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Men’s Basketball: Stuck in the Pitts

Chris Hine | Friday, January 30, 2009

It’s been a four days since Notre Dame’s lost its fourth straight to Marquette on Monday, losses marked by the struggles of three of Notre Dame’s captains.

Four days can seem like an eternity when you’re struggling and that next chance to right yourself seems like it’ll never come. That day will finally arrive Saturday when Notre Dame (12-7, 3-5 Big East) travels to take on No. 3 Pittsburgh (18-2, 6-2).

First there’s Kyle McAlarney, who has shot 6-for-27 (22 percent) in Notre Dame’s (12-7, 3-5 Big East) last two games, well below his 43 percent average from the field for the season.

“I think against Connecticut, I had some great looks. I think Marquette, they really guarded me,” McAlarney said. “It was really tough. I thought I had maybe two good looks all game.”

McAlarney said he expects the added attention because teams figure they can beat the Irish if they are able to contain him.

“That’s what I’ve earned, I guess. I’m expecting teams to kind of try and hang their hat on, ‘We’ve got to shut down Kyle on the perimeter and then we’ll beat them,'” McAlarney said. “But I disagree with that because I think Ryan [Ayers] is going to find it. I think Zach [Hillesland] is going to find it.”

That would certainly help, even if the pair of senior forwards found the bottom of the net just a little more than they have been. In Ayers’s case, somebody must’ve stolen his ability to hit a shot one night while he was sleeping. He’s a combined 1-for-17 in his last two games.

But for someone who’s made shots at such a high percentage (despite these last two games, Ayers still shoots 42 percent from the field), a slump like that isn’t bound to last long. Ayers said he’s identified what he needs to fix with his shot.

“My mechanics are fine, it’s just getting my legs underneath me and being more smooth. I felt like the rattling in and out means I need more of an arc on my shot,” Ayers said.

As for the third struggling senior, Hillesland, he knows he has better basketball in him than what he’s showed in Notre Dame’s losing streak. In Notre Dame’s last seven games, Hillesland has scored a combined 19 points. Hillesland was never one to light up the scoreboard, but he knows his team needs more out of him than what he’s given of late.

“For me, it’s narrowing my focus and not worrying about, ‘Oh I missed that shot, I could’ve blocked out better there, is coach getting ready to sub me?’ or something like that,” Hillesland said.

But despite the recent losses, there have been some positives. Even with Notre Dame’s offensive woes, the Irish were still in their last two games until the last seconds. Why? Answer No. 1 has been their defense, which just surrendered 69 and 71 points to Connecticut and Marquette respectively.

Then there’s Luke Harangody, who, with each day, looks more like he’ll repeat as Big East player of the year. Harangody scored 24 points against 7-foot-3 Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet and 29 against Marquette.

“I think what he does continually is amazing really,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “He’s there every night. He’s bringing it every night. It’s really a great display of consistency and toughness and I’ve told him privately that we certainly appreciate it and I don’t want it to go unnoticed.”

Harangody will face another test Saturday in the form of DeJuan Blair and Sam Young. The two Pittsburgh forwards are among the Big East’s best, both offensively and defensively.

“You have to prepare yourself for it every game,” Harangody said of facing the big men of the Big East. “It’s going to be so physical that you’re going to have to go as hard as the next guy…

“It’d be nice to go, like in those non-conference games we had this year, go up against a 6-5 180-pound guy. Every night, I realize it’s not going to happen, so I’ve just got to put up with it.”

In Notre Dame’s last matchup against the Panthers, the Irish overcame an 11-point second half deficit to win 82-70. Tory Jackson had 16 points and a career-high 13 rebounds to lead the late surge. The Irish may need another similar effort to take down a Panthers team that returns many players from last year’s squad.

At 3-5, Notre Dame is in a precarious position in the Big East. It’s not too late to make a run and get a decent NCAA Tournament seed, but a few more losses and just making the Tournament can become difficult. Right now, the Irish aren’t trying to think too far ahead and haven’t worried themselves by looking at the standings or discussing hypothetical situation that would get them in or out of the Tournament. Tip off is scheduled for 12 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN.


-To shake things up this week Mike Brey brought his team in for multiple early-morning practices.

“We’ve come in, in the morning just to kind of get some reps up and kind of polish some things up that maybe we haven’t been able to do when we play a few games in a short period of time,” Brey said.

-Harangody was asked before practice Thursday if there was one player in the Big East he looked forward to going up against.

His answer:

“I would say Hasheem [Thabeet] … It’s such a challenge going up against him because he’s such a freak,” Harangody said. “Someone asked me to describe it, it’s just you think you got your shot up and he just comes out of nowhere.”