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Back for an encore

Chris Hine | Monday, November 24, 2008

Last season, every so often, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey would slip press clippings into forward Luke Harangody’s locker, clippings that criticized Harangody’s ability on the floor.

Those clippings would provide a little extra motivation for Harangody to go out and put up big numbers.

This year, Brey didn’t want to do that anymore, in an attempt to keep the Big East player of the year on an even keel throughout the season – but then Hasheem Thabeet opened his mouth.

There it was, on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, a quote from 7-foot-3 Connecticut center: “I played Luke Harangody and he was not tough.”

“I try to downplay it now because I don’t think there needs to be any extra juice,” Brey said. “I almost try to say they kind of baited Thabeet into it. I try to diffuse it because I don’t think any extra juice is needed for him. I don’t want him distracted.”

Thabeet may or may not have been joking, but Harangody is taking it seriously.

“That will go up in my locker,” Harangody said. “The fact of the matter is, it’s on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, so I’m not taking that as a joke.”

The quote will act as a fuel to Harangody’s fire throughout the season, but the junior won’t let it get under his skin too much.

“I think if this would’ve happened freshman or sophomore year, my emotions would take over but if you talk to coach Brey now, he’ll tell you I’m more mature enough to realize that I’m not going to go out in that game and be all crazy thinking about, ‘Hey, I’m going to put 40 up on UConn because he said that,'” Harangody said. “I’m just going to go out and do the same thing I always do.”

With or without the extra motivation, if Harangody does the same thing he usually does on the floor, he may very well put up close to 40 points on Connecticut, and a lot of other teams for that matter.

A season to remember

For Harangody, last season was a transformation. He improved his game offensively and became one of the best big men in the country and whether he knew it or not, Thabeet had a hand in that transformation. It was Notre Dame’s first matchup against the Huskies last season that provided the inspiration for Harangody to expand his game.

On Jan. 5, the Irish downed Connecticut 73-67 in the Joyce Center even though Harangody shot just 5-for-23 from the field. He struggled against Thabeet, who finished with 10 blocked shots.

“That motivated me a lot because I realized in that game that I couldn’t power through people and bully people and that my game has to be a little more finesse at times,” Harangody said. “I do have to go outside on the perimeter, handle the ball a little bit and be able to hit that 15-foot jumper to be successful.”

As the season progressed Harangody became more comfortable with taking that jumper and going to the basket more, and he put up impressive numbers over the next few games, on his was to averaging 20.4 points and 10.5 rebounds for the season.

“When coach talked to me, he put that confidence in me [to hit that shot],” Harangody said. “That’s when I play at my best, when I know coach has confidence in me to be that type of player. I always had that shot, but once my teammates and coaches told me I could do it, that’s when I felt like I had the opportunity to go out and take that shot.”

But questions still lingered about Harangody’s ability to go up against the taller, dominant players of the Big East – like Thabeet, Roy Hibbert of Georgetown or David Padgett of Louisville.

Before playing Louisville and Connecticut for a second time last season, Harangody told The Observer: “I’ve watched tape and saw where I could use my body to get around [the big guys] and bring them away from the basket. I’m learning. This is the first year I’ve really played against players like that. That’s one of the things this year that I’ve had to deal with the most and learn the most from.”

And he learned pretty fast.

Thabeet may not have remembered – or just forgot to mention to ESPN – that Harangody scored 32 points on 13-of-24 shooting and grabbed 16 rebounds in that second meeting in Storrs, Conn. Harangody put on an offensive display in that game, hitting that jumper from the outside multiple times, driving to the basket, and scoring with his usual hustle and intensity in the paint.

Harangody wasn’t done. He put up 40 points on Louisville just days later. Then he picked up some hardware for all that hard work, the Big East player of the year trophy.

“It was surreal, coming into college as a nobody and kept making my mark as the season went on and getting to that point, that was definitely the high point of my career, getting that award,” Harangody said. “When you think about all the great players that are around the Big East and then to be honored by it.”

Getting even better

So how can Harangody improve even more this season?

“Poise, poise, poise and tempo” Brey said. “Picking spots, changing speeds. Not getting distracted as much with a mistake or a call that he feels isn’t a good call. Just being more focused and getting on to the next play and I think it’s just maturity, getting older as a college player.”

Harangody also said he needs to improve defensively, especially in the absence of the graduated Rob Kurz.

“My lateral quickness needs to be better and that’s one big thing I’m trying to work on right now and I think it’s getting better,” Harangody said. “Going up against guys like Zach Hillesland and Tyrone Nash help me get better.”

Then there are those pesky double and triple teams Harangody is sure to face this year. Harangody and his teammates have said he’s become a much better passer out of those traps. But Harangody said Notre Dame’s other threats offensively could make teams reluctant to double- or triple-team him in the first place.

“I don’t think people realize that with this group, when they’re the most confident in me, that’s when I play my best,” Harangody said. “You know, throwing it in, telling me to go to work. We have so many weapons on this team that it’s great for me not to get double or triple-teamed all the time.”

If the increased attention causes Harangody’s numbers to dip slightly from the standard he set last season, that doesn’t mean his impact on the team is any less, guard Kyle McAlarney said.

“The numbers he put up last year were pretty impressive and a lot of people will be quick to say if he doesn’t put up the same numbers he’s not as successful, which I would disagree with,” McAlarney said. “There are a lot of other things that he can bring to the table that really stamp him down as a better player.

“He has a leadership role on this team. He’s the base of our program, so he’s going to get a lot of attention, a lot of double teams, something he’s definitely improved on the last few weeks.”

Harangody hopes he can parlay all of his hard work and success into a career in the NBA. He said he’ll evaluate where he is as a player after this season before making any decision regarding the NBA Draft.

Odds are, there’s a certain big man in Connecticut who would be glad to see him go, even if he says otherwise.