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Men’s Basketball Column: Team must resist pressure, believe in skills

Greg Arbogast | Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Kyle McAlarney may be tough, but he’s also human.

It doesn’t matter who you are. If you shoot 22 percent below your season average over a two-game stretch, you think about it.

“I’m doing my best to try and get open,” McAlarney said. “I must have gone backdoor hundreds of times. I gave it my all to get open, but it hurts [to miss shots] because you know it could be a while before you get another [good look].”

That’s McAlarney, a guy who’s started games since his freshman season picking up a first-team All-Big East award along the way. Imagine what Ryan Ayers and Zach Hillesland must be going through.

For Ayers, the basket must look pretty small right now. The senior sharpshooter, who’s still above 40 percent for 3-point field goals on the season, has hit one of his last 17 shots. He’s not missing badly. A lot of those looks are a quarter-inch too long or to the right, but they’re enough to leave Ayers wondering what he has to do to make a basket.

As for Hillesland, it must seem like ages since he made something positive happen around the basket. You can’t fault his aggression. Against Connecticut, he nearly brought the house down in the first half, but his put-back slam rattled out.

Coming off the bench against Marquette, one of his first touches was a strong drive where two Marquette defenders nearly clothes-lined him as he elevated. No call. And nothing to feel good about for the senior who has scored exactly eight points during Notre Dame’s four-game losing streak.

So where does that leave the Irish? Luke Harangody put it best after Monday’s game.

“We’re going to find out if our guys are men right now.”

To translate, Notre Dame’s next opponent isn’t Pittsburgh. Before the Irish ever set foot in the Petersen Events Center Saturday, they’re going to have to battle themselves.

McAlarney is going to have to resist putting extra pressure on himself to hit every one of his few precious open looks. Ayers must resist the temptation to return to the passive offensive role he played during his first few seasons in South Bend. Hillesland needs to believe that the next time he attacks the basket will be the time he finishes strong or at least gets that seemingly elusive whistle.

And the Irish as a team need to do a collective mental check-up. After getting punched in the mouth four consecutive games, do they still believe they’re on par with the upper-echelon of Big East teams? There was a lot of bewilderment in the players’ voices following Monday’s game.

Yet this is one area to feel confident about as an Irish fan.

Notre Dame isn’t the biggest team. They’re not the fastest. And they’re certainly not the most athletic. What the Irish do have, however, is team chemistry. Every major contributor in the Irish rotation has been in South Bend for at least two-plus seasons, and they genuinely like playing with each other.

That may not seem like it counts for much in the midst of a depressing four game losing streak, but it’s just what the players need right now.

It’s what will help Ayers’ shooting return to form. And McAlarney’s. It will help Hillesland remember what he can do on the inside. And it will help Notre Dame head to Pittsburgh this Saturday with a sense of opportunity instead of dread.

The Irish don’t have much of a choice. Responding to this adversity in any other way will push this season, teetering right on the brink, right over the edge.

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

Contact Greg Arbogast at

garbogas@nd.edu