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Men’s Basketball: 1-2-2 punch

Chris Hine | Tuesday, January 29, 2008

With a week to prepare for Villanova after struggling to put points on the board against Georgetown, coach Mike Brey decided something needed to change if Notre Dame was going to be successful on the road.

“When you have a week to work on things after a tough loss, and I’ve been in this a while, and you want to maybe adjust some things, but then you’re careful that you don’t over-coach and change too many things and screw your team up,” Brey said. “But I thought we needed some kind of change before we went on the road again.”

In looking at how his Irish matched up with the Wildcats, Brey decided the change he needed to make was on the defensive end of the floor, leaving Notre Dame’s offensive game mostly intact.

For most of its 90-80 win Saturday, Notre Dame played a 1-2-2 zone, a departure from the 2-3 zone and man-to-man the Irish normally play. Offensively, the Irish were able to take advantage of Villanova’s lack of height and play their inside-out game, getting sophomore forward Luke Harangody touches on most possessions to open the floor for cutters and outside shots.

Brey said the defensive switch came as a result of Villanova’s guard-heavy lineup and a need to give his team a new look.

“People get into a rhythm playing against you and say, ‘This is how Notre Dame plays offensively, this is how they play defensively,’ but you have to keep it fresh and get some new looks,” Brey said.

The 1-2-2 allowed Notre Dame to cover more of the perimeter and contain Villanova’s guards, specifically leading scorer Scottie Reynolds, who only scored 13 points, with six of those points coming in the final three minutes after Notre Dame opened up a comfortable lead.

Brey also made a slight change in personnel, starting junior Zach Hillesland in place of junior Ryan Ayers. Even though the switch didn’t result in a dramatic change in playing time for either player, Brey said it did motivate both players.

“One of the things I think the change in the lineup did was it jacked up two guys,” Brey said. “It kind of woke Zach up, and I think it had Ryan play with a little chip on his shoulder, and he was more aggressive offensively. Now, you could also screw up two guys. That day, though, it worked and hopefully they’ll continue to do that.”

Brey chose to put the 6-foot-9 Hillesland and 6-foot-7 Ayers at the top of the zone, using their height to prevent Villanova from getting good looks at the basket.

“Size is a key,” Brey said. “The length up there is helpful and it’s hard to shoot over that guy and he can get his hands on things, but it gives you size up on the top and they play that spot really well because they’re rangy.”

Brey left well enough alone on the offensive end of the floor, running the offense through Harangody and allowing Hillesland and sophomore guard Tory Jackson to penetrate and create open looks for junior guard Kyle McAlarney and senior forward Rob Kurz. In the two road losses against Marquette and Georgetown, the offense struggled, but was able to find its groove against Villanova, who could not play defense on the level of Marquette and Georgetown.

“I would give credit to a Marquette and Georgetown defense more than the failure of our offense,” Brey said. “We couldn’t establish our style of play. For whatever reason, maybe the inexperience of Villanova, and the size of their front line, we were able to play inside-out ball with Harangody. When we can do that, that’s when we’re at our best.”

Notre Dame sits at 4-2 in the Big East, good enough for second place, and has winnable games coming up against Providence and DePaul. Luckily for the Irish, both games are at home, a plus in the chaotic Big East, which has already seen 14 of 16 teams lose at least three conference games.

“If you’re a fan, this is unbelievable following the Big East,” Brey said. “If you’re one of the 16 [Big East] coaches, we should have our heads checked for our sanity because this thing is hard to predict. But it is fun being a part of it.”

Even though the Irish have a 31-game home winning streak, the third-longest active streak in the country, Brey said they can’t afford to take a night off against Providence and DePaul, who both have the potential to pull off an upset.

“We put ourselves in good position coming back home, but you can’t take anything for granted.”