Men’s Basketball: Swticheroo
Chris Hine | Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Juniors Zach Hillesland and Ryan Ayers said a change in the lineup didn’t affect how much they played, it affected how they played.
Before newly-ranked No. 22/21 Notre Dame’s 90-80 win over Villanova on Jan. 26, Irish coach Mike Brey inserted Hillesland into the starting lineup for Ayers, and both said they elevated their play in the three games since the switch.
“I was in a rut for a while and the change kind of refocused me for a bit,” Hillesland said after Notre Dame’s 89-80 win over DePaul on Saturday. “… It’s not like a whole bunch has changed, people are still playing their same minutes and coming in and contributing.”
Ayers hasn’t seen a significant decline in minutes since coming off the bench and is averaging 9.7 points over his last three games when he averaged just under five per game in Notre Dame’s first five Big East games.
“I think we were kind of in a slump for a couple of games, but our confidence has grown and we’ve been making shots and that just grows,” Ayers said. “Everyone just has confidence in us.”
Ayers showed that confidence in Notre Dame’s overtime win over Providence on Thursday. In overtime, Ayers stepped up and drilled a three from the top of the key to give Notre Dame a five-point lead on its way to victory.
“[Ayers] has been playing with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, which is very scary for opponents when a talented guy like Ryan Ayers is playing with a chip on his shoulder,” Hillesland said. “I think it was kind of the reaction the coach was looking for with the move.”
Hillesland netted 10 points against DePaul, including an electrifying baseline slam, but hasn’t limited his offensive potential to driving and scoring in the paint. Against Providence, Hillesland attempted, and drained, a couple of mid-range jump shots.
“We just know that we have to attack and pick our spots when they’re there and certainly we’re always talking to [coach Brey] about being aggressive with our selection, to keep attacking and take care of the ball,” Hillesland said. “We know that we need to contribute and take pressure off of guys like [forward] Luke [Harangody], or if [guard] Kyle [McAlarney’s] not having a good shooting night.”
Against Providence, McAlarney finished with only eight points, but Hillesland and Ayers stepped in to give the Irish a shot in the arm, combining for 17 points. In Notre Dame’s two Big East losses to Georgetown and Marquette, the only other times opposing defenses held McAlarney to 10 points or less, Hillesland and Ayers tallied 10 points combined in the two games.
“They’re huge for us,” McAlarney said. “They do what they have to do for us to get the win. Ryan’s been great off the bench for us and scoring and Zach just needs to be aggressive attacking the paint. Just coming in every day and doing their part has really helped us out a lot.”
But Hillesland and Ayers’ effectiveness isn’t only measured in points. The 6-foot-9 Hillesland and the 6-foot-7 Ayers make for tough defenders, especially at the top of Notre Dame’s 1-2-2 zone where they can use both their size and quickness to thwart shot attempts.
Offensively, Hillesland can create mismatches against taller defenders with his ability to drive and dish, while Ayers has taken the ball to the hoop over the past few games more than he did earlier in the season.
“They’re highly important,” Irish guard Tory Jackson said. “They are two of the most important players in the Big East to me. They both play with two different styles, but they are two of the best players out there.”
uHarangody was named Big East player of the week for the second time this season. Last week, Harangody averaged 30 points and 14 rebounds in Notre Dame’s two wins over DePaul and Providence.
uFor the first time this season, Notre Dame is ranked in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls. In the AP Poll, Notre Dame received 224 votes, good enough for No. 22. In the ESPN/USA Today poll, the Irish are No. 21 with 107 votes.