Notre Dame's 2008/2009 Men's Basketball Season: A Review
As the game clock in Madison Square Garden reached 0:00, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team was noticeably upset about their performance against the Penn State Nittany Lions. The Fighting Irish only managed to score 18 points in the first half, which ties the low first half total under Coach Brey.
Even though the Irish pulled within three points late in the second half, the performances of Penn State’s Talor Battle and Andrew Jones were too much to overcome.
This is an all too familiar storyline for the Irish faithful this season, and it is certainly safe to say that the Notre Dame men’s basketball season was nothing but a disappointment.
The Irish came into the season with high expectations. Junior Luke Harangody was a first team preseason All-American and the Irish were top 10 in pretty much every preseason poll.
Out of Conference
Out of Conference
Yes, all Notre Dame players and fans knew that the Big East schedule would be brutal, but that does not mean that a team should schedule an absolutely horrible non-conference schedule.
Overall, the Irish went 7-2 in non-conference games that were not part of a tournament. In these games, Notre Dame averaged approximately 80 points, but the average season ending RPI for these teams was 223 (Real Time RPI), and the seven wins came against teams with an average RPI of 277.
When you play games against teams that are at the bottom 20 percent of Division I, how do you expect to be able to perform well against the Big East, who finished with five teams in the top 15 of the final RPI and three NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds?
While it would not be practical to go out and play only top 100 teams, it would be nice to at least see a lot more non-conference opponents around the 150 RPI mark.
EA Sports Maui Invitational
EA Sports Maui Invitational
The Fighting Irish did get some better non-conference games in the Maui Invitational, but I give more credit to the tournament committee for putting together a good tournament field than to the ND athletic department.
The Irish had a nice start in the Maui, beating in-state rival Indiana 88-50 behind Tory Jackson’s 21 points. Then No. 8 Notre Dame faced the No. 6 Texas Longhorns in what may have been the Irish’s best game all season. Harangody put up 29 points and grabbed 13 boards, while McAlarney put up 19, including five three-pointers.
While Texas’s AJ Abrams managed 23 points, the Irish’s post defense held big man Connor Atchley to only seven points. After beating Texas, the Irish had an opportunity to face North Carolina in a game that would ultimately expose the Irish’s slow and lackluster defense.
Harangody was a bit under the weather for this game, but UNC’s Hansbrough exploded with 34 points. In addition, speedy senior guard Ty Lawson ran circles around the Irish defense on his way to 22 points and 11 assists.
Kyle McAlarney did have a phenomenal offensive day against the Tar Heels, finishing with 39 points, including 10 three-pointers, but it was not enough to stop UNC, who defeated the Irish 102-87.
It was Notre Dame’s difficulty against quick and polished guards in the UNC game that really started to make some Irish fans a bit uneasy about the upcoming Big East season.
Big East Play
Big East Play
Notre Dame opened the Big East season against some of the weaker teams in the conference in DePaul, St. John’s, Georgetown, and Seton Hall. During this four-game stretch the Irish went 3-1, with a lone disappointing loss to St. John’s on the road.
Harangody scored 26, 28, 31, and 30 points across these first four conference games, and the Fighting Irish extended their home winning streak to 45 games. Unfortunately, this point marks the quick fall of the Irish from one of the conference’s elite teams to one of the conference’s worst.
The Irish would go on to drop the next six conference games, of which three were against eventual NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds. In these six games, Harangody continued to get his 25 plus points and 15 plus rebounds, but the other role players started to struggle.
In the games versus Connecticut, Marquette, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, McAlarney only managed to score nine, nine, 10, and 13 points respectively. When you are playing games against top 10 caliber teams, you cannot afford to have your three-point shooters go cold.
After this horrendous stretch, the vast majority of Irish fans started to question Notre Dame’s chances of making the NCAA tournament after starting the season ranked in the top 10, but the Irish once again gave the fans hope when they came out against No. 5 Louisville and beat them 90-57 in South Bend.
Harangody put up 32 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, McAlarney added 21, and Ryan Ayers had one of his better games of the season with 19 points. The Irish team as a whole was 54 percent from the floor, the best any team had done against Louisville all season.
Unfortunately, the excitement was short lived. While the Irish did beat South Florida three days later, they dropped a very important game against West Virginia in Morgantown 79-68.
At this point, most Irish fans realized that Notre Dame was going to be out of the NCAA tournament unless they could manage to beat either Connecticut or Villanova, but the Irish ended up dropping both of these games, ending Big East play with an 8-10 record.
The Irish won their first Big East tournament game against Rutgers, but then lost to West Virginia for the second time this season to officially end their hunt for a conference tournament championship.
While the team was certainly disappointed they did not end up in the NCAA tournament this season, they were still excited to be playing in the postseason. The Irish were awarded a No. 2 seed in the National Invitational Tournament.
The early rounds of the NIT are played at on-campus gyms, so some Irish fans were excited about the opportunity to see the Irish play at home a few more times. ND started NIT play against the University of Alabama-Birmingham, whose current coach is ex-Indiana coach Mike Davis.
UAB is a fast paced and very physical opponent led by future NBA player Robert Vaden. This game was very close, and both teams played with a lot of heart and passion.
About mid-way through the first half, the Irish went on an important 10-0 run to pull ahead of the Blazers. The Irish managed to hold on to their lead and won their first round game 70-64.
In the second round, the Irish faced the New Mexico Lobos of the Mountain West Conference. UNM also has an Indiana connection, as their coach Steve Alford played for the Hoosiers during their heyday.
The Irish were up 34-24 at halftime, but the Lobos opened up the second half with a 21-9 run. After this point, the game was back and forth, with UNM taking a six-point lead at one point. This game was tied 68-68 with seven seconds remaining on the clock when Irish guard Tory Jackson went coast-to-coast to put the Irish ahead 70-68 in what was probably the most exciting play of the Notre Dame basketball season.
Since four seed Kentucky upset one seed Creighton, the Irish hosted Kentucky in South Bend for the final round of on-campus NIT games. The Wildcat faithful turned out in full force, and almost outnumbered the Irish fans. Fortunately, the vocal student body worked hard to ensure the Irish would still enjoy a home court atmosphere.
The key to an Irish victory against Kentucky was containing Jodie Meeks, who has been putting up big numbers all season for the Wildcats. Until the final 12 minutes of the game, Meeks only had three points, but he started draining three-pointers to pull the Wildcats within five points with 2:42 left to play.
Fortunately, the Irish managed to hold on and earn their spot at Madison Square Garden for the NIT final four with a 77-67 victory in what was Billy Gillispie’s last game as Kentucky head coach.
In the NIT semifinals, the Irish looked like they did during their 0-7 midseason streak. Though the Irish made a late push in the second half, they could not ultimately overcome their dismal 18-point first half in a 67-59 loss to Penn State.
A lot of Notre Dame’s success next season will depend on whether Luke Harangody decides to declare for the NBA draft or not. In my opinion, he really needs to work on his speed, agility, and shooting fundamentals before heading to the NBA. He could gain a lot by going to a few camps this summer and returning to the Irish next season. In my opinion, this is what the starting lineup will look like for the Fighting Irish next year.
G Tory Jackson 5’11”
G Ben Hansbrough 6’3”
G Jonathan Peoples 6’3”
F Tyrone Nash 6’8”
F Luke Harangody 6’8”
The lineup is quite small, but if Harangody can add some speed and agility this season, they can play an up-tempo and physical offense that would be somewhat similar to what Marquette played this season.
I would expect the Irish to struggle to make the NCAA tournament again next season with the departure of several seniors who were key contributors to the Irish this season, but look for several younger players to get some good playing time and experience.
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