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Men’s Basketball Commentary: Players must step up in McAlarney’s absence

Chris Khorey | Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sophomore point guard Kyle McAlarney has been suspended for the semester and will not play again for the 2007 Irish.

That news has been out for a couple of days now and McAlarney is headed home to ponder his future.

But what about the future of the team? No. 21/22 Notre Dame is still in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid and possibly even a Big East title. However, without McAlarney, several Irish players will have to adjust to new roles.

Notre Dame has played without its former starting point guard for eight games now, going back to the Stony Brook win Dec. 30. The Irish are 5-3 in those games, winning all five home games and losing three on the road.

The most obvious change to Notre Dame’s lineup over the past eight games has been freshman Tory Jackson stepping into the starting point guard role in place of McAlarney. Jackson had been getting 15-20 minutes per game while McAlarney rested early this season and his energy had been a spark. He was able to come in for short spells and shut down the opponent’s point guard completely while making athletic plays on the offensive end.

Now that he’s been thrust into the starting job, however, Jackson won’t just be a role player. Playing 30-35 minutes per game means he can’t expend the energy defensively that he could off the bench and, consequently, he’s less of a shut down defender. Also, opponents are now able to focus on stopping Jackson’s offensive game, which is very different than McAlarney’s.

McAlarney was a better outside shooter than Jackson, but he was not as quick. Unfortunately for the Irish, teams are sagging off Jackson outside, respecting his quickness but daring him to take outside shots that he hasn’t been consistently making. As a result, Jackson is only averaging 5.2 points per game, compared to McAlarney’s 10.3 before the suspension.

Still, there are positive signs. Jackson is slowly taking on McAlarney’s leadership role and has been effective running Brey’s motion offense to the tune of 5.2 assists per game.

Another player thrust into playing time has been freshman Jonathan Peoples. Peoples, who played sparingly early in the season, was expected to spend this season acclimating to the college game. Instead, he’s been breaking full court presses against Villanova and Seton Hall. Peoples has been a solid defender and an effective ball handler, averaging barely a turnover per game, but opponents know he isn’t a threat to score.

With the scoring from the point guard position down significantly, Notre Dame’s other players will have to pick up the slack.

First and foremost, Irish leading scorer senior Russell Carter will have to take his game to even higher heights. Carter showed he is capable of taking over games after his 32-point outburst against St. John’s Tuesday. That’s not necessarily good news, however. The Irish lost to the Red Storm 71-68 because they were too reliant on Carter offensively.

Furthermore, a major offensive strength of this team has been its balance. For most of the season, other teams have had to respect the ability of most of the Irish team to score if left open. Even without McAlarney, the Irish cannot panic and get into a pass-to-Russell-and-stand-around offense that will be too easy to defend.

Senior guard Colin Falls will be one of the players whose play will be crucial to take the pressure of Carter. Without McAlarney, Falls is Notre Dame’s only major outside shooting threat. As such, teams will be more focused on denying him the ball outside three-point arc most the time. Despite this, the Irish need to get Falls the ball, whether it be through the senior’s hustle or a designed play from Brey.

The best way to get defenders to give Falls and Carter space on the outside is to make opponents respect the scoring ability of Notre Dame’s inside players.

Sophomore forward Zach Hillesland has shown potential to pick up the scoring slack in MacAlarney’s absence. The 6-foot-9 Hillesland has the size of a big man, but the ball handling ability and quickness of a guard. Like Jackson, he struggles with his outside shooting, but his size and athleticism present serious matchup problems for most opponents. This season is Hillesland’s first year with extended playing time, however, and he is only averaging 5.6 points per game so far. If the Irish want to reach their goals despite losing their point guard, they need Hillesland to use his athletic ability to get to the basket more often.

For Notre Dame’s more traditional post players – junior Rob Kurz, sophomore Luke Zeller and freshman Luke Harangody – the absence of McAlarney has meant, and will continue to mean, a greater reliance on them to score and rebound. Without McAlarney’s outside shooting presence, the Irish getting the ball into the post has been both harder and more important, and more missed outside shots have meant more offensive rebounds.

So far, Kurz and Harangody have both stepped up to the challenge at various times, but have not always been consistent.

Zeller has seen reduced playing time due to his struggles with back-to-the-basket offense. His shooting ability does add a different dimension, however, and Brey may start to use him in the future to draw larger defenders away from the basket to open up driving lanes for Carter and Jackson.

McAlarney was an important cog in Notre Dame’s machine, but without him the Irish are still a special group. It will take maturity from younger players thrown into action and hard work from players learning new roles, but, even without its original starting point guard, Notre Dame can still accomplish its goals this season.

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