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Men’s Basketball Commentary: Irish look to avenge first-round tourney loss

Chris Khorey | Friday, November 9, 2007

Last March, Notre Dame trudged off the court after a frustrating and stunning loss to Winthrop in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The post-game locker room was like a funeral parlor, with players answering reporters’ questions in hushed tones. An exciting season that had seen a resurgence of Irish basketball had come to an abrupt end.

Kyle McAlarney wasn’t with the team that day and hadn’t been with it since his suspension for the season in mid-January. The most he could do was watch his team’s agony on television.

But that’s the great thing about sports. A few months go by and you get to start all over. It’s the dawn of a new season, and Notre Dame is back on the court, ready to use last year’s momentum to get back to the NCAA Tournament – and this time win a few games once they get there.

Guards Colin Falls and Russell Carter have departed, and with them went nearly 30 points per game and the clutch performances fans grew to expect from both of them.

But much of this team’s nucleus is still intact, with seven players who saw the court that day against Winthrop.

In addition, the Irish will feature a refocused and rededicated McAlarney, committed to showing that Notre Dame basketball can be a player not only in the Big East, but also nationally.

Falls’ coach-on-the-floor leadership and Carter’s crowd-pumping enthusiasm will be missed, but the Irish have two players ready to step into those roles. Lone senior and captain Rob Kurz is a floor leader, directing traffic within coach Mike Brey’s scheme. Meanwhile, sophomore point guard Tory Jackson’s infectious smile and love for the game reflect onto his teammates.

It is already evident that this team has chemistry. They supported McAlarney through his ordeal, then welcomed him back this summer. They hang out off the court and spend extra time together on it perfecting their skills. During scrimmages, they know where there teammates are and aren’t reluctant to pass the ball.

That chemistry makes for a fun team to watch. The Irish will go up and down the floor, swing the ball around the perimeter quickly and cut to the basket when they see an opening. And unlike past Notre Dame squads that relied on the 3-pointer, the 2007-08 team can drive to the basket and finish. To cap it off, the Irish have won 20 straight at home.

Of course, there are still questions. Junior Ryan Ayers will become a full-time starter at small forward, and he’s going to need to show more aggressiveness. Sophomore forward Luke Harangody will return from his thumb injury sometime in the coming week, but will it continue to nag him throughout the season?

Finally, the Irish play a weak non-conference schedule, with only a game against Kansas State at Madison Square Garden and a potential match-up with Georgia Tech – in the Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands – as real tests. Will this hurt them come the Big East conference season or NCAA tournament selection time?

Possibly not, but last year Clemson started out 17-0 thanks to a weak schedule and ended up falling apart and not making the Big Dance.

But as long as Notre Dame wins consistently, none of that will matter. And this is a motivated team that knows it can win and win big. They have fun together and love playing the game.

Last season represented a big step for this program, but its ending left a sour taste in the players’ mouths. They’ve been chomping at the bit to get back on the court, and now that time has come. It’s November again, and the post-Winthrop mourning is over.

It’s time for Irish basketball to take the next step.

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

Contact Chris Khorey at [email protected]