Well, the Notre Dame men's basketball team finally called it a season last night with an inglorious 67-59 loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions in the NIT semi-finals at Madison Square Garden. By my count, that means Notre Dame finishes the year as the 68th best team in the country (maybe 69th). Woo-Hoo!
But more importantly, it means that I can end my self-imposed silence about Irish basketball. Not that I had a whole lot to say, but I did want to keep my word just in case the Irish needed a little extra luck as the season wound to a close. So much for that.
Am I the only one who is bitterly disappointed in how the team finished this season? I'm the first to admit that I don't follow Big East basketball very closely. It's a little bit of a challenge from the west coast. But wasn't Notre Dame supposed to be really good this year? Weren't we ranked in the Top 10 at one point?
I know the Big East was a Big Beast this season. Seven teams in the NCAA Tournament, including three #1 seeds. Five teams in the Sweet 16, four in the Elite Eight and two in the Final Four. Very, very impressive. A very tough schedule to play through. But no matter how tough your conference is, 9th place is pretty disappointing.
At one level, basketball is an absurdly simple game. The team that makes the most shots will win. Watching Notre Dame this year, I saw two different teams on the court. The team that was ranked in the Top 10 was the team led by Kyle McAlarney when he was "on" and hitting his long-range jump shot. That team, when it showed up, was tough to beat. The other team was the squad that wasn't hitting it's long-range shots and seemingly had no other way to generate points. That team was pretty mediocre and finished 9th in the Big East and 68th in the nation. I don't know the "why" of it, but it just seemed that better teams were able to take McAlarney and/or Luke Harangody completely out of their games, and Notre Dame had nobody else who could make up the difference.
Looking at the season statistics for the Big East conference (I'm not going to factor the cupcake non-conference games into evaluating Notre Dame's performance), I would hope that in the future the team could step up the intensity on defense and develop an offensive identity that isn't so dependent on the 3-ball. Notre Dame was 6th in overall scoring offense, but just 13th in scoring defense. We led the conference in 3-pt shots made (391) and 3-pt percentage made at .389. We were a middle of the pack team in rebounding margin (10th) but just 13th in shot blocking and 16th (dead last) in steals. The good news is that you don't necessarily need a bunch of new athletes to get better on defense. Defense is about 90% effort and attitude. The question I have is: Can Coach Brey instill in this team the toughness and the commitment to defense they need to be competitive in the Big East, both at home and on the road, and on nights when the threes aren't falling?