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Allen: Guard play is key to spark program stuck in neutral (March 23)

Chris Allen | Saturday, March 23, 2013

DAYTON, Ohio – If what you saw from Notre Dame at University of Dayton Arena on Friday night looked familiar, you’re not alone.

That is what a program trapped in neutral looks like.

For the fourth straight year, the Irish delivered a memorable and accomplished regular season to their fan base. And for the fourth straight year, to the bewilderment of those who follow the program, the Irish laid an egg in the NCAA tournament, losing 76-58 to Iowa State.

But there was no bewilderment this year about missed chances, missed shots and lane violations. That’s because, in this game, Notre Dame never even gave itself a chance. Fourteen first-half turnovers took a team that was playing its best basketball a week ago out of contention before the halftime whistle even sounded. Irish coach Mike Brey’s squad made a small run in the second half, but the period was more formality than competition in front of a dwindling Dayton crowd.

“[It’s] the unfinished business for this program nationally,” Brey said. “It’s really well-respected nationally, had a great identity in the Big East. Not sure what it will be in the ACC. We even got to the semis of the Big East four years in a row. But this is a hump we can’t get over yet.”

So disappointment it is for the Irish. Again. Is that good enough?

Many will say that Notre Dame and its fans have long been content with modest success in basketball. That content is slowly eroding as this team shows glimpses of what it can be. With the team moving with the rest of Notre Dame’s athletic programs to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) on July 1, it invites a natural evaluation of the state of Notre Dame basketball.

One thing is clear – this team needs a spark. And that spark needs to come from the guards. With Jack Cooley hanging up his jersey for the last time, this program belongs to point guard Eric Atkins and shooting guard Jerian Grant. The rise of Notre Dame to a level above where it currently sits rests on their shoulders. If Brey is to bring this group into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament with this group, it’s his guards who need to take him there.

“My guards have been so good all year with tempo and making decisions,” Brey said. “If our guards aren’t in a good tempo, we probably can’t beat anybody.

An era in Notre Dame basketball came to an end Friday night, and next year Brey’s program will enter the ACC with a reputation it has built over the past six years in the Big East – regular-season stalwart, non-factor in March. The next level won’t be reached without a spark. Atkins and Grant will enter next season billed as one of the nation’s best backcourts – and they are. But they fell short of that billing Friday night. 2-for-10 shooting from Atkins and nine points to go with six turnovers for Grant isn’t going to cut it. The only way this program can break into the next tier is if a transformational group of players can will it there. Atkins and Grant can be those players. The question heading into 2013-14 is: Are they willing to take on that burden?

If not, Brey will spend another season with his program stuck in the mud.

Contact Chris Allen at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.