Checking in with ... Notre Dame
If Notre Dame can get Luke Harangody help in the post, it will go far
The Irish are one of the most adjusted teams to the new three-point line
Harangody spent the summer battling bigger players like OU's Blake Griffin
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The Notre Dame team was gathered in a darkened conference room on Monday afternoon, watching grainy footage of a refereed intrasquad scrimmage from the previous day. While 10 navy- and white-jerseyed players raced up and down the floor, two returning starters, forwards Luke Harangody and Zach Hillesland, could be seen slumped on the bench in the background, nursing injuries. Neither ailment is serious -- Harangody strained a tendon in his right ankle and Hillesland was dealing with plantar fasciitis -- but their absence made the Irish's perimeter nature all the more evident. At one point, coach Mike Brey paused the tape and asked assistant Anthony Solomon how many of the shots taken had been from beyond the arc. "Forty-nine percent," he answered.
Forty-three of 87 shots in that scrimmage had been treys. It may be difficult to find a team less daunted by the new 20-foot, nine-inch three-point line than Notre Dame, which ranked No. 1 among major-conference schools in three-point accuracy last season at 40.5 percent. "With the kind of shooters we have," says two-guard Kyle McAlarney, who hit 44.1 percent of his 245 long-distance attempts as a junior, "we're all pretty comfortable with it."
In the film, McAlarney was routinely launching pull-ups from a good 2-3 steps behind the new line; playing with the international line during the team's August exhibition tour of Ireland, McAlarney hit 10 treys in a game against the Polish national team. (Hillesland says of McAlarney, "As soon as he gets inside halfcourt, he's got the green light.") Fellow shooting guard Ben Hansbrough, who transferred from Mississippi State in the spring and must sit out this season, was firing threes from similar distances; teammates heckled him in the film session for attempting to walk off the floor after drilling a 30-footer. (Brey, also amused, replayed the highlight three times.) One of the few times Brey offered sharp criticism was when Ryan Ayers -- a 45.1 percent three-point shooter last season -- passed up an attempt from the corner. Luke Zeller, a 6-foot-11 forward who shot 38.1 percent last season, was shooting a few threes, and so was point guard Tory Jackson, who was just a 30.2 percent shooter last season.
There are a number of things, gleaned from conversations with Brey and his players, that Notre Dame hopes will happen this season: Most importantly, that Zeller, a perimeter-oriented big man, will help Harangody in the post now that do-everything senior Rob Kurz is gone; that role players such as Hillesland, redshirt freshman Carleton Scott, and sophomores Tyrone Nash and Tim Abromaitis, will help 'Gody rebound; that Jackson, who's fantastic in transition, will look to penetrate even more from their four-out, one-in sets. But those are all still just hopes. The sure things are that they have three-point shooters, and they have 'Gody. And last year, those two things got them quite far, to a 25-8 record and a second-place finish in the Big East.
The tape that Harangody has broken down the most, to date, is not from any scrimmage but rather from the game in which he performed the worst on offense: Notre Dame's 61-41 loss to Washington State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. "That game was killing me," he said. "It was in my head the whole offseason." He had averaged 20.4 points and 10.1 rebounds as a sophomore, and was named the Big East Player of the Year, but shot just 3-of-17 from the field for 10 points against the Cougars, who smothered him with physical double-teams from Robbie Cowgill and Aron Baynes. "I was planting in the post and wrestling around with them, being immature and a little inexperienced," said Harangody.
The remedy? It's not just recognizing the double-team earlier and passing out of it, although 'Gody has worked on finding weakside cutters and open shooters. What Brey has talked the most about with Harangody is movement: "We want to get him out of the post sometimes, having him changing tempos and changing spots where he catches the ball," Brey said, "because he's gotten so much better facing the basket." The first flashes of this came against UConn, on Feb. 13, when in his second meeting with 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet, 'Gody ranged away from the hoop, scoring 32 points on a diet of short jumpers and drives. He had been held to just 14 in his first duel with Thabeet. Against Louisville on Feb. 28, 'Gody used the entire floor -- and hit three three-pointers -- en route to a career-high 40 points.
At the Amare Stoudamire Nike Skills Academy in Phoenix this summer, Harangody had the chance to battle with players much bigger than he can find in a Notre Dame practice -- Pittsburgh's DaJuan Blair, UConn's Jeff Adrien, Oklahoma's Blake Griffin and Arizona's Jordan Hill, to name a few -- and learn a few new post moves that could potentially help him against length. But when Harangody returned, Brey made a point to tell his junior star not to worry about reinventing himself skill-wise. Said 'Gody, "[Brey] told me not to put an emphasis on being robotic, and to just keep doing my thing, because what I do works so much off of feel and instinct."
Harangody's patented "flipper shot" -- his unique equivalent to Tyler Hansbrough's "shot-put" at North Carolina -- was something developed instinctively as a college freshman, after he was roughed up in preseason workouts by taller veterans such as Kurz. In plenty of ways he's expected to be the same old 'Gody, using the flipper and his aggressive spin-moves in the post to put up huge numbers, and attract enough attention down low to keep defenses from keying on the Irish's long-distance shooters.
His duties while injured on Monday, though -- a day on which he was wearing a thrift-store tee that said "#1 BOZO" on the back, befitting his status as team prankster -- were rather limited. The practice that followed the video session served as an open showcase for an estimated 350 season-ticket holders, and its grand finale was a dunking exhibition from a team that's largely incapable of skywalking.
Harangody took a break from sitting on the sideline to toss multiple, off-the-backboard lobs to Jackson, who at 5-10 struggled to throw any of them down. He wasn't the only player clanging slam after slam. After a stretch of five straight misses, a woman sitting in the first few rows of the Joyce Center seats remarked, "So this is why they don't [dunk] that often." Brey walked off the court, laughing, and said, "We're the worst dunking team in America. We can't dunk." When you happen to be perhaps the best three-point shooting team in America -- and you have 'Gody -- being dunk-deficient isn't that big of a problem.