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Men’s Basketball Commentary: Irish can learn from sting of defeat

Fran Tolan | Monday, March 24, 2008

DENVER – The Irish had a good season but, boy, does that type of loss leave a bad taste in their mouths. Like the dry, putrid taste you have in your mouth after a long night of partying. No amount of toothpaste can fully eradicate that taste.

But for Notre Dame, there are some positives to be taken from its season-ending loss to Washington State. The Irish saw what it takes to advance beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Before the Tourney, I said that anything short of a Sweet 16 berth would be a disappointment for the Irish. I still believe that, but after seeing Washington State dismantle Notre Dame, I now also more fully realize why the Round of 16 is labeled “Sweet.” You have to play really, really well to get there. Obviously, the Irish didn’t.

But I think Saturday’s loss had more to do with Washington State’s execution than with Notre Dame’s poor showing. The Irish simply ran into a wall and that wall came in the form of a superior, more experienced opponent.

The Cougars suffocated the Irish offense like no other team came close to doing this season. And their guard-play showed Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney what another year of playing together can do for them. Washington State seniors Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low picked apart the Irish man-to-man defense. Weaver, a perimeter-oriented forward, worked the baseline like a good artist works the canvas, routinely shaking his man and finding his way to the hoop.

Low also proved to be much more than the Irish could handle. He controlled the pace of the game and orchestrated an offense that committed just seven turnovers.

Washington State illustrated the need to play 40 solid minutes to do serious damage in March. All season long, the Irish relied on offensive explosions to win games. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but the team runs into serious trouble when those runs don’t come.

On Saturday, Notre Dame was forced to constantly play from behind so the team was unable to find any kind of rhythm.

The Irish did make one of their patented runs midway through the second half. Luke Harangody absolutely outwilled everyone else on the court to come up with a loose ball before finding Kyle McAlarney for an open 3-pointer. The play capped a 9-0 Notre Dame run and cut Washington State’s lead to 38-31. But the Irish were spent.

The sequence illustrated the danger of living and dying by random offensive spurts. The Irish had a poor shooting night and that led to many of their problems. But they also came up against a solid team that prevented them from ever really catching fire. After cutting the deficit to seven, Notre Dame was exhausted from merely trying to catch up.

Obviously, what made Notre Dame so high-powered and fun to watch was its run-and-gun style. But sometimes (especially during the grind that defines March Madness), a team is forced to slow it down. The Irish would be well-advised to learn from the Cougars’ patience on both ends of the floor.

And they will learn. The team has made gigantic strides in each of the past two seasons. They improved from an NIT team to an NCAA Tournament bid recipient last year. And this season, they advanced one round further than they did last year. They will return every player with the exception of Rob Kurz (see bottom of column) and there is no reason to suspect they will not markedly improve once again.

But the Irish need to learn several lessons from this season’s Tournament exit. They must improve in the half-court game to compete with plodders like Washington State. And they must play consistent basketball for entire games, shaking their habit of counting on mega-runs to lift them over good opponents.

Otherwise, on nights when they shoot well under their average percentage, they will leave with their mouths tasting like stale whiskey and vodka.

Some Other Thoughts:

— Regardless of all the points I just made, the Irish had no chance of winning anyways because of one statistic. That would be Luke Harangody’s 3-of 17 finish from the floor. Harangody did pull down 22 rebounds but many of those can be attributed to Notre Dame’s atrocious shooting. Seven of his boards came on the offensive glass.

If your superstar has a game like that, you’re not beating anyone in March.

After the game, Harangody said he felt like he let his teammates down. Expect his season-ending performance to make him even more driven this off-season. Look for him to play like a man possessed next year.

— When Jackson knocked down a 3-pointer to put Notre Dame on the scoreboard for the second straight game, I thought it was a good omen. In retrospect, it wasn’t.

Jackson had just four points and two assists the rest of the way.

— The Irish are really going to miss Rob Kurz. Kurz was everything you could ask for in a captain, someone who deflected credit for wins after doing much of the dirty work those victories entailed. Even in the locker room after the loss Saturday, the team’s lone senior directed the conversation toward next season. He said he hoped his younger teammates would learn from this year and use that experience to advance further in the Tournament next year.

The empty spot vacated by Number 31 will not be easily filled next year.