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Men’s Basketball: Irish have high aspirations after returning all but one player

Chris Hine | Friday, August 22, 2008

This year, there’s no sneaking up on anyone.

Two years ago, Notre Dame was picked to finish 11th in the Big East; the Irish finished fourth. Last year, they were picked ninth and finished tied for second.

But this season, the Irish return four starters from a team that finished 25-8, including Big East player of the year Luke Harangody and first-team Big East selection Kyle McAlarney. Many analysts have consistently ranked the Irish among the top-10 teams in the country in the 2008-09 preseason polls.

To get his team ready to face such high expectations, coach Mike Brey has changed the way his team approaches its off-season and non-conference schedule.

Currently, the team is taking an international trip to Ireland as part of the Emerald Hoops Tour. The trip has given Brey a chance to get his team together in the gym earlier than normal and try some different lineup combinations.

So far on the trip, the Irish have picked up where they left off in terms of offensive production – scoring 90-plus points in their four victories.

It’s also the first time sophomores Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott have seen significant minutes as they compete to fill the void in the rotation left by the graduation of Rob Kurz.

Through Notre Dame’s first three games on the tour, Scott has averaged 11.3 points, while Nash has averaged five points per game. The box score was not available for Notre Dame’s fourth game, a 90-88 win over Ireland.

Aside from Harangody and McAlarney, the Irish return junior point guard Tory Jackson, an excellent rebounder given his 5-foot-11 height, who averaged eight points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists. Sharpshooter Ryan Ayers and versatile forward Zach Hillesland also return. The two split starting duties last season – Ayers started most of the first half of the year before Hillesland took over – but regardless of who started, both saw upwards of 20 minutes per game. Ayers netted 24 points in the win over Ireland, including a game-winning dunk. Junior Jonathan Peoples served as the backup guard to spell McAlarney and Jackson while 6-foot-11 senior Luke Zeller will be called upon to replace the height on Notre Dame’s defense that left with Kurz.

Once Notre Dame begins non-conference play this season, it’ll face a tougher slate than it did last year. Last season, Notre Dame’s lone major non-conference win came against Kansas State. This year, Notre Dame will play in the Maui Invitational, with the prospect of facing North Carolina – who will likely begin the season ranked No. 1 – in the finals. And in February, the Irish will take a break from Big East play to head out to Los Angeles to renew their rivalry with UCLA.

All this is designed to test the Irish – a veteran squad with a chance to make a run deep in the NCAA Tournament this year – as much as possible before the postseason rolls around.

But after this season, the Irish will lose four seniors to graduation – McAlarney, Zeller, Hillesland and Ayers, and Brey did not sign any recruits last season.

He did, however, land two sought-after transfers – Scott Martin from Purdue and Ben Hansbrough from Mississippi State.

Martin, who will have three years of eligibility remaining after sitting out this season, is a 6-foot-8 forward who averaged 8.5 points per game for a 25-9 Boilermakers club. Hansbrough, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard, will have two years of eligibility remaining after this season and averaged 10.5 points last year for Mississippi State.