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Men’s Basketball: Irish look to dig themselves out of hole against Louisville

Greg Arbogast | Thursday, February 12, 2009

Notre Dame’s four senior captains are no strangers to adversity. During their freshmen season, Kyle McAlarney, Ryan Ayers, Zach Hillesland and Luke Zeller endured a 1-8 start in Big East play, bottoming out after an overtime loss to Louisville on Feb. 4.

As the Irish prepare to face that same Louisville program tonight at 7 p.m. in the Joyce Center, they find themselves in the midst of an arguably more brutal stretch, a stretch in which the team has lost seven consecutive games by an average of just about 14 points per contest. Those four captains know it’s up to them to prevent a sinking season from becoming a total wash.

“I think our seniors have drawn on their freshman year and have said we’re going to be really good captains through this,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “[They] remember as freshmen that leadership was the key.”

There’s no denying that Notre Dame needs good leadership now as the team continues to deal with issues on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. On the offensive end, the key term is efficiency.

“The most frustrating thing for me is we’re not playing the way we know how to play,” Hillesland said. “We’re playing against too good competition to have two good possessions then come down and take a quick shot that leads to a transition opportunity for these talented teams.

“When you get out of character and take bad shots, you try to do too much and you try to go out of your comfort zone, and teams make you pay for it.”

Those poor possessions have not only caused the Irish to shoot an uncharacteristic 41.5 percent from the field in Big East games, but also are hurting the team on the defensive end of the court. One only needs to remember the Josh Shipp ESPN alley-oop slam from last Saturday to see how a turnover can lead to easy buckets for the opposition.

“When [bad possessions] get ingrained into a game, it kind of snowballs on you and teams get easy buckets,” Hillesland said. “Before you know it, they’re putting up 90 on you.”

During their current seven-game losing streak, Notre Dame has given up an average of 85 points per game. The Irish have allowed their opponents to crack the 90-point plateau three times over the stretch.

The team’s all-around struggles have caused Brey to increasingly reevaluate who gets the majority of playing time. At the beginning of the season, Brey almost exclusively used a seven-man rotation. A few games into the losing streak, Brey tinkered with the starting lineup and began giving increased playing time to sophomores Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott.

After the Irish hit rock bottom last Saturday in Pauley Pavilion, Brey took his most drastic measure yet by declaring that all positions are now subject to open competition. The move got the attention of his players.

“Nobody took it as offense,” guard Tory Jackson said. “We need it. There’s a competition amongst ourselves, and it helps us work even harder.”

For players like Nash, the move represents an opportunity – his best shot at playing time yet this season.

“We’re all hungry now,” Nash said. “It’s really a wake-up call for all of us. Every day in practice we’re really going to compete against one another because we know there are spots open. We’re all looking to take advantage.”

As of Tuesday’s practice, Brey still hadn’t declared starters for tonight’s game.

With an uncertain starting lineup and a laundry list of improvements on both offense and defense, things are in flux for Notre Dame, but Nash knows the best way to put an end to the cycle.

“Right now, we just need to get a win,” he said. “Then everybody will be off our back with the offense and everything.”

Exactly a month ago, Louisville beat the Irish 87-73 at Freedom Hall in what was the beginning of Notre Dame’s seven-game losing streak. The Cardinals needed overtime to dispatch the Irish but had little trouble in the extra period. The Irish managed just two points after regulation as the home team ran them off the court.