It's a wonder Notre Dame's Kyle McAlarney doesn't have a neck cramp. Since the media arrived in Denver this Tuesday, the 6-foot-4 junior guard has been asked repeatedly to look forward: What are your impressions of Washington State's point guard? How far do you expect to go in the tournament? And then, of course, backward: What was it like having to watch last year's tournament? Was there ever a thought that you weren't going to come back?
It's not the questions that bother McAlarney. He's open about being arrested last season for marijuana possession. He even says talking about it is "like therapy." But reading about his mistake after every game? Feeling like no matter what he accomplishes, a bad decision he made as a 19-year-old sophomore will always follow him? That's another story.
"Whenever I see my name mentioned in the newspaper, they don't say it in bad ways, but its still there," he says, sitting on a couch in the lobby of the team's hotel in Denver. "It's like, Kyle McAlarney -- comma -- who was suspended last year for marijuana possession."
The incident goes something like this -- a bag of pot in the back of a car, a routine traffic stop, a stunned McAlarney spending a night in jail waiting for a family friend to bail him out. But making the call for bail money wasn't the toughest dial. That would be saved for Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, whose phone rang at 7:30 that morning.
"I said, 'I've got to talk to you about something. I got in a little trouble last night'" says McAlarney. "He was great about it because he just right away kind of took me aside and said, 'What can we do to take care of this situation and move on?'"
But the worst was still to come. He was immediately suspended from the team, and after McAlarney spent six weeks sitting on the bench in street clothes, he found out he was also suspended from school. The call came 15 minutes before he was supposed to leave for New York City with his teammates for a game against St. John's. Instead, he was told to pack his things and drive himself home.
"When Kyle left, it was a blow to our team," says forward Zach Hillesland. "We played St. John's next, and our hearts were with him."
A year later and his most successful regular season behind him, McAlarney says he's moved on. But when asked whether or not he thinks he was treated unfairly, he sits upright, the words calmly and confidently rolling out of his mouth in a thick Staten-Island accent.
"I feel like to this day it was definitely blown out of proportion," he says. "You can look today; there are plenty of other college basketball players around the country that do worse things than I did. I'm not going to cite specific ones but there are certainly players in the Big East that have done worse things than what I did and they never get mentioned."
McAlarney's mother, Janice, says her son has been the victim of a double standard.
"[Pittsburgh's] Levance Fields, he got arrested, and we don't hear anything about that," she says. "Don't get me wrong, I like him. Kyle grew up with him and they played each other locally. But how come we don't hear about anybody else? We just hear that Levance did great in the tournament but we don't hear about Levance being arrested this summer."
Fields, a 5-foot-10 junior guard who scored 23 points in the Panthers' 82-63 win over Oral Roberts on Thursday, was arrested in September after he reportedly struck a police officer in the chest and grabbed at another officer's weapon. He was shot with a taser by one of the policemen, and was charged with aggravated assault, disarming a law enforcement officer, disorderly conduct and public drunkenness.
Janice didn't initially want Kyle to return to Notre Dame. The Thursday after the St. John's game last year, when Brey arrived at the McAlarney's home wanting to talk, Janice didn't want to see him. After spending weeks being convinced things were fine, and then to be unexpectedly told that McAlarney was no longer welcome at Notre Dame, she felt like the administration and even the athletic department had abandoned her son.
"When Coach Brey came, I wasn't ready for any line of bull. I was done," says Janice, a hospital manager. "Kyle will tell you I wanted him to move on. It had nothing to do with Kyle playing for this wonderful man, Coach Brey, who treats my son like his own son. But I was so angry at the whole process."
Kyle felt differently. After not sleeping much that night, he woke his parents up at six the following morning to tell them he was going back. And now, a year after Notre Dame lost in the first round to Winthrop, the Fighting Irish are looking to advance far in the tournament with the full team in tow.
"It feels good to show everyone that maybe thought I wasn't going to be anything or just kind of looked down on me, it really shows people what kind of character I have and what kind of person I am," McAlarney says.
The emotions are mixed for Janice, who wears her son's jersey and plans on being in the stands as long as Notre Dame is in the tournament. On one hand, she's grateful for everyone who has welcomed her son back into the program, and she feels at home waving the Irish flag. On the other, she hasn't completely forgotten last year, about what it was like to watch her son suffer through anxiety, what it was like to feel abandoned by the school that her family had been so thrilled to be a part of.
"What I've got to tell everybody out there is that what was represented last year was not the real Notre Dame," Janice says. "I hated Notre Dame last year. My husband and I threw everything out in our house that had a Notre Dame flag on it."
But hearing Kyle's name announced over the loudspeakers at the Pepsi Center this week and watching him score 15 points against George Mason was enough for Janice to know that the journey has been worth it. And for McAlarney himself, the tournament is sweet redemption for the time he spent on the couch last year, thinking about whether or not things would have turned out differently if he had been there to help his team.
"To be where I am now, a year, you can come a long way in a year," McAlarney says. "At this point last year I was depressed, I was, you know, it was one of the toughest times I've been through in my whole life."
"When he was taken away from us, a piece of us was missing," says assistant coach Gene Cross. "Getting that piece back made us whole again. Not that we weren't whole last year, but something was missing. He is such a good kid, and he's such a big part of this team, it did hurt us last year when we lost him. Not to mention that he makes a bunch of threes."
His own experiences aside, McAlarney has been given some additional perspective from his friend Michael Mastrangelo, who is currently home on leave for 18 days before going back to Afghanistan to serve as a combat medic. Kyle wears the dog tags Mastrangelo gave him whenever he's not playing, and says that his close friend has been just the dose of reality he needed this year to get back on track. They spoke over the phone Thursday before Notre Dame's win against George Mason, and McAlarney says he'll be in touch throughout the tournament.
"When your best friend is over there risking his life, it's really humbling," McAlarney said. "I mean here, I can not play well but make it up in the next game. He can't do that. He only gets one shot."
Although the term "survival" -- as in, survive and advance -- doesn't mean quite the same thing in the Big Dance as it does at war, McAlarney and his teammates have to take each game in the tournament as though it's their one shot as well. After being bounced out in the first round last year, there's some redemption to be had not just for McAlarney personally, but for an entire Notre Dame team that has perhaps been overlooked all season.
"As a whole, we really like to play when we have something to prove," McAlarney says. "Preseason polls, nobody had us picked. I think we'll still feel like we're not getting the credit we deserve and that's a good thing. It'll keep us focused; it'll keep us striving to win. That's the way we play -- with a chip on our shoulder -- and it runs throughout the whole team."