With the big game against Notre Dame now just a mere day away, I decided to invite Chris Wilson from the Notre Dame blog Rakes of Mallow over to Card Chronicle Headquarters for a chat. He looked a bit uneasy after walking past a room dedicated solely to the movie Gremlins 2: The New Batch, but I think he settled down once we started talking.
Here's how it went down:
Card Chronicle: I said before the season that I thought Notre Dame was the most complete team in the league. You've got a great ball handler (Jackson), a lights out shooter (McAlarney), capable wings (Kurz, Hillesland, Ayers), and a fantastic post player (Harangody). So I ask you, Christopher Wilson, what is this team's major flaw?
Rakes of Mallow: There's a whole host of problems that pop up from time to time, some more than others, such as inability to block anyone out, sudden meltdowns against presses the team would have been beating the whole game and offensive droughts, but the one thing that plagues the Irish - and it's only somewhat correctable - is a lack of athleticism on the defensive perimeter. This leads to a ton of open three's (Pitt would have won last week if not for Ronald Ramon being 0-8) and opposing guards getting to the rim. This is my primary concern against Louisville, since you have so many athletes we'll be sure to go zone and be too slow on rotations. If you can knock down the open three's that come your way, the Irish defense will have a tough time doing anything about it.
CC: Tory Jackson put on a show in the Big East Tournament a year ago, and he's proved it wasn't a fluke by stringing together a very solid sophomore season. But, he has had a bit of a problem with turnovers, especially in Big East play. How well do you see Jackson being able to deal with Louisville's ball pressure in both the backcourt and the halfcourt?
ROM: That statement was true for most of the season, but Tory has really settled down as of late, highlighted by a 37 minute, 0 turnover, near triple double against Pitt. He still is prone to the dumb mistake, but he's had incredible control in transition in recent games, not forcing things and pulling it out for the half-court set if nothing is there. A lot of his early turnovers came on charges - a pet peeve of mine throughout this Big East season - and he's really start to do a lot better job of jump stopping instead of just plowing into people.
As far as going against the Pitino press, I think he'll do okay. At the end of the game Sunday against Syracuse, and when the Irish barely held on against Marquette at home, the pressure at the end of the game made it look like no one on the team had ever faced a double team before. Other times, such as against Seton Hall, when the press was consistent, there was little trouble getting around it, although the Cardinal pressure is significantly more deadly than anything the Pirates would throw out there. Overall, I think Notre Dame will minimize the damage done off easy turnovers with Jackson and Kyle McAlarney handling the ball, although you can probably expect at least one or two highlight dunks off a really, really dumb mistake.
CC: Luke Harangody is going to be the Big East Player of the Year, but against the front line most similar to Louisville's - Georgetown - he put up a rather pedestrian 13 and 8. How effective do you think Gody will be against Padgett, Clark, Caracter and company?
ROM: Harangody also had a very tough game in the initial contest against Connecticut, but then turned it around in the rematch for the best statistical output of his career against their rather capable frontline. If Mike Brey just puts him on the block and tosses the ball into him to go one-on-one against considerably lengthier defenders, I can't imagine that will work well, but Luke has developed a pretty nice jump shot from most of the way around the perimeter. I'm concerned with Caracter on him the most, as he's got the width, height and strength to give him all kinds of trouble. Harangody might end up with a nice game working the boards and finding some easy shots through the offense, but I don't think the Irish will be able to run the offense through him against your very formidable front line.
CC: Every time I turn on a Notre Dame game I see Zach Hillesland do something amazing, and yet on paper he looks so average. Talk a little bit about the unheralded trio of Hillesland, Ayers and Kurz, and what they bring to the table.
ROM: We'll break these guys down one at a time.
Hillesland had another very underrated performance against Syracuse, slicing up their zone for six assists and going 3 of 3 from the field, which I haven't even talked about on Rakes. Sometimes he'll make some very poor decision when dribbling and his jump shot isn't anything near consistent, but as far as controlled chaos of crashing the boards, blocking shots, moving without the ball for an easy dunk or lay-up and defensive intensity, Hillesland has brought a lot to this team since moving into the starting line-up.
Ryan Ayers' game has also evolved over the course of the season, from just being a three-point threat to becoming a potent defender on the wing of the zone and a great running buddy for Tory Jackson in transition. He does a great job in his role in the offense, although I don't know how comfortable he is putting the ball on the floor. Thankfully, with this team, he doesn't really have to.
Rob Kurz is a special case, as the lone senior on this team. It's evenly split among my friends - all of which have watched a lot of Notre Dame basketball - whether he's a good player, a bad player or somewhere in between. I fall into the pro-Kurz camp, but he's prone to do some maddening things on defense in regards to defending backdoor cuts and biting on perimeter pumpfakes. All in all, I think he's one of the more underrated players in the country, with 12.4 points and 7.7 rebounds on 86% shooting from the line and nearly 40% shooting from three. Last season, when Harangody was less of an interior presence and Carter and Falls needed a complement to their outside play, Kurz had the 23rd highest Offensive Rating in the country according to Ken Pomeroy. I liken him to Padgett, although not nearly as talented.
CC: Digger Phelps: you guys still claiming him?
ROM: Oh, absolutely. Digger was just in town Sunday for the 30th anniversary of the 1978 Final Four team, and he's always hanging out around campus, even popping up in an opera a couple years ago. Unlike Dickie V with Duke or commentators who try to contain their bias, Digger is so blatantly pro-Irish it should be hard for anyone to take him seriously when the subject turns to Notre Dame, so it's not like he's actually influencing anyone.
CC: On a scale of 1-to-52, how tired of you are hearing about Kyle McAlarney's back story during ESPN broadcasts?
ROM: If you would have asked me this a few weeks ago, I'd have said 52, but to be fair to ESPN, they've really toned down the references to the most minor of possible marijuana infractions, so I'll go somewhere in the low 40's. The more I see the type of punishments kids from other schools are getting for stuff, the more I respect K-Mac for coming back after such a punishment that was such ridiculous overkill. The new McAlarney reference of note is "The Janice McAlarney Cam," as Kyle's awesome mom is present at a lot of games getting screen time after every made 3.
CC: Louisville generally gets into trouble when it settles for outside shots, and if this game turns into a shooting contest then I think there's little doubt that Notre Dame has the advantage. With this in mind, can you see Mike Brey packing it in defensively and trying to make a select few guys (just off the top of my head; Terrence Williams and Earl Clark) beat his team from beyond the arc?
ROM: Yes, absolutely, that will be the plan unless Mike Brey gets some other crazy idea. The Irish have no way of containing the Cardinals one-on-one, so they'll be packing it in and hoping things are cold from the outside. Brey has also stumbled onto a 2-2-1 press which has worked pretty well at times this season, so there's the chance he might just throw that out there and turn this thing into a track meet. While this might give the Irish some trouble with their bench, which has been iffy most of the season, it would also not allow Louisville's defense to get set, meaning more open three's and more quick moves by Harangody before his primary defender can start shadowing him.
CC: What Big East team do you see snagging the top seed for the conference tourney, and which do you think will do the most damage in the NCAA Tournament?
ROM: That's a tough one, but I'm going to say Louisville claims it, as I think you'll win again at Georgetown and have little trouble with Villanova. Even if the Irish manage to win in Freedom Hall and Georgetown drops a game, I can't imagine there's a way we don't drop one of the final three (@ DePaul, St. John's, @USF) just because that's how things work at Notre Dame.
As far as in the tournament, I'm not sure I really believe in Connecticut to a great extent, but I think Mt. Thabeet becomes a considerably more dangerous weapon outside of league play, like Okafor always was (this was before your Big East time, I think). A.J. Price is turning into a very good point guard, and that frontline will eat up nearly anyone on the boards. If they can hit some shots, Jim Calhoun's team could be dangerous.
CC: Care to offer any game predictions?
ROM: I'm casually optimistic, although the match-ups just seem all wrong here, plus the home floor factor. In my heart of hearts I think it could get ugly, but Notre Dame's been playing some really good basketball since the middle of January. If Georgetown, Syracuse and Connecticut could all stay in the game in Louisville, I don't see why the Irish can't, but I can't honestly pick the upset.
Thanks again to Chris for chatting.