This is one of two pretty big posts for the day, so be sure you also check out the Championship Week post below.
Matt from We Never Graduate sent over a batch of questions for a year-end collaborative post. I'll share a link to his responses when he completes them, but here are mine:
1. There have been multiple nationally televised Big East conference games where the lower bowl of the student section wasn't even close to full. To be perfectly blunt, it seems that the majority of the student body couldn't care less about the basketball team. You're a current student. Is the indifference that comes through on TV--and the message boards--as bad as it seems?
The student support has been up and down this year. Obviously ND never has the kind of support seen at universities where basketball is king, but we typically can get a much better turnout than has been the case in several of the games this year. While there has been an uptick recently (the student section was pretty full for the UCONN game), Sunday afternoon contests against South Florida and St. John's barely drew anyone.
I think the way last season ended and this season began has been the number one factor behind our low student attendance. With the football team struggling and Coach Brey's squad ranked in the top-ten, basketball was king on campus for the first couple of months of the 2008-09 season. The College Gameday experience and subsequent support for the Irish against Connecticut that January was one of the highlights of my basketball watching career. At the time, I felt that the program could carry that momentum and the construction of a new arena into a permanent place amongst the college basketball elite.
Unfortunately, that opportunity was wasted. The UCONN game just became loss number three of a seven game slide and even a huge win over Louisville and deep NIT run were not enough to keep the students interested. The football team may have sucked again this year, but the hiring of Brian Kelly has kept students looking forward to next fall instead of focusing on the present.
With last year's letdown still a recent memory and nonconference losses to Northwestern and Loyola Marymount seemingly dooming the season from the start, it's been hard for anyone to get excited about a bubble program. The recent success has helped turned things around in the students' minds a lot, but it has come too late to display a consistent increase in attendance.
I think much of the internet bashing of students has been a bit unfair. It's a consistent topic for the message boards, but I haven't really addressed it too much on the blog. Yes, student support is too low and we need to see a change in the way the student body views the basketball program. However, there are so many factors involved: hangover from yet another frustrating football season, terrible South Bend weather, cupcake nonconference opponents, the sheer number of home games. Without a good team to watch (a Sweet Sixteen contender), the students just aren't going to put in the effort to follow the program like they do for football. That's not an excuse, it's just a fact we have to deal with.
2. Mike Brey deserves applause for getting Cooley, Scott, and Broghammer to contribute when Harangody went down... but does he deserve equal criticism for not utilizing them more at an earlier point in the season?
Absolutely. As always, this help has been better late than never, but there is no reason why we could not have been playing Scott on a more consistent basis all year and giving Cooley/Broghammer at least five minutes per game. Scott has really come into his own recently and developed into the kind of athletic rebounder that the program has needed for years. His offensive development has been surprising, as he seemed to struggle with the ball at the start of the year, but could have come even sooner with a bit of game experience.
We could have used a big man off the bench all season and there is no excuse for why Coach Brey would have been willing to burn redshirts on two of his freshman bigs in meaningless contests without giving them a chance to spell Harangody in short stretches during the Big East season. Gody's injury forced him to open up the rotation a bit and we were able to see that these guys actually do have a bit of talent.
3. Who is your MVP of the regular season?
That's a really tough one. Harangody was the obvious choice, but the team has improved so much without him that it's hard to stick with the All-American. Scott is most-improved. He has been the most valuable guy during this winning streak and has kept a level head while persevering through a playing time crisis to develop into one of our best players. Abromaitis has come off a redshirt year to score in double digits on all but three occasions. His scoring ability and support on the glass has been much-needed all year. He's been utterly reliable in every game this season and should continue to develop into a star.
But I'll go with Tory Jackson. He scores less than ten points per game, frequently takes ill-advised shots in the lane around much taller defenders, and has seen a sharp decrease in his rebound numbers this season. Yet his contributions to the team have been immeasurable. For two-thirds of the year, he was the only guy who seemed to give a damn about playing D. He will continue to be matched up with the best scorers from our opponents in the postseason and I can't wait to see him challenge some of the best players in the country. On top of everything, he is the heart and soul of the program. He is a passionate leader and bleeds blue and gold. Many will remember his 22 points against UCONN that kept the Irish Tournament hopes alive, but I'll never forget the pure excitement that was in his voice for the postgame speech. The Notre Dame senior class of 2010 boasted a former Big East Player of the Year whose individual accomplishments rank amongst the greatest in Notre Dame and Big East basketball history, but he pales in comparison to what Tory has meant to this program. Harangody will go on to have a very successful pro career, but I can think of few better players to start a team around than Tory Jackson.
4. In your eyes what was the season's biggest disappointment?
Just the overall underperformance we saw for much of the year. Obviously, this team had the talent to perform amongst the league's best, but managed to throw away contests to Northwestern, Loyola Marymount, Cincy, Rutgers, and St. John's. I blame the short bench and the handling of Harangody for much of those problems.
Luke used this season as an extended pro tryout. I don't hold that against him too much, but the coaching staff should have had him riding the pine every time he threw up yet another dumb three pointer. He vacated the paint and destroyed the offensive flow by operating as a shooting guard in a center's body. The rest of the players were more than willing to watch him jack up 20+ shots a game and be our sole rebounding threat on the floor. With him out of the lineup, the ball movement has improved and every guy has been able to play to his ability. Call it the Ewing Theory or whatever you want. Luke Harangody's injury was the best thing that could have happened to our Tournament chances this season.
5. How did this season play out in terms of your preseason expectations?
That's such a tough question. I entered this year thinking we would be better than last season's team. Not the top-ten early season ranking for the program a year ago, but certainly good enough to merit NCAA consideration. Tim Abromaitis has been everything I expected and more. His performance has been such a great improvement over the Hillesland/Ayers fiasco that we should have been two or three games better on that basis alone. On paper, the addition of Abro and Hansbrough replacing McAlarney should have made this team a lock for the NCAAs.
Yet they weren't. Until recently, this team would have been lucky to nail down an NIT bid. Its defensive effort was god-awful for 27 games. The once great star of the program turned into a selfish shell of his former self and Mike Brey was another losing streak away from finding a new job.
The recent success hasn't made me change my mind about this season being a disappointment, indeed I think we should have played like this all year, but there is something endearing about the current squad. Without Harangody, they have been transformed into something we haven't seen on campus in years: a gritty underdog that is willing to fight with anyone and can actually play a little defense when it counts. Sure '07 and '08 were surprises, but this one is different. I have never seen a team completely transform its identity over the course of the year like this. They could very well make a run over the next few weeks and reach a level of success that Mike Brey has only seen once. Or they could completely flame out and lose their next two. Regardless, it's hard to be surprised anymore. This season has been nothing like what I expected.
6. Let's take a small lead of faith and say the Irish sneak in the Big Dance. What's their ceiling when they arrive?
Again, I really need to stop predicting this team's behavior. With the right draw and the current momentum, I could really see them making it to the second weekend. However, this luck could play itself out very quickly. Regardless, it will be interesting watch.
7. Nearly ten years are in the books of the Mike Brey era... do you believe he's the guy who takes Notre Dame to the next level?
No, I really don't. I like Mike Brey a lot as a person and still think he is a very good coach, but my patience finally wore out on him this season. Unfortunately, I have no idea who the right guy could be. Is it Fran McCaffery? I like what he's done at Siena, but it is hard to say definitively that he would be an improvement over Brey. Earlier in the year, I supported a coaching change if only to breath new life into the program. Now however, that would be a much harder sell. There simply is not a Brian Kelly-type coach (or better) available for the hoops program. Any new blood would involve a lot of risk. If Brey continues to make the Big Dance at the current rate, he's going to be retained. I don't think that is the right mentality for the program, but I really don't know if there is anyone out there who can bring about the success we should strive for under the current conditions.
8. What will be your lasting memory of the 09-10 season?
That is still to be determined. I'm glad we didn't do this two weeks ago, because it would have been pretty negative. That still might be the case if the team regresses from its current form. However, if the season ended today I would have two major memories of this year.
First of all, the Loyola Marymount loss now seems like a harbinger of the struggles we saw in Big East play. There was no need for good defense, little intensity all day, and a late-game collapse against a vastly inferior opponent. My proudest moment right now is that UCONN game. It wasn't our best win (that would be against West Virginia way back in January, a game that was seemingly ages ago), but it was one we needed to win. After two big upsets, the team was due for a letdown but somehow pulled out a much needed victory in a low scoring defensive battle. The Marquette game came close to topping it, but there's nothing like getting the W on Senior Night like that with your best player in street clothes.