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February 2, 2009

Monday tip: Should Irish be worried about NCAAs?

We're at the halfway point of the conference season in the Big East, and Notre Dame a team that was in the top 10 early in the season and looked as if it was a legitimate threat to win the league is struggling. The Irish are 12-8 overall and 3-6 in the league, thanks to a five-game losing streak. They have seen their RPI plummet to 77th through play Saturday.

The Irish have one of the best players in the nation in junior big man Luke Harangody, but sharpshooter Kyle McAlarney is struggling. So, does coach Mike Brey have reason to worry about his team making the field of 65?

We put the question to some of our basketball writers.

MIKE HUGUENIN: No

Well, I'm saying "no" with a caveat. The Irish likely are biting their nails now; they won't go into full-fledged hand-wringing mode unless their current five-game losing streak reaches seven.

I think the Irish have legit hopes for an NCAA berth if they can finish 8-10 in the Big East and they have the talent to finish at least 8-10. It might be harsh to focus the spotlight on one guy, but in this case, it's vital that Kyle McAlarney start making his 3-pointers. The Irish are not a good defensive team; therefore, they have to win shootouts and unless McAlarney is hitting his 3s, they don't have the firepower to win shootouts.

Big man Luke Harangody is going to get his points. But the rest of the Irish other than McAlarney are role players; you can count on one of them to get into double figures each game, but you cannot consistently rely on any of them offensively.

That's where McAlarney comes in. He has to be at least the No. 2 option in each game, or the Irish are going to suffer. McAlarney, a pure shooter, is shooting poorly of late. Those guys sometimes lose their stroke, but the key is they usually don't lose it for long. McAlarney eventually will start making his outside shots and the Irish will turn it around. Plus, there are enough big games left on the schedule for the Irish to improve their RPI. That's the double-edged sword in the Big East: The league is extremely deep, but it also offers numerous opportunities for "big" wins.

JASON KING: Yes

Notre Dame definitely should be worried very worried about making the NCAA tournament, and that's a shame considering this team's talent and experience. At the Maui Invitational two months ago, the Fighting Irish looked capable of making the Final Four. Now they've lost their swagger, and who knows if they'll get it back.

One of the biggest problems for Notre Dame lately once was one of its biggest strengths. Kyle McAlarney who I still maintain is the top 3-point shooter in the country is mired in a funk he can't shake. In his past three games, McAlarney is just 7-for-23 from beyond the arc. In a 69-61 loss to Connecticut on Jan. 24, he was just 3-for-15 from the floor overall. A few more makes and the Fighting Irish would've won that game and we might not be having this discussion.

Still, placing the blame entirely on McAlarney's shoulders would be a mistake. Much like Kentucky, which relies on Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks, Notre Dame often seems like a two-man team with McAlarney and Luke Harangody. Other players need to step up. Tory Jackson is an extremely talented point guard. Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller have loads of talent and length. Senior Zach Hillesland gave a quality Texas team fits during a win in November. Those players have shown flashes, but none consistently.

As bad as things have been for the Fighting Irish, they could get worse. The upcoming stretch sees Notre Dame hit the road for games at Cincinnati and UCLA. Then it's back home for a Feb. 12 showdown with Louisville. A month ago that may have seemed like a big game between two of the best teams in the Big East. Now it looks as if it'll be Louisville vs. a squad on the NCAA bubble. And that may be putting it nicely.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.
Jason King is a college basketball writer for Rivals.com and Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.



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