The Irish rotation was a little too inexperienced and a little too cold to deal with the Syracuse 2-3 zone, and they were handled by the Orange, 63-47 . Jim Boeheim's squad took Jack Cooley away, Notre Dame was embarrassingly careless with the ball, outside shots didn't fall, free throws were missed and things were generally very ugly for long stretches on offense. On defense? The Irish managed to let a struggling Cuse half-court attack get whatever they wanted for most of the night, and their season-long tendency to give up offensive boards and transition points at the worst possible time continued.
Syracuse has won 36 games in a row at home and is a very good team, so this isn't a terrible loss, but it was another in a long string of less-than-thrilling performances. This team can easily rip off double-digit runs, but they have so far been incapable of sustained excellence. Is that because of the lack of backcourt depth? Or perhaps the increasingly heavy minutes given to freshmen? The likely answer is some combination of those two and a few other factors, but other than a few spurts of beautiful hoops, the truth is this: this team is maddening to watch at best.
Part of the problem is that the last three seasons have seen very distinct narratives featuring entertaining teams, while I still have no idea what this team is. Consider:
2010: Luke Harangody goes down and the obituaries are written for a team that was already looking like a longshot to make the tournament. Instead of giving up, Tory and the Miracles rip off a series of increasingly improbable conference wins and end up a just-missed three away from the Big East title game.
2011: From the Old Spice Classic on, this team is a dash of depth and a few pinches of athleticism from being an ideal college basketball team, with ball-handlers, shooters and a tag team of skilled length down low. Ben Hansbrough wins Big East Player of the Year and the team spends most of the winter and spring in the top ten, playing beautiful basketball. The Cincinnati game in the Big East tourney goes onto a DVD as a how-to on team play.
2012: With most of the principles from the 2011 team moving on, an inexperienced bunch spends the non-conference season getting beat down, including sustaining a season-ending injury to their best player, Tim Abromaitis. Instead of just serving as a rebuilding year, the team competes for a Big East title and knocks off previously undefeated Syracuse in a rollicking game at the Joyce Center.
This is a team with preseason expectations that played a non-conference schedule where we learned very little about the team. They lost a returning starter to injury, have a couple of talented freshmen and...what?
Thankfully we have the rest of the season to see if this team is going to be more than a one-and-done March entry that serves solely as a training ground for the key pieces of next year's squad. Starting with Louisville on Saturday night, there are plenty of chances for big wins the rest of the way that could make this season as memorable as the last three. Mike Brey is a good coach. There are talented players. We will see.
A few more thoughts:
- Very cool to see the whole Grant family in attendance as the two brothers squared off. Between this and the Harbaugh Bowl, I think we need to take a few weeks off from fraternal sporting battles.
- Great to see Zach Auguste off the bench so early. His defensive rotations need a lot of work, but his size and athleticism are something the program hasn't seen in a long time. I'm not sure how effective it was to have him as the high-post man against a 2-3 zone, as that's generally reserved for your best passing and mid-range shooting big. A few of the turnovers simply came from Auguste and Cam Biedscheid not being prepared for the length or speed of the zone. They'll learn, but they have to be put in position to succeed.
- Pat Connaughton loves reverse layups, and I enjoy watching him make them.
- They didn't have an effect on the outcome of the game, but the officials were embarrassingly bad. Heck, the announce team was openly laughing at them for most of the second half. It's almost cliché to complain about refs, but you've got to be better than that.
- Tough evening shooting for Tom Knight, who usually is more proficient at knocking down the mid-range J. He had yet another monster block, as he takes advantage of the increased minutes on both ends of the floor.
- This team is very inconsistent at finishing around the rim, both in the half court and on the break. A lot of times it seems like players get caught between looking for another pass and shooting, resulting in a fumbled ball in the lane or a kickstart to a break the other direction. Not ideal.
- I'm going to write a 3,000-word essay on Jerian Grant at some point. I am fascinated by his decision making, which I think falls somewhere between "mad scientist" and "roulette wheel." Someone hold me to this, it's coming.
- And finally, there are few things more enjoyable in sports - nay, life - than the Sean McDonough/Jay Bilas/Bill Raftery combination. The ridiculous basketball knowledge, the alcohol references, the one-liners, the brutal honesty? It all combines to make the game watch experience enjoyable, even when your favorite team is playing like crap. "Drink with Bill Raftery" is pretty high on my bucket list. What a guy.