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Men’s Basketball Column: The bubble bursts

Chris Hine | Tuesday, March 3, 2009

If Notre Dame’s season is doomed to end in the N.I.T this year, which is the likely scenario after its loss to Villanova, Monday night was an appropriate swan song.

Notre Dame had one final chance against No. 16 Villanova in the regular season to show it’s worthy of being in the NCAA Tournament. But the Irish lost. And they lost in a way that encapsulated everything that has gone wrong in a frustrating season. Some players said it was the most disappointing loss in a season that had no shortage of candidates vying for that award.

“[It’s disappointing] just in the sense that we kind of knew what was on the line,” senior forward Ryan Ayers said. “We’ve been playing pretty well, especially coming off a good fight at Connecticut.”

What went wrong Monday?

“More than any team in the league, we really need all of our parts kind of working well together,” Irish coach Mike Brey said.

As happened all too often this season, those parts couldn’t get in sync.

Notre Dame’s formerly potent offense managed just 60 points against a hard-working, disciplined Villanova defense that used its speed to force 15 Notre Dame turnovers and get the Irish out of their offensive rhythm.

“That was the best defensive game we played all year,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They are an outstanding offensive team and preparing for them is so difficult.”

Funny, because Villanova and a lot of Notre Dame’s opponents haven’t made it seem too difficult.

Villanova’s defense did what those other teams did successfully against the Irish – shut down senior guard Kyle McAlarney.

“It’s the old Big East scouting report,” Brey said of the Wildcats strategy against McAlarney. “Quickness, up on a guy, hugging him, following him, all over him.”

Big East opponents all year have been content with allowing Harangody to score in double figures, but have focused their efforts on shutting down the rest of Notre Dame, especially McAlarney.

On Monday, Harangody pitched in 18, and Ryan Ayers had a great offensive game with 25 points, but after that, Notre Dame scored just 17 combined points. Junior guard Tory Jackson, coming off two of his best offensive games this season, managed just four points. McAlarney finished with just five points.

That output wasn’t a case of McAlarney getting open looks and failing to hit them. McAlarney just couldn’t get open. Villanova had the speed to hound him all around the perimeter.

The Wildcats played a lot of switching man-to-man, which made it hard for McAlarney to get open around screens. His teammates, except for Ayers, were unable to capitalize from any confusion or mismatches that may have resulted from those switches.

McAlarney shot just seven shots. After draining the game’s first bucket, he had just two points the rest of the way – a layup with 2:42 left. Against many elite teams in the Big East this season, McAlarney couldn’t get open – and his teammates couldn’t find ways to get him open.

“I felt we really didn’t do a good job of screening for him and getting him open and getting some easy looks,” Ayers said.

One of the ways Notre Dame gets McAlarney open looks is in transition, but getting out in transition requires getting defensive stops, another thing that eluded Notre Dame in the second half, as it has at other points this season.

The Irish were up four with 14:39 left, when Wildcats guard Scottie Reynolds hit two 3-pointers. Then forward Dante Cunningham scored Villanova’s next eight points. During this critical stretch of the game, Villanova scored on eight of 11 offensive possessions to take an 8-point lead with 8:18 left in game. Notre Dame, meanwhile, managed just three field goals over the same stretch of time and didn’t hit a field goal again until 4:08 left to play, when an Ayers’ 3-pointer made it 67-54.

That was the ballgame and probably Notre Dame’s season.

So what’s left for the Irish? Pride, for one. Notre Dame plays its final home game Friday against St. John’s and has a chance to honor its four seniors – Ayers, McAlarney, Luke Zeller and Zach Hillesland – with a win. And these four deserve a win, after helping reshape Notre Dame basketball the past three years.

But to finish their careers with another trip to the NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame needs to go on a hot streak in the Big East tournament next week and have a week similar to Syracuse in 2006, when the Orange, who came in as the No. 9 seed, won four games in a row to win the title and secure a Tournament berth.

“We’re going to stick to what we’ve been doing and try to change things and get better,” Ayers said.

But Notre Dame has had all season and a plethora of losses to address its problems. Given Monday’s performance, why would next week be any different?