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Notre Dame Hoops Notes

   by Tom Stryker - 12/04/2005

There are some rumbling these days at Notre Dame. No, not on the football field, where the world is seemingly right again for Irish faithful with a 9-2 season and a BCS bowl upcoming. But there are rumblings inside the smallish Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center where Notre Dame’s basketball team toils.

Out of the NCAA tournament for the past two years and not a super draw anymore - only some 2,000-plus saw Notre Dame’s 2004 finale (an NIT opener) - a loss to Holy Cross. And the Irish may have an identity problem this season - a problem that hinges on a lack of top rate players to compete in the Big East or elsewhere. After two straight NCAA runs in 2002 and 2003, Notre Dame has failed to make the elite 65-team field each of the last two years. And the grumbling is getting louder.

Mike Brey is in his sixth season at the helm of the Irish, compiling a 112-56 mark in those seasons. The best of that record was fashioned with players recruited by John Macleod or Matt Doherty. Now it’s clearly Brey’s team and Brey’s kids, but the production isn’t setting the world on fire. Those numbers (112-56) aren’t at all embarrassing, but after a roster full of NBA players a few years ago (Ryan Humphrey, Troy Murphy, David Graves and Matt Carroll), the cupboard currently doesn’t show that kind of stock available.

Notre Dame is 2-1 at this early point in the season with a home date Saturday against Michigan on the horizon. After two easy season-opening victories over cupcakes Lafayette and Hofstra, Notre Dame may have shown its true colors in a loss in Indianapolis to North Carolina State last weekend. Some telltale problems shown clearly in that defeat.

Guards Chris Quinn and Colin Falls, both veterans, collected a combined 14 points on 5 of 24 shooting. Many thought the Irish would be better without 4-year starter Chris Thomas around. But neither Falls nor Quinn have the same quickness, the same ability to create, nor the same ability to penetrate. They are solid spot-up shooters, but have trouble fashioning their own shot.

And if you take away the Irish outside game, there aren’t enough horses to manhandle foes on the inside. Torin Francis, a 6-11 senior (9.3 points last year), came in amid a chorus of accolades, but never has become the dominant inside force everyone expected him to be. Francis tested the NBA waters last spring and found them ice cold. He has to have a stellar season for the Irish to enjoy a winning campaign.

In the first few games sophomore Rob Kurz played well on the Irish frontcourt. And, Notre Dame still has 6-8 senior Rick Cornett - the team’s best shotblocker - available for help down low. Cornett’s knock has been that he “disappears,â€쳌 and more consistency would be a bonus for the Irish inside game. It has been the inside game that has been the biggest knock on the Irish since the departure of players like Humphrey and Murphy.

The Irish only managed 48 points against North Carolina State - only 20 in the first half. Junior Russell Carter has been getting plenty of minutes because of his strength, jumping ability and athleticism. At 6-4, he causes some problems for bigger defenders, who he can blow past. But he often has trouble on the other end of the floor because of the size differential. Carter is a good leaper and averaged 3.5 points a year ago.

Four freshmen are on the roster include Indiana Mr. Basketball Luke Zoeller (6-11), swingman Ryan Ayers, 6-9 forward Zach Hillesland and guard Kyle McAlarney. McAlarney can run the floor well and Brey has toyed with using him at the point to keep Quinn at his more comfortable No. 2 spot.

It will be hard for the Irish to match last year’s 17-win total - and that number was a few shy of NCAA tourney eligibility. The Big East has proven tough enough for Notre Dame, who now must contend with new members Marquette, Depaul, Cincinnati and Louisville.

A missing ingredient certainly is the lack of a go-to guy. There is just no stud on the inside and not a lot of magic on the outside.

That is why those grumblings continue to be heard around South Bend and the Notre Dame basketball community. It doesn’t seem that the Irish have the horses to compete with a high-quality opponent. Only with defense and contributions from seven or eight players will the Irish be able to overcome many superior opponents on their schedule this year.

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