You may already have your copy of the College Basketball Prospectus 2008-2009. If not, what are you waiting for? The Prospectus contains detailed previews by John Gasaway and Ken Pomeroy on 73 major-conference teams. Buy your copy today. Meantime, here's a free sample of what you'll be getting….
2008: 25-8 (14-4 Big East)
Lost to Washington State 61-41, NCAA Second Round
In-conference offense: 1.11 points per possession (2nd)
In-conference defense: 1.04 points allowed per possession (10th)
What Notre Dame did well: Win more games despite having a weaker defense.
Notre Dame last year had an outstanding offense and a defense that was a tiny bit worse than the Big East average. That translated into the numbers you see above, scoring 1.11 points per trip and allowing 1.04.
Funny thing is, winning 14 of 18 games while outscoring your opponents by 0.07 points per possession is pretty unusual. If Notre Dame were to post the exact same scoring margin again this season they'd be much more likely to find themselves (a still very respectable) 12-6 come March. In terms of posting a won-loss record that's better than your scoring margin, only Kentucky, Penn State, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma were more fortunate in their respective conferences last year. In fact on a possession by possession basis the Irish's performance last year was surprisingly similar to that of the 2007 team:
Notre Dame, 2007 vs. 2008
Conference games only
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)
PPP 1.09 1.11
Opp. PPP 1.01 1.04
EM +0.08 +0.07
Record 11-5 14-4
It's not that last year's team was "lucky," per se. Actually Notre Dame didn't see a lot of crunch time in Big East play: only one overtime game and just two other games decided by three points or less. (Yes, they won all three.) No, it'd be more accurate to say simply that a team that loses four games by five, six, 19, and 26 points is very unlikely to go 14-0 in its other conference games. Go figure, the Irish did just that.
A more interesting question might be what can be done to improve the defense of a team that's been ranked in the top five nationally in some pre-preseason polls. The Irish field goal defense in 2008 was actually pretty good but the bang that ND got for its buck here was minimal, as this team was absolutely besieged by a never-ending barrage of opponents' shots. Possession after possession ended in still another field goal attempt, as Notre Dame's Big East foes committed a turnover on less than 16 percent of their possessions, i.e., "never."
This team is built for offense and, mission accomplished, it excels at scoring points. They can improve on defense, of course, but it might be more realistic to view Notre Dame something like a wayward SEC team that somehow landed in the Big East. The credo here: We'll outscore you tonight, take the win, and worry about the defense later. Purists may scoff but that attitude won Florida a national championship in 2007.
What we learned in 2008: Luke Harangody's a star.
Long before I started watching basketball-I know not when, exactly-it became the custom to refer to a team not simply as, well, the team's name but rather as: "(Star) and the (team)." For instance, I might say simply "Notre Dame," but if you're seeing their game plugged on ESPN you better believe they're going to be "Luke Harangody and Notre Dame."
Rightfully so. Michael Beasley was the only major-conference player in the country last year who played a more prominent role in his team's offense than did Harangody, who alone took about one-third of his team's shots during his minutes on the floor. Notre Dame's single-minded feed-Harangody compulsion on offense is surprising, imbalanced, and extreme. It also works beautifully.
The Irish came within a few baskets of beating out Connecticut for the title of best Big East offense in 2008. It's not that Harangody's another Beasley. Far from it: Beasley was vastly more efficient on offense last year while being even better than Harangody on the defensive glass. It's just that by assuming a role of Beasley-esque proportions (Mike Brey's workhorse attempted 509 two-point shots last year), Harangody allows talented teammates the luxury of functioning as ruthlessly efficient supporting players.
Take away Harangody and 45 percent of Notre Dame's attempts from the field last year were threes. If you'll forgive the paradox, this is a perimeter-oriented team with a non-perimeter star absorbing the lion's share of the possessions. Basically Harangody plus good three-point shooters equals a very tough challenge for any opposing defense-unless you happen to be Washington State, of course. The Cougars ambushed the fast-paced Irish with a 60-possession half-court quarantine. It worked. Big East take note.
What's in store for 2009: You'll note a decided lack of newcomers in the player descriptions below. Brey is riding this generational wave even as he uses an impending mass exodus of seniors as bait, landing transfers like Purdue's Scott Martin and Mississippi State's Ben Hansbrough, both of whom will be eligible next year. That being said, the recruiting class that Brey signs this year is, obviously, huge for the future of Notre Dame basketball. I mean, just look at all these upperclassmen….
Meet the Fighting Irish:
Luke Harangody (6-8, 250, Jr.). See above for my thoughts on Harangody's epochal importance on offense. As for the other side of the ball, Brey says he wants more from Harangody defensively. I know it's good motivation and standard practice for a coach to harp on the defensive shortcomings of their reigning conference POY and, granted, Harangody's no Hasheem Thabeet on D. Still, there are plenty of coaches who would love to have a player that rebounds 24 percent of opponents' misses. Note to Brey: Harangody was second only to Kentrell Gransberry last year among Big East players when it came to defensive rebounding. He was better on the defensive glass than Thabeet, Earl Clark, Roy Hibbert, Jeff Adrien, or DeJuan Blair. Your man Harangody may not look like the classic post defender but he is in fact exceptionally effective at ending opponents' possessions. Give credit where due.
Kyle McAlarney (6-0, 195, Sr.). As detailed above, no one on this team shoots anywhere near as often as Harangody. But among the non-Harangodys no one shoots more than McAlarney, a spot-up shooter who's pretty hapless inside the arc but made no less 44 percent of his frequent threes last year. McAlarney thus belongs to that tiny and quixotic fraternity of players who actually shoot a higher percentage on their threes than on their twos. (For more on this rather odd group, see also "Collison, Darren," and "Paulus, Greg.") The senior from Staten Island is additionally a surprisingly good passer for a three-point master.
Tory Jackson (5-11, 195, Jr.). Jackson's an outstanding creator of assists but he, alone among the starters, gives the ball away too often. Also note that he rarely shoots and that's a wise choice. Jackson's value on defense, however, is considerable: he records steals. If he didn't it's conceivable that Notre Dame could have set a record last year for fewest opponent turnovers.
Ryan Ayers (6-7, 210, Sr.). Did I mention this team can make threes? Though he shoots even less than Jackson, Ayers was even more deadly from outside than McAlarney last year, hitting 45 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
Zach Hillesland (6-9, 235, Sr.). Hillesland is the only returning player not named "Harangody" who hauls in defensive rebounds. If he can merely fill the shoes of the now departed Rob Kurz on the defensive glass Hillesland will be making a big contribution to this team. He struggles a bit with turnovers but then again he has a weirdly high assist rate for a guy listed at 6-9 and 235.
Luke Zeller (6-10, 240, Sr.). Fated from this year forward to be known as the older brother of North Carolina freshman Tyler Zeller, Luke Zeller shot almost twice as many threes as twos last year and made 38 percent of his shots from three-point land.
Jonathan Peoples (6-3, 215, Jr.). Part of Brey's regular rotation, Peoples gives the guards a respite and appeared in all 33 games last year.
Prospectus says: Mike Brey is fast becoming the Rick Barnes of the Big East: year after year his teams score points in a highly efficient manner. Make no mistake, it's going to be tough for opponents to end Notre Dame's 37-game home winning streak. Then again it's going to be tough for ND to duplicate last year's 14-4 record in this year's incredibly deep Big East. I think the best-case for the Irish in 2009 is an offense that's even a little better than it was 2008 (no small feat that) and a defense that allows about a point per trip. That would be one very good team-maybe not the national title contender some have claimed to see here, but a very good team nonetheless, the best such seen in South Bend in a long while.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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