Wednesday November 4th, 2009

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- In the spring of 2001, following Mike Brey's first season as the coach at Notre Dame, Troy Murphy, the team's star junior forward, decided to forego his final season in college and declare himself eligible for the NBA draft. Given how frequently underclassmen leave college hoops for the pros these days, that was not unusual.

It was, however, unusual for Notre Dame. As Brey enters his 10th season in South Bend -- making his the third-longest tenured coach in the Big East behind Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun -- Murphy is still the only player he has lost early to the pros. Two other players in recent years, Chris Thomas and Torrin Francis, put their names into the draft as underclassmen, but both returned to school as seniors.

This past summer, it looked like Brey's streak was about to end. Luke Harangody, the 6-foot-8 forward who during his first three seasons dominated the Big East like few players in league history, faced a decision whether to enter the draft. Usually in those situations, the college coach tries to discourage his star player from leaving, but in this case it was Brey who pushed Harangody to test the professional waters. "I thought the only way he could come back [as a senior] with a great frame of mind was to go through the draft," Brey told me during lunch last week. "He said, 'I'm really torn.' I said, 'Luke, if you feel you need the next challenge, go for it. So you're picked in the second round, you'll still make a team. You won't be letting anyone around here down.' "

Harangody followed Brey's advice, and after going through several workouts for NBA teams, he decided a few hours before the deadline that he was returning to school. Harangody told me he came back to Notre Dame take care of "unfinished business," but he also conceded he did not have much of a choice. Not only would no NBA team guarantee him he would be picked in the first round, he couldn't even get a promise that he would be chosen in the second. Harangody is not the mouthy type, but this reaction did not please him. When Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry told Harangody that the Cavs considered former Louisville forward Earl Clark a better pro prospect, Harangody told him, "I have a f------ problem with that."

When I spoke with Harangody after practice last week, he was still ticked off at the chilly reception he got from the pros. "That's what motivates me," he said. "People are always going to question my height, my athleticism. I know people doubt whether I can take my game to the next level, but a lot of people didn't think I could do it in college, either."

I'm no draft expert, but I will say this: The pro guys are wrong. Harangody hasn't just been a good college player the last three years. He has been an absolutely dominant force while playing for mediocre teams in what is by far the toughest conference in the country. This week, he was the leading vote-getter for the Associated Press' preseason All-America team, which means he's considered to be essentially the best player in America. Anyone who kills it in college like that is going to play for a long time at the next level.

Here's another tidbit about The Gody you should know. He is on pace to finish as the all-time leading scorer and rebounder in the Big East. That is astounding when you think about all the great players who have come through that league. It's hard enough becoming the career leader in one of those categories, let alone both. Harangody also has a chance to eclipse Austin Carr's all-time scoring record at Notre Dame, a mark that has long been thought to be unreachable.

And because Harangody "chose" to return for his senior year, Notre Dame has a fighting chance to return to the NCAA tournament. This may not be the most talented team in the Big East, but it is the most seasoned. The seven players who will play the bulk of the minutes this season are in their third or fourth year of college. The starting perimeter trio of Ben Hansbrough, Tory Jackson and Jonathan Peoples are all 22-year-old seniors. Another starter, Tyrone Nash, is a 6-8 junior power forward who spent a year in prep school before coming to South Bend. Even the two "newcomers," 6-8 forward Tim Abromaitis and 6-7 junior forward Carleton Scott, are 20-year-old redshirt juniors. "What has always helped us in this league is we have older guys," Brey said. "You've got a shot if you have some experience."

Unfortunately, Notre Dame suffered a huge loss when 6-8 junior forward Scott Martin, who sat out last season after transferring from Purdue, tore the ACL in his left knee in early October. Martin would have been the team's number two offensive option after Harangody, and his absence will force Notre Dame to become even more dependent on Hansbrough, a 6-3 transfer from Mississippi State whose game bears no resemblance to his older brother, Tyler's. Ben is purely a perimeter player and natural scorer, although he does brings a little of Psycho T's mettle. Said Brey, "He gives us a third guy who is mentally and physically tough." (The other two are Harangody and senior point guard Jackson.)

Toughness remains the biggest question mark about Notre Dame, especially in the wake of last year's disastrous 21-15 campaign. The Irish began the season 10-2 and were ranked as high as No. 7 in the AP poll, but a hellacious seven-game losing skid in January derailed their season. By the time they rebounded to win six of their last nine regular season games, it was too late to get back into the NCAA tournament. They salvaged some dignity by reaching the semifinals of the NIT, but that only served as a painful reminder of the potential the team had squandered.

Much like the dissing he got from the NBA, The Gody still has a bitter taste from the freefall. "We lost some games, and some guys started to lose their confidence and our identity changed," he said. Both Harangody and Brey thought that the team's lofty early ranking may have given them a false sense of confidence. Maybe it's better for the Irish to come in with such low expectations. They were picked in the Big East preseason poll to finish eighth in the league -- and that was before Martin got hurt.

I certainly didn't expect much when I went to practice last week. Maybe that's why I was so pleasantly surprised by what I saw. Herewith, my breakdown of the Fighting Irish:

Heart and soul: Harangody. Tough choice, right? Brey told me that the biggest reason why The Gody is so fun to coach is that he wasn't highly-ranked coming out of high school. When Harangody was a freshman, he actually turned Brey down at first when the coach said he wanted to promote him to the starting lineup. Brey used to tell Harangody he needed to think of himself as a great player, but it wasn't until midway through his junior year that Harangody adopted a swagger commensurate with his ability. "It was hard to deal with all the attention at first, but I'm over that now," Harangody said. "I've grown up a lot." Get a good look, America. The Gody will leave South Bend as one of the greatest college players ever to lace 'em up.

Most improved: Abromaitis. The 6-8, 235-pound swingman was the biggest revelation of the practice I watched. I knew what Harangody, Jackson and the other vets could do, but as I watched Abromaitis sink one long three-pointer after another, I had to ask assistant coach Anthony Solomon if that was normal for him. "Absolutely," Solomon said. "He's going to be another Matt Carroll." That is high praise, but Brey also told me that Abromaitis, who has put on 17 pounds of muscle since coming to South Bend, was the team's leading rebounder through the first 10 practices. If he gives the Irish that kind of contribution inside and out, they are definitely going to exceed expectations.

X factor: Nash. It was tempting to go with Peoples, who will have to play a lot more minutes because of Martin's injury, but Nash is more able to give the Irish what they need -- a blue collar guy who will defend, rebound and make the extra pass. Nash moved into the starting lineup at the end of last season, which should give him a boost of confidence heading into this year. The question is whether he can adopt the requisite junkyard dog attitude. Brey teases Nash that he listens to too much jazz, figuratively speaking. Basketball is a beautiful game, but Nash needs to help this team win ugly.

Glue guy: Jackson. I have always enjoyed watching Jackson play, which is why I put him on my all-glue team last year. But it wasn't until I watched him practice that I truly appreciated just how good a leader he is. Brey told me that Jackson could run practice, and there were parts of the workout where he did just that. "In 25 years of coaching, I've never had a better voice and energy guy," Brey said.

Lost in the shuffle: Scott. The 6-7 junior is not a bad player, but right now Brey is not in dire need of another swingman who can score from the perimeter. Scott's best hopes to earn playing time would be to be that junkyard dog that Brey needs, but Nash has the inside track for that role.

Bottom line: Maybe I'm overreacting to one practice, but this team was bigger, deeper and more talented than I anticipated. Clearly, the Irish do not have much margin for error, and they certainly cannot afford any more injuries. But they've got the best player in the league, if not the country, and that's not a bad place to start. Notre Dame might have a low ceiling, but it also has a pretty high floor. Write it down: The Gody is going back to the NCAA tournament.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.