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ND needs balanced scoring

Chris Hine | Thursday, January 17, 2008

Do you remember the transitive property from your high school math classes? You know, if a is greater than b, and b is greater than c, then a is greater than c?

That may work fine in math, but it hardly applies to the wild and crazy Big East.

Pittsburgh suffers injuries to two key players, loses to Villanova, but somehow pulls it together to knock off league-favorite Georgetown. West Virginia handily beats Marquette, but Marquette turns around and crushes Notre Dame, who beat West Virginia nine days earlier. DePaul, who was 4-7 out of conference, started the Big East 3-1. Most teams have played four conference games, and nobody escaped without at least one loss.

So how can Notre Dame pull through the mayhem and finish near the top of the Big East standings?

A little balance.

Notre Dame (13-3, 3-1 Big East) is one of six teams with one loss atop the conference standings. Before the season began, the Big East coaches picked Notre Dame to finish ninth in their preseason poll.

Last year, the Irish were picked 11th, and finished fourth.

Judging by the way they played their first four games, Notre Dame can finish that high again this year – maybe even a little higher.

Through four games, forward Luke Harangody has thrown his hat in the ring for Big East player of the year consideration. He’s leading the league in scoring (19.3 points per game) and is fourth in rebounds (9.6). Harangody had some trouble contending with the double-team against Marquette Saturday, but fared much better against Cincinnati Tuesday, scoring 24 in the second half.

Guard Kyle McAlarney lit up Connecticut for a career-high 32 points and has developed a consistent touch from the outside after some early-season struggles. McAlarney is also well on his way to perfecting the floater in the lane, which has enabled him to score over guys seven or eight inches taller than he.

Meanwhile, Rob Kurz is as steady as always, averaging 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

But for everything the Irish are doing well right now, the 92-66 blowout at Marquette showed what can go wrong.

If Harangody or McAlarney has an off-night shooting, others need to pick up the slack. It could be Tory Jackson finding his way inside, Luke Zeller or Ryan Ayers (whose defensive efforts are almost as unappreciated by the casual observer as Kurz’s overall career at Notre Dame) nailing a few more three-pointers and fighting their way inside, or Zach Hillesland using his size and quickness to find his way to the basket.

All of that could happen – but it hasn’t very often this season.

Against Marquette, Harangody had 29 points and Kurz added 11, but no one else scored in double figures.

If Notre Dame expects to compete with the upper echelon of the Big East, especially on the road, it needs a little more help from its role players on the nights when Harangody is held in check by someone a little taller than him – like 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet of Connecticut – or when McAlarney faces tough one-on-one defenders, like he did against Marquette. Not every team in the Big East has a Thabeet, or guards as quick as Marquette, but the upper-level teams, like Georgetown and Pittsburgh, do.

Right now, Notre Dame could easily finish 12-6 in conference and make the NCAA Tournament, but with a little extra boost from its supporting cast, the Irish can challenge for the league title.

Notre Dame faces its biggest test of the season Saturday when it goes on the road to face Georgetown. The Hoyas are on a bit of a downturn, struggling at home against Connecticut and falling at Pittsburgh, but then again, Marquette was in a similar situation Saturday.

And we all know how that turned out.

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

Contact Chris Hine at chine@nd.edu.