No Harangody. No problem. Without former Big East Player of the Year, Luke Harangody, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are off to an impressive 8-0 start. If Norm Peterson left Cheers, would they be 8-0? I highly doubt it. He looks like Norm, that is why I make the analogy. But, Harangody isn’t the only player they lost from a year ago. Sure ‘Gody received all of the attention, but they also lost the services of Tory Jackson, who led them in minutes and assists during his senior campaign.
The loss of so much productivity really does make Notre Dame’s undefeated record surprising. But what many don’t realize is that this is a senior-laden team with a lot of experience. That leadership and experience has allowed them to come together quicker than expected by most.
When you look at experience and this game, you will see two teams that are the exact opposite. For the last two years Kentucky has relied on freshman. Head coach Mike Brey starts five seniors and they all contribute. And right now they are playing the best basketball of their life.
The Irish started their season with four cupcake wins over Georgia Southern, Liberty, Chicago State and Maine. Then they really caught everyone’s attention by finishing 3-0 in the Old Spice Classic in Lake Buena Vista, FL during Thanksgiving. In that tournament they beat Georgia in double overtime, California by 13 and then came from 11 down in the second half to beat Wisconsin and claim the tournament title.
In the past, Notre Dame’s teams have been well-known for their perimeter shooting and their lack of physical defense. This team is different. Sure, they can still shoot it. They are shooting 45-percent from the floor, 36-percent from three and averaging 82 points a game, which ranks 22nd in the country. The difference is that when their shots aren’t falling, they find ways to get to the rim. A year ago, they would have found ‘Gody on the block or kept pulling from deep.
In their win over Georgia, it was their ability to get to the rim that kept them in the game. Shots weren’t falling, so instead of prancing around the perimeter they decided to get into the lane to score easy buckets and get to the line. Their ability to get to the rim against the Bulldogs bodes well for Notre Dame because prior to facing Kentucky, Georgia is probably the quickest team they have faced all season.
Simply put, this team is more physical than Notre Dame teams of the past. That physical play has led to them getting to the free throw line 240 times to their opponents’ 120. It is a lot easier to get to the charity stripe when you get to the rim. That physical play has also led to better overall defense and better positioning in rebounding.
Another strength of this team is their overall balance. They have four players averaging double-figures and six players averaging more than 7.4 points-per-game. Asides from scoring the basketball, all of their players have to ability to handle and rebound.
Senior guard Ben Hansbrough (6-3, 206) is leading the Irish in scoring with 15.8 points-per-game. The former Mississippi State guard has the ability to score inside the arc, but does most of his damage from the perimeter. He is coming off of a junior season that saw him knock down 67 threes, while shooting 41-percent from deep. Through eight games this year the senior has already knocked down 23 deep balls and is shooting a ridiculous 55-percent from beyond the arc.
The Irish lack a ton of size underneath as they play three senior forwards, two of which are 6’7″ and one who is 6’8″. Senior Tim Abromaitis is the best of the bunch and is averaging 15.6 points and 6.9 rebounds. The other two forwards have impressive numbers as well, Tyrone Nash, who was recruited by Tubby Smith while at UK, is averaging 12.5 and 7.0 and Carleton Scott is putting up 11.0 and 7.8.
Another thing that the Irish lack is depth. Only six guys have seen extended minutes and in many games this season Mike Brey has played just seven.
This is pretty much a home game for Kentucky, but what many don’t realize is that this Notre Dame team has more experience of playing at Freedom Hall than the Wildcats do. They have a history playing well at Freedom Hall, but never brought home a victory. It will be interesting to see if that familiarity provides them with a confidence boost.
Coming off of a loss in North Carolina, the Wildcats really need to bring home a victory on Wednesday. Notre Dame’s lack of depth and size underneath should play in Kentucky’s favor and allow Terrence Jones to get things going again. It should also keep UK from getting absolutely dismantled underneath on the defensive end. Two things that really cost them on Saturday.
The Wildcats like to get up and down the court and this should really prove advantageous against a Notre Dame team that has talent, but not a lot of depth. They need to wear down the Irish and force Mike Brey to go to his bench more than he wants to.
Kentucky’s guards also have to do a better job of getting them into their offense. North Carolina denied the weave the entire game which prevented the inexperienced ‘Cats from getting into their dribble-drive. What resulted were shots from the perimeter, which they knocked down, and runners in the lane, which they didn’t.
This is a good Notre Dame team. But, the ‘Cats need an early season win and I think they get one here. It should be a really entertaining game.
Kentucky 77, Notre Dame 71