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Men’s Basketball: Defying Expectations

Chris Hine | Friday, August 22, 2008

It was a season of redemption, a season of great accomplishment, but a season that featured an ending that left a bitter taste in their mouths.

The Irish entered the 2007-08 season picked to finish ninth in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll after losing their two main scorers – Colin Falls and Russell Carter – from last season. They ended up with a second place finish before falling in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Washington State 61-41. Along the way, forward Luke Harangody pulled down Big East Player of the Year honors and guard Kyle McAlarney joined Harangody on the all-conference first-team as both helped Notre Dame replace the scoring prowess of Falls and Carter. Irish coach Mike Brey also earned his second consecutive Big East Coach of the Year award.

Harangody’s performance turned the soft-spoken, shy kid from Schererville, Ind., into a national star. The second-team All-American averaged 20.4 points and 10.6 rebounds per game not only with his improved mid-range game and quickness, but did it with a lot of hustle and determination around the basket.

“Here’s a guy who wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American. He’s a throwback and great role model for all the guys that are grinders and hard-workers that special things can happen. For this kid to be Player of the Year in this league, it’s just a neat story,” Brey said. “I still think about that on a daily basis, I’m so proud of him. Certainly, he set the tone, his engine, his toughness and his drive. That became contagious with his teammates.”

But before the season began, Harangody and his teammates were hardly a blip on the radar of college basketball and an early-season trip to the Virgin Islands did little to raise their profile. The Irish dropped their first two games against major-conference opponents in the Paradise Jam tournament, losing 68-64 to a Baylor team that made the NCAA Tournament and Georgia Tech 70-69. But without those two narrow defeats, Brey said his team might not have learned how to win close games later in the year.

“It was a wake-up call for us coming out of there to be a little more serious and pay a little more attention to detail, be a little more mentally tough, especially in end game situations,” Brey said. “As disappointing as it was, it helped us.”

Notre Dame’s next big test came against Kansas State at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 4 as part of the Jimmy V Classic. With Notre Dame up 59-57 and just over two minutes left to play, McAlarney took over, scoring the final nine points for the Irish en route to a 68-59 victory.

That night in New York was a long time coming for McAlarney, who nearly transferred after being suspended for the majority of last season after his arrest for possession of marijuana in December of 2006. McAlarney sat in his home at Staten Island last year as he watched – or sometimes couldn’t bring himself to watch – his teammates make the semifinals of the Big East tournament and earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament. After spending countless hours keeping in shape in his high school gym, McAlarney returned to campus last summer, but struggled early in the year to find his consistent shooting stroke, especially in the Virgin Islands, where he went 4-for-19 in Notre Dame’s two losses. But leading Notre Dame to victory in front of 200 friends and family members was the perfect way to jumpstart McAlarney’s season, Brey said. McAlarney averaged 15.1 points per game for the season.

“To play that well, on national TV in New York, in the Garden against an NCAA Tournament team, you felt, ‘OK, he’s ready to go,'” Brey said. “As much as you work out in your high school gym, and no one works harder – that’s been documented – it’s not the same as playing under the bright lights”

The Irish cruised through the rest of their non-conference schedule, breaking the Joyce Center record for consecutive home victories with a 108-62 win over Northern Illinois on Dec. 8. Notre Dame’s next big test came the opening week of the Big East season, when it faced West Virginia and Connecticut at home within the span of three days. The Irish downed West Virginia 69-56 thanks to Harangody’s then-career high 29 points. Against Connecticut, the Irish raced out to a 21-point first half lead, only to squander it in the second half and fall behind by one with just over six minutes left to play. McAlarney netted 32 in the game on 13-for-19 shooting.

“You had a chance to get two great resume wins and we did that. As important as Kansas State was, that three-day period made us feel more confident,” Brey said.

But that confidence was shaken with two blowout losses on the road to Marquette and Georgetown. The Irish lost 92-66 on Jan. 12 to Marquette and 84-65 to Georgetown on Jan. 19 with a 91-74 win over Cincinnati sandwiched in between on Jan. 15.

With a week to prepare for Notre Dame’s next road tilt against Villanova, Brey decided to change things up a bit. He installed a 1-2-2 defense that Notre Dame used frequently for the rest of the year and he moved Hillesland into forward Ryan Ayers’ starting spot. Even though Ayers’ playing time didn’t decrease because of the move, both players took the move as a wake-up call. The week of practice paid off. The Irish came out clicking on all cylinders against Villanova and won 90-80 behind 30 from McAlarney and 25 from Harangody.

“It’s a win in a tough atmosphere after not being very good two road games in a row,” Brey said. “… Then we kind of started getting in gear a little bit.”

Notre Dame won its next four before traveling to Connecticut on Jan. 5 to face a much-improved Huskies squad from the two teams’ first meeting. The rematch against Connecticut was an opportunity for Harangody to silence a lot of his critics who said he couldn’t match up with taller post players like 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert of Georgetown or 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet of Connecticut. In the first game against Connecticut and against Georgetown, Harangody combined to shoot just 8-for-46 from the floor. But this time, Harangody used his mid-range jumper and quickness away from the basket against Thabeet to pour in 32 despite Notre Dame’s 84-78 loss.

“That’s what’s great about having so many media outlets,” Brey said. “Usually someone is going to doubt him, and then I kind of slip it in his locker and there’s no motivational speech needed for that. He’s undersized, he didn’t play in a big enough high school conference, he should’ve been a football player, he can’t run, he can’t jump, his shot looks funny. With this guy, all that drives his motor.”

Harangody wowed the nation again in another Notre Dame defeat, this time a 90-85 loss at Louisville on Feb. 28 with first-place in the Big East on the line. Harangody scored 40 points, including three 3-pointers in Notre Dame’s late comeback attempt.

“Those two games [against Connecticut and Louisville], you can talk about individual performances from Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley, and if there’s 10 great individual performances in the history of our basketball program, one or both of those probably have to be in it. They were just unbelievable nights,” Brey said.

Meanwhile the Irish never lost at home, brining their home win streak to 36 despite some close calls. The Irish defeated Providence 81-74 in overtime and overcame an 11-point second half deficit thanks to 16 points and 13 rebounds from 5-foot-11 guard Tory Jackson to beat Pittsburgh 82-70.

“The confidence of winning here, the mentality that ‘We don’t lose here,’ kind of became a self-fulfilling prophesy,” Brey said. “Our group was very confident about always getting it done here, no matter how tough it looked. Providence and Pittsburgh are two games where we probably should’ve lost the game if your guys don’t really believe. That’s where the streak has been a positive, not a burden.”

After finishing the Big East regular season 14-4, the Irish lost to Marquette 89-79 in the first round of the Big East tournament, but had to shake off the loss quickly because the following week thy would play George Mason in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. After falling to Winthrop in the first round of last year’s Tournament, Notre Dame would not be denied, handling George Mason with ease 68-50. But against Washington State, Notre Dame faced one of the toughest defenses in the country. Even Notre Dame’s high-powered offense, which led the Big East in scoring, couldn’t overcome the Huskies, who hounded Harangody and made every shot difficult. Notre Dame shot just 13-of-53 for the game, and scored the lowest amount of points in one game in the Brey era. The abrupt and brutal end to such a successful season came as a shock to the Irish and Brey said it provides motivation to keep his quad hungry for next season.

One thing Notre Dame won’t have next season, however, is Rob Kurz. Brey said this year’s senior captain set the tone for his teammates with the way he handled himself each day in practice.

“When we would come out to stretch, all of the younger guys learned to be more business-like about their preparation being around Rob Kurz,” Brey said. “Again, I wish he smiled more, but what he did do was make some younger guys more business-like about preparing.”

Kurz averaged 12.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in his final year and Brey said he’ll miss some of the other things Kurz did on the floor for the Irish.

“[Kurz was always] guarding the best big man, rebounding, being our best screener, we lost our best screener and a lot of our shooters got open. Now, who’s going to get them open?” Brey said. “And making big shots at key times.”

At this year’s banquet, his teammates voted him team MVP and ask any teammate or Brey and they’ll all say that this team wouldn’t be nearly as good if Rob Kurz wasn’t here.

“There was just a maturity about him being a man that was always there as an example for all our younger guys,” Brey said.