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December 17, 2008

Close call? Get used to it

Tick, tick, tick.

It appears it's only a matter of time before Notre Dame's lack of physicality and firepower up front costs the Irish a basketball game, even at the Joyce Center where they have won 41 straight games.

Notre Dame squeaked out a seven-point victory last Saturday night at home over Boston University. It was much closer than that. In fact, the Terriers led most of the game until the Irish defense clamped down, Ryan Ayers hit a big three-pointer with 1:21 remaining, and the Irish showed improvement at the free-throw line to ice the game.

But the foundation of that 41-game winning streak is crumbling. The Irish were out-rebounded 29-16 in the first half, including 13-4 on the offensive boards. Notre Dame balanced things a bit in the second half by snatching 21 rebounds to Boston's 15 while claiming a 7-4 advantage on the offensive end.

But once again it was Luke Harangody against the world as he grabbed 15 of Notre Dame's 37 rebounds-40.5 percent of the team's caroms.

"(Rebounding is) always a concern," said Irish head coach Mike Brey. "Continually. I got on them at halftime.

"We miss ol' Rob Kurz. It's something we're going to have to come back and address. We were a little better in the second half, which is why we came back and won the game."

Good ol' Rob Kurz averaged 7.1 rebounds per game last year, which isn't a huge number. But he was a facilitator. He made the players around him better. He took some of the burden off of Harangody. He cleared space for others to rebound. He set screens for open looks on three-pointers.

Harangody was the star up front, but Kurz was the glue.

Winning was hard enough when the Irish were claiming a rebounding advantage. The Irish out-rebounded 11 of 18 conference opponents last year, and five of nine at home. Notre Dame won 14 of 18 conference games.

So far this season, the Irish (7-2) have been out-rebounded by Texas, North Carolina, Ohio State and Boston University. The disparity in the Texas game (48-37) is a bit deceiving because the Irish limited Texas to 42.1 percent shooting while hitting 11-of-24 three-pointers of their own.

In the other three games, the Irish simply were beaten on the backboards, and in close games, that will lead to defeat.

"The closest we've come to (rebounding well) was the Texas game, and that's probably because we were scared to death," Brey said. "We were certainly scared by halftime of (the Boston game)."

The days of hammering Big East foes at the Joyce Center appear to be over, at least for this season. Notre Dame's average margin of victory at home in Big East play last year was 9.6 points, including a 13-point victory over West Virginia, a 17-point win over Cincinnati, a 12-point victory over Pittsburgh and a 13-point win over St. John's.

Among upcoming Big East games, the Irish play Georgetown, Connecticut, Louisville and Villanova at home while taking on Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Connecticut on the road.

If the Irish can't rebound against those teams, they'll have difficulty staying above .500 in the conference. Considering the strength of Notre Dame's schedule and the Big East in general, .500 in conference play should be good enough to make the NCAA tournament.

"We're going to be in 20 games like this for the rest of the year," said Brey following the tough victory over Boston. "A lot of guys made big plays for us, so it's probably good to be in one like that. We made big, fearless, winning plays.

"I'm glad we were better from the line at key times. We got the right guys to the line and made some big ones. But the rebounding is going to be a season-long concern."

Any success the Irish have against the more physical and talented teams in the country will be directly tied to Harangody's performance.

"We ran our offense through Harangody consistently, and I thought he was fabulous on when to make a move and when to kick it out," said Brey of Harangody's 23-point, 15-rebound, five-assist, five-block performance against Boston.

"We quick-shot it a little bit in the first half, and it played into their hands. They were a more disciplined and veteran team than us in the first half. In the second half we knew if we didn't do that, we'd lose.

"He's just got to get touches. We've got to play inside-out off of him."

Notre Dame's four other largest players-6-foot-9 Zach Hillesland, 6-foot-11 Luke Zeller, 6-foot-8 Ty Nash and 6-foot-7 Ayers-combined for 26 points and 11 rebounds in 72 minutes of action against Boston.

That's not enough production if the Irish are going to finish among the top teams in the Big East.



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