Suddenly, ND Is TreNDy
The Fighting Irish, playing their fourth consecutive game without leading scorer and rebounder Luke Harangody, had their most impressive outing of the season in Saturday's 78-64 win at No. 11 Georgetown. Operating at a pace that those in the nation's capital normally associate with health-care reform legislation, the Irish shot 57.1 percent from the field. They also led the entire second half against a Hoya squad that had been unbeatable at home on Saturdays this winter.
Simply put, Notre Dame needed it more. Wanted it more. And, displaying a vestigial toughness altogether absent from both Irish basketball and football squads in recent memory, the Irish were up to the challenge. Despite the absence of Harangody, the best player to don an Irish uniform this decade, Notre Dame beat a ranked opponent on the road -- for the first time in two years.
For the past three seasons Notre Dame basketball has been Luke Harangody and the Pips. The 6-8 senior has been the team's leading scorer and rebounder since his sophomore year. Harangody's excellence has been both a blessing and a curse, though. Too often his teammates have appeared reluctant to take the initiative as long as he is on the court with them.
Notre Dame was 17-8 when it visited Seton Hall on February 11th. Midway through the second half Harangody went down with a bruised left knee. What followed were three straight losses, the Seton Hall game included, to unranked teams.
On Wednesday a 17-11 Irish team hosted No. 16 Pittsburgh in front of a funereal home crowd in South Bend. Had former coach-turned-terpsichorean analyst Digger Phelps been on hand, the operative music would have been Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself". If the Notre Dame student body was lethargic, at least Harangody's teammates were not. The Irish ripped Pitt by 15 points by playing smart, deliberate basketball and crashing the boards on both ends of the floor. In its past two victories the Irish have shot 45% from beyond the arc (18 of 40) and out-rebounded both Pitt and Georgetown by at least 10 boards.
It was ESPN columnist Bill Simmons who a decade ago coined the term "Ewing Theory" to describe the phenomenon in which a team inexplicably improves after the loss of its star player (in describing how the 1999 New York Knicks advanced to the NBA Finals only after center Patrick Ewing was lost to injury). The 2010 Irish are a classic Ewing Theory squad: a collection of players who, no longer having their star on which to rely, have assumed a responsibility for the team's fortunes that they never otherwise would have.
Suddenly role players such as forward Carleton Scott and guard Ben Hansbrough are playing their best ball of the season. Junior Tim Abromaitis, who had already been perhaps the most improved player in all of college basketball this season (after red-shirting as a sophomore), is averaging more than 22 points per game in Harangody's absence.
Even coach Mike Brey is doing his best job of the season, if not years. Minus the crutch that Harangody provides, he too has had to learn to improvise.
Unlike that other Indiana team that lost its best player -- Robbie Hummel of Purdue -- Notre Dame has the luxury of knowing that Harangody will return. He should be in uniform on Wednesday when Connecticut (17-11), another Big East bubble team making a late-season surge, visits South Bend.
Can the Pips blend their new-found assertiveness with the talent of Harangody, who after all was second in the nation in scoring (24.4 ppg) at the time of his injury? Or will they revert to the back-up singer status that rendered them a squad that was easily susceptible to losses to the likes of Rutgers and St. John's?
In Harangody and Abromaitis, the Irish have had two of the nation's top shooters and scorers all season. They just were not, until this week, a team of winners. If they are able to combine their newly discovered maturity and moxie with Harangody's unique gifts -- and no fewer than two wins in the Big East tourney -- then this is definitely an NCAA tournament team. And an entertaining one at that.