Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The NCAA season isn’t a sprint, and while I hate to use the cliché that it’s a marathon, it’s rather true. Every year, a team will overschedule it’s non-conference opponents and get blasted, just starting with a terrible record. Now, if you do this in a crappy conference, you’d need to win your conference tournament in order to get a bid. But if you’re in one of the top eight or so conferences, you can fall all over yourself for the first month of the season, then turn it on come conference time and be fine. Your best example would be the 2003-2004 Michigan State team, which got blasted by Duke, Kansas, Oklahoma, Syracuse and Kentucky before turning the corner come Big Ten time, making the tournament and promptly choking a second half lead to Nevada.

The Big game on Monday night against Syracuse was a chance for Notre Dame not only to go 3-0 in the conference and extend their win streak, but more importantly, to get that marquee win they could hang their hat on come tournament time. Syracuse will finish in the Top 25 of the RPI, and finishing above .500 in a tough Big East with a quality win like that would assure the Irish not only a spot in the tourney, but maybe a nice seed as well. There’s still chances to pick up those big W’s (Pitt, UConn, Boston College, the rematch against ‘Cuse), but without a nice non-conference scalp, Notre Dame needed to beat the Orange to solidify their place in the national perspective.

The crowd was as loud as I’d seen it in the Joyce Center, though that doesn’t necessarily say much. The first six minutes of the game was insanely intense, featuring non-stop screaming from the entire Legion to go along with the back-and-forth action, highlighted by Hakim Warrick skywalking over top of Dennis Latimore and dunking it solidly on his head in one of the sickest displays I’ve ever seen. It didn’t actually seem like it happened at the time, and I’m still not sure how Warrick got that much elevation out of one spindly leg, but it was sight to behold.

The action was back and forth, actually being dominated by the Irish until a series of turnovers cost us a lead at the end of the first half. I thought Syracuse would get out of the zone, but we never shot well enough for a long enough period of time to warrant them going man-to-man. The Irish defense played had played well, only really getting burnt in transition and on the offensive boards, although Chris Thomas got caught on Gerry McNamara’s hip occasionally, always with disastrous results.

We were leading 57-51 with 7:51 left when Torin Francis missed an offensive putback that resulted in Syracuse going back down and getting a quick shot from McNamara, followed by a put-back from Edelin, which started a 14-0 run and eventually 19 of the last 23 points scored run by the visitor. We were shocked and disappointed with the quick collapse, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Thomas shot 1 for 14 and had four turnovers, but we were still in the game. Syracuse was only 10 of 24 from the line, but we only shot 37% and had seven more turnovers, but we were right there.

On one hand, Syracuse is basically a two-and-a-half-man team – McNamara, Warrick and Josh Pace’s left hand* – who we should have beaten at home, but on the other, they’re a team with five players who got major time on a national championship team and whose lone loss this year is to a team who went to the Final Four last year. On one hand, Thomas shot so poorly, but on the other, he had 8 assists and was on the floor for every loose ball. We probably should have attacked the middle of the zone more and tried to have gone to the line, but we weren’t taking bad threes, they just weren’t dropping. It’s hard to get upset about this loss, but then it feels like you’re lowering your expectations too much not too.

We have a lot of marquee opponents on the schedule, and as long as we win a few from them and take care of business against the lower-tier teams, we’ll be fine NCAA-bid wise. But I feel that we have the potential to be so much more, because the pieces are there. Three huge, undeniable factors give us a chance to make some noise come March.

1) Free-throw shooting We were perfect from the line in a close game against Villanova Saturday. The worst of our three guards (Chris Quinn) who would be in the game come offense is shooting is shooting 84%. If we get in a close game, it’ll be hard for a team to come back from behind if they have to foul.

2) Strong Guards You’re not going to see a press that frazzles Thomas and Quinn, no matter what athletic team is trotted out there against them. Very few of the turnovers Monday night occurred in the backcourt, but only after we attempted to get inside the zone. Granted, you can’t do that if you want to win, but when you have Louisville and Georgia Tech’s trotting out full-court pressure, it’s nice to know they won’t be scaring your primary ball-handlers.

3) Three-point shooting Again, Chris Thomas was 1 for 11 against the Orange and we were handling them soundly for the first thirty-two minutes. If he hits one or two of those treys, we win that game. Granted, living and dying by the three is a big risk, but when you lack a monster down low or a slashing small-forward who can constantly get to the rim, it’s a nice thing to have. Syracuse is the best, most-likely longest zone you’re going to see, and we handled it pretty nicely. We can shoot most anybody else right back into man-to-man if they attempt to do that.

Now, there’s a few things that hurt us. We don’t have a consistent post presence, as seen by Torin Francis’ numbers in the last three games (15 points, 10 rebounds, followed by 4 points, 2 rebounds, and then 15 points and 9 boards last night), but you don’t have to have a post game to win the NCAA’s. The exception, of course, was Emeka Okafor destroying everyone last year, but Syracuse’s starting center was a Craig Forth/Jeremy McNeil rotation, and while Lonny Baxter ended up going to the NBA (for a short period of time, mind you) and Chris Wilcox is turning into a stud player in LA, Maryland’s inside game was better known for it’s Four Horsemen-depth, not their individual talents.

We can trot out twenty fouls to deal with any Sean May that may happen to give us trouble, with Francis, Latimore and the Cornett(e) brothers, and with the quick hands of Thomas and Quinn, entry passes aren’t exactly easy. For as scary as Hakim Warrick was, he only had twelve points, and while he’s not exactly a big, burly center, he can give teams trouble down low.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re looking for an NCAA sleeper, at least after watching them last night, picking the Notre Dame Fighting Irish might not be a bad idea. Granted, you’d have to expect big nights from the Russell Carters of the team and would pray to shoot better than 30% from the arc, but there’s a lot of nice qualities there. There’s a big three game road trip sandwiched between home games against St. Johns and UConn, so a lot will be said in that time frame.

But although they’re a little rough around the edges, inconsistent and incapable of closing out opponents, I like the look of them.

We’ll just have to wait for March and see.

* - I didn't know how to fit it in the post without getting totally off-subject, but if you're unfamilar with Josh Pace, the only shot he can make is a left-handed hook in the lane. It's the only shot he'll actually take, when you think about it. Well, no one realizes and hates this more than Danny, who, as soon as Pace dribbled down in the key to start the game, immediately began screaming "HE'S GOING TO SHOOT IT WITH HIS LEFT HAND! IT'S ALWAYS THE LEFT HAND!". For some reason, we don't cover that up, and Pace drops the lefty hook which I've seen absolutely kill Pitt and UConn over the past couple of years. I'm going to make sure I'm standing beside Danny for every game from now on, because it gets no better than our resident South Bend Sage's wisdom.

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