With seven games in the book, and the Irish standing at 6-1 with a quality win over Texas and a quality loss to #1 North Carolina, here are some burning questions leading into tomorrow's matchup with the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Q. Is Notre Dame on pace where they should be right now?
A. Absolutely! They've done everything they were supposed to do. When the schedule came out, you'd figure the Loyola Marymount game was going to be a little easier than what it turned out to be that night out in Los Angeles.
But other than that, they basically have done everything everyone has expected them to do. That's what it is going to make tomorrow so interesting down in Indianapolis, whether Luke Harandogy plays or not, because this is a confident, but young team they will face in Ohio State.
Q. Speaking of Harangody, what's the latest on his status?
A. I'd say if I was a betting man, and which I'm not because I'd finish dead last in all the NCAA Bracket office pools. If I had to make a guess, he will suit up and play tomorrow against the Buckeyes. Before practice yesterday he was shooting around with Ben Hansbrough, whom by the way, hit nine 3pt. FGs in a row. So don't worry folks, this kids shot will be in full swing come next season.
As for Harangody, he's going to take it slow as Mike Brey and the training staff are saying all the right things that it will be a game time decision. I think he has had enough of sitting there and watching those guys have all that fun like the Irish did against South Dakota.
Q. If he does play, will he be at or near 100%?
A. I understand what Coach Brey is saying how they want to take it slow and don't want to rush him back. But look, this is a really good game they need to get, and if Luke Harangody can give them only 13 points and seven rebounds like he did the other night against UNC, which was almost good enough to get the job done; It should definitely be good enough tomorrow.
He'll still have plenty of enough time to rest all of December until Big East play starts New Year's Eve at the AllState Arena against DePaul. So if he can give them something, a little low post presence to give the Buckeyes a little something more to think about, it will be a positive.
Nobody thinks he'll go for 28 points and 15 rebounds or 30 and 18 like he has been doing so far. If he can give this team a few good minutes, that will be good enough to get the victory against Ohio State.
Q. What has this team learned the last two games without Harangody?
A. Actually you could say two and a half games, because of his health condition against North Carolina.
First and foremost, this team knows how to shred a zone defense. Get the ball to Kyle McAlarney, and get the ball to Ryan Ayers.
They've also learned that Tyrone Nash can give this team some good minutes. He has played very well the last two outings, setting career highs in minutes and had nine points and eight rebounds against South Dakota. I know that game was so lopsided so early, but if they can bring a guy like Nash along and give them another body in the low post that can use up five fouls especially in Big East play. That's going to be a real boost for this team.
Q. Can we expect more of the same from Ryan Ayers after he set a career high 35 points?
A. I have always liked Ryan Ayers. He's a great kid, but the bottom line is, just like the case with guys like Luke Zeller and Jonathan Peoples; is that he needs to do this against better competition (Big East competition!). Let's see him six, seven, or eight 3-pointers against Pittsburgh or Connecticut or Seton Hall or Louisville, or any other important game where McAlarney maybe be smothered or when Harangody might not be getting it done.
When they needed Ayers big time last week in Maui where he had six points each against Texas and North Carolina, he just didn't get it done. He had a lot of open shots against the Tar Heels in the first half that could have made a big difference in the game.
It's great that he did this against South Dakota, but he needs to step that performance up where they need it along the lines in conference action.
Q. With the emergence of Ayers as a scorer, is there enough basketballs to go around, especially with an All-American (Harangody) and almost All-American (McAlarney)?
A. The way Notre Dame plays they'll get enough possessions to where their should be enough shots to go around. The fact that if Ayers' misses a shot, he goes in a funk, and the next time down the court if he gets an open look he'll hesitate and give the defense enough time to recover. That's when he would kick it down the post to Harangody or swing it around to McAlarney for a better shot.
If Ayers can shoot more like he did the other night, that will give Harangody more confidence where if he is facing a double team in the low post, he doesn't have to just look for Kyle for a shot. Ryan Ayers is almost too nice in the fact that he is the ultimate fit in guy, where he doesn't want to stray from the norm and not take the game over.
Just like Coach Brey said the other night, that he wants Ayers to be an assassin like McAlarney was against North Carolina. If Ayers can do that on a night where one of these guys isn't hitting, this makes this team a lot more difficult to defend.
Q. Is there anything that we've seen after seven games where the Irish can take it to the next level?
A. Not really. It was good the way we saw them against Texas and bring that "A" effort in a game where they were mentally tough. Even when they were down to UNC, they didn't fold in like Michigan State against the Tarheels.
They believed that they belonged on the court with a team like North Carolina, unlike last year against Washington State. ND felt overmatched in every area.
So we've seen glimpses a little bit last week in Maui against Texas and North Carolina, but we won't see how this team differs than last year until Big East play where it really means something.
Q. Are you concerned about the Irish's ability to make free throws, and to make them in clutch situations?
A. Oh absolutely! Coach Brey really hasn't addressed it, and he doesn't want to get it into his team's head. But if they hit free throws that way they did that night in Los Angeles, they're going to lose at least two Big East games down the road and down the wire.
Loyola Marymount was just bad enough to where they didn't know how to capitalize. I don't care who you do that against, but if you do that in a conference game against Seton Hall, Rutgers, or South Florida, those teams will find a way to beat you if you don't make your free throws.
I know Mike Brey doesn't want to address it, but that is a problem area because the Irish are going to get to the line enough where they really need to be one the top free throw shooting teams in the Big East.
Even against Texas, where all you need is one free throw from Harangody or Tory Jackson and they are moving on without any desperation shot from AJ Abrahms that bounced off the front of the rim. You just can't live that dangerously with this team. A college basketball season is too fragile to have to give a team like Texas so many opportunities to win a game like that because you can't do something that is so basic like making a free throw.
Q. Is the Irish pretty much the same defensively like they were a year ago?
A. No, they are not as good defensively. I think they are soft. If you look at the stats against the rest of the Big East teams , Notre Dame is in the bottom three in FG% defense and 3pt. FG% defense. They give up way too many shots. The South Dakota game the other night was just basically a church league game in the second half where they were giving the Coyotes any three point shot they wanted. And they were knocking down shots, where a 34 point game all of a sudden turned into a 19 point game.
I think defensively this team has some strides to make. Maybe that has to do with the competition they have faced. Maybe it has to do with focus when you're up 20 or up 40 and you really don't need to sting a few stops together. But this team really does need to get a lot better defensively if they want to better last year's team.
Q. What about the other Big East Teams. Are you sold on Louisville being one of the better teams in the conference or the nation?
A. Louisville is not right now. That's historically the way Rick Patino coaches his team. He takes them along slowly and they are a difficult team to figure out right now. If you look at the standings, Syracuse is 8-0, Pittsburgh is 8-0, ND has played seven games, and Louisville is only 2-1. They've played three games and it is December 5th.
So they're starting slowly. Historically Pitno doesn't like his guards, and he wants to throw nine guys off the team because of their practice habits. He hates what he has, and then you look up at the end of February, Louisville has a chance to win the Big East.
Right now they're not the #3 team or the # 13 or whatever they are right now. But by the end of the year they could be a scary team once he figures out what he has and throws it all together and says alright guys this is what it's going to take to be successful. They'll probably be in the top four in the conference with everything is all said and done come March.
Q. If Harangody is in the lineup tomorrow, who is the favorite, and if he's not in the lineup, who's the favorite?
A. You've got to go with Notre Dame in both situations. I think Ohio State has done a lot with that win the other night against # 21 Miami could go a long way later down the line. But looking at tomorrow in that atmosphere against a veteran team, Ohio State still has eight new faces from last years team and they have never been in this type of atmosphere. With what ND has seen already in Maui, and even that game against Loyola Marymount because that was one of the toughest games they have had to win on the road. Those three games right there, Notre Dame should really understand what it takes to go in there and take care of business to get a big time victory.