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Allen: Notre Dame may be closing the talent gap (Nov. 29)

Chris Allen | Thursday, November 29, 2012

You won’t need your detective’s hat Thursday night in Purcell Pavilion to tell Kentucky and Notre Dame apart.

On the floor Thursday night will be two programs representing the yin and the yang of college basketball – two diametrically opposed methods of competing for championships.

There is the Irish way – experiences, teamwork, passing and ball control. It has come to be encapsulated in the last half-decade in the “burn” style of Mike Brey and in the groups of players who grow in Brey’s program, developing a sixth sense for each other on the court. Notre Dame basketball players stick around for the long haul. Forward Scott Martin has been in college basketball since 2007 – when Kentucky center Nerlens Noel wasn’t even in high school yet. Former Irish forward Tim Abromaitis stuck around at Notre Dame long enough to earn two degrees. Brey has put some of the elder statesmen of college basketball in a position to compete for Big East and NCAA titles.

There is the Kentucky way – get in, win, get out. The “one-and-done” legacy of Wildcats coach John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky has received a lot of flak from the media. It will receive none from me. It is fully within the rules of the current situation in college basketball, and as Calipari’s 2011-12 championship banner in Rupp Arena shows, it is quite effective.

But it does represent a completely different way of doing things from Brey’s “stay and grow” approach to building good, competitive basketball teams. College basketball is unique in that 18-year-old kids can step on campus immediately ready to win championships and play in the NBA – John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Enes Kanter, Daniel Orton, Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis have all barely stayed on Kentucky’s campus long enough to learn the names of all the buildings.

It’s hard to knock a strategy that has worked so well. In the past few years, Kentucky has played in Elite Eights, Final Fours and won a title on the back of the transcendent Davis. It is the kind of success that Brey and the Irish have only been able to dream about – despite regular-season success the program has struggled to get back to the Sweet Sixteen.

So, it will be the young guns from Kentucky against the old guard from Notre Dame on the hardwood at Purcell Pavilion on Thursday. For decades, the Irish basketball program has been on the outside looking in at traditional basketball powers, tagged as a “football school” content with above-average hoops play.

Is there reason to believe the gap is closing? There may be. Brey has his program in a better position than it ever has been talent-wise by taking a page out of Calipari’s book and dipping into the pool of blue-chip recruits. Whereas Brey had to pick his spots and find diamonds in the rough for much of the first decade of his tenure, he now trots out top young talent in forwards Pat Connaughton and Cameron Biedscheid to go toe-to-toe with Kentucky’s scores of McDonalds’ All-Americans. His biggest recruiting coup of all, 2013 commitment Demetrius Jackson, waits in the wings.

While it may be elementary on the surface Thursday night – youth vs. experience, prestige vs. aspiring prestige – look deeper. A youth movement is coming. The gap may be closing.

Contact Chris Allen at [email protected]

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