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Men’s Basketball: Holes in lineup leave many questions for ’08

Chris Hine | Tuesday, March 27, 2007

As the disappointment of Notre Dame’s first round NCAA Tournament loss to Winthrop slowly subsides, many questions abound for the Irish as they head into the summer months. The return of guard Kyle McAlarney from suspension will shake up the Irish starting five, but that may not be the biggest issue on the agenda headed into the offseason.

After Kentucky coach Tubby Smith bolted the Wildcats for Minnesota, Andy Katz of Espn.com reported that Irish coach Mike Brey is one of eight candidates to replace Smith at one of college basketball’s most storied programs.

Brey just completed his seventh season as Notre Dame coach and earned Big East coach of the year honors this season after guiding the Irish to an 11-5 conference record and their first NCAA Tournament appearance in four seasons.

Whether Brey leaves or not, the Irish will still have to replace guards Colin Falls and Russell Carter. Both were All-Big East first-team selections this season, averaging 15.3 and 17.1 points per game, respectively. McAlarney will help replace some of these offensive holes – he was averaging 10.3 points per game before his suspension – but his traditional role as point guard most likely belongs to rising sophomore Tory Jackson.

Jackson took over the starting position when McAlarney left. As the season wore on, Jackson became more comfortable in his new role.

Brey used Jackson off the bench even when McAlarney was still playing, for his defensive energy and his ability to shut down whomever he was guarding. But Jackson’s offense steadily matured throughout the year, culminating in the Big East tournament semifinals against Georgetown.

With Notre Dame down seven and under three minutes to play, Jackson stole the show, tying the game by scoring the next seven points with his dazzling drives to the hoop.

Even though the Irish lost 84-82, Jackson’s performance erased any doubt about his ability to carry the Irish under pressure.

The Irish cannot afford to lose Jackson’s quickness and creative ability, but also need a shooter like McAlareny to replace what they lose in Falls. McAlarney will most likely start as more of a shooting guard, while Jackson captains the offense.

Besides Jackson and McAlarney, Notre Dame has two other returning starters for next season.

Rising sophomore Luke Harangody (11.2 points per game) and rising senior Rob Kurz (12.6 points per game) will helm the Irish backcourt with rising junior Luke Zeller (3.8 points per game) coming off the bench to replace them.

One thing the big men need to improve upon for next season is offensive consistency.

During the season, whenever Harangody would have a big game, it seemed Kurz’s numbers were down and vice versa.

With the departure of Falls and Carter, the Irish will need offensive output at all times from their big men.

Presumably, this leaves the fifth spot, the small forward position, open in the starting lineup. The likely candidates to fill this spot are rising juniors Zach Hillesland or Ryan Ayers.

Both bring different strengths to the table. Hillesland is a coach’s best friend. He is a fundamentally sound player with a high basketball IQ who does all the little things that do not show up in the box score. Whether he sets a key screen, boxing out on rebounds, or playing good defense, Hillesland is a key part to Notre Dame’s success. If he can develop the mid-range jumper – a shot that can kill a two-three zone from the high post – over the summer, the starting role could be his.

Ayers has shown the ability to get hot and stay hot from behind the 3-point line. The unknown factor with Ayers is whether he can develop into a more complete player than a spot-up shooter. If he can enhance his play with penetration or some sort of inside presence, he could put numbers akin to Carter.

Back in November, Brey inked four recruits to come and play next winter. New York City-native Tyrone Nash looks as though he can have the biggest impact next season. Nash is a 6-foot-7 small forward that might get some time off the bench. Ty Profitt, a 6-foot-4 guard from London, Ky., figures to wait in the wings of Jackson,

McAlarney and rising sophomore Jonathan Peoples. Carleton Scott and Tim Abromaitis will most likely start behind Kurz, Zeller, Harnagody and rising sophomore Joe Harden before seeing any action.

Brey helped the Irish develop the good team chemistry this season that enabled them to compete with anyone they came across. Assuming he returns next season, he will have a solid foundation to build Notre Dame into a force again next year in the Big East.