bring the effort they’ve shown most of this season.

But call it energy, playing hard, or just outright hustle, if the Irish play like they did on Sunday – there isn’t anyone left on their schedule they can’t beat.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Chris Khorey at ckhorey@nd.edu