For a college student, there is nothing worse than the end of a semester. Assignments pile up, finals loom, and there’s less time for things like sports blogs. I watched Notre Dame lose its first game of the season to Kentucky, took copious notes, and planned on writing a timely game recap. Then, I remembered I had a Shakespeare paper to write. And five interviews to conduct (I’m a sports journalism major). And two stories to write.
Suffice it to say, the game recap was not priority numero uno. Still, I feel like there’s a lot to be said about the game and I want to share my thoughts. I watched the game twice and noticed a lot the second time around. So I’m going to combine my belated Kentucky recap with a preview of tonight’s tilt with Gonzaga at 8:30 p.m.
Watching the game live, I thought Notre Dame played a pretty competitive game. Kentucky won by 14 points, but the score was close until the final few minutes. It seemed that Notre Dame just had to make a few more open shots, and they would have a chance to win the game. I was impressed that, on a cold shooting night, Notre Dame hung tough with the No.16 team in the land. Especially playing at Freedom Hall in Louisville, a neutral site in official name only. The court was trimmed in blue, and Wildcats was painted on the baseline, for Christ’s sake.
After re-watching the game, I still think Notre Dame could have won if they shot just a little better, but I noticed some major negatives as well. It was obvious, of course, that Terrence Jones dominated the paint. He scored 27 points and pulled down 17 rebounds. What disconcerted me as I studied the tape was how much the Irish struggled against Kentucky’s size.
Notre Dame starts four players listed at six-feet, eight-inches, but none of them are true centers–and it showed. Jones and Josh Harrellson (nine rebounds) almost outrebounded the Irish (33 rebounds) by themselves. Kentucky had 11 offensive rebounds and controlled the paint all night.
Notre Dame was also bothered by Kentucky’s size (and quickness) on the offensive end. Playing against the bigger Harrellson and Jones, Tyrone Nash was a complete non-factor. He grabbed just two rebounds and turned the ball over four times. Abromaitis struggled mightily as well, scoring just four points and disappearing completely. One bad game offensively doesn’t worry me, unless the game signals a larger problem to me.
Notre Dame’s interior issues against big teams, along with their inability to penetrate, which worried me before the season started, is cause for concern moving forward. Hansbrough is the team’s only off-the-dribble guy and he lacks the elite athleticism to get past quick defenders. Until the Kentucky game, that didn’t matter, but it will going forward. The Big East is loaded with athletic guards who can apply defensive pressure. If Notre Dame is not shooting well from the outside, and they’ve shown a tendency towards streaky shooting, the offense stalls. Mike Brey is a good offensive coach, so I’m interested to see if, or how, Brey tweaks the offensive attack.
I’m not trying to be ultra-negative, or say that the Irish are bad, I’m simply pointing out potential concerns against good competition. There were some good signs and bright spots, as well. Hansbrough rose to the challenge, hitting five threes and scoring 19 points in the first half. Jack Cooley played perhaps his best game of the season with four points and five rebounds in just 13 minutes. Notre Dame scored just 58 points, but they had plenty of open shots from the perimeter that normally go down. The Irish once again exhibited immense toughness, scratching and clawing their way through an off-night.
I expect Notre Dame’s offense to rebound with a good shooting performance tonight against Gonzaga. The Irish will be in the comfort of their own building and playing a much inferior defensive opponent. Gonzaga has stuggled its way to a 4-4 start and are surrendering almost 77 points per contest. Elias Harris, who put up 15 points and seven rebounds per game last season, is playing with a bum foot and averaging just nine ppg.
Despite Gonzaga’s early-season struggles, they will still be a tough opponent. Steven Gray is proving himself to be one of the country’s best scorers and center Robert Sacre is a load in the middle. Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott will once again have to contend with a big frontcourt that features Sacre, a seven-footer, and Kelly Olynyk (6’11”). It’ll be interesting to see how Notre Dame’s bigs respond to the beat down they received from Terrence Jones and co.
Tonight’s game is another measuring stick for the Irish and the last non-conference test they will face. Notre Dame learned something about themselves against Kentucky and they are sure to learn a bit more tonight against Gonzaga.