Big East Men’s Notebook

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Coach Mike Brey and his Notre Dame Fighting Irish got a taste of what life without Luke Harangody would be like when the senior forward went down with a knee injury late last season. But instead of packing up and waiting for 2010-’11, his team went on to win three of its five games without its senior leader, including wins over ranked Pittsburgh and Georgetown, to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

That confidence has carried over into this season, helping the team to an unexpected 14-4 start. Unranked to begin the season, the Fighting Irish have picked up quality wins over Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Georgetown and Connecticut and have moved into the top 25, being ranked as high as ninth in the nation. Much of that credit can be given to a pair of sharpshooters who have the Fighting Irish aiming for a second straight NCAA Tournament bid.

Senior guards Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis have lit up the scoreboard from beyond the arc and have shot the Fighting Irish into contention in the Big East. Hansbrough, a role player on last year’s tournament team, has taken the leadership reins and backed it up with his play on the court, averaging a team-high 15.8 points, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals, and is shooting 44.1 percent from beyond the arc. Abromaitis has also taken his game to a new level, averaging 15.8 points and a team-high 7.1 rebounds while acting as the do-it-all for the Fighting Irish.

The team will be tested over the next week with home contests against Cincinnati and Marquette, which beat the Fighting Irish last week, before it travels to Pittsburgh on Jan. 24.

Player of the week: Kemba Walker

All it took for Kemba Walker to enter the national spotlight was a three-day span at the Maui Invitational. It was there that the junior shooting guard averaged 30 points per contest and led the Connecticut Huskies to wins over Wichita State, the then-ranked No. 2 Michigan State Spartans and No. 9 Kentucky Wildcats. Unranked before the tournament began, Walker and the Huskies have never looked back since that tournament, compiling a 14-2 record and being ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation.

Walker, an early candidate for National Player of the Year, has taken the Huskies from a potential bubble team to a legitimate threat to make a deep tournament run. With such a young and inexperienced group behind him, Walker’s leadership has been as valuable to his team as anyone in the nation.

Ashton Gibbs

If it weren’t for Walker’s majestic play this season, more people would be talking about the job Ashton Gibbs has done leading the Pittsburgh Panthers. Gibbs has been the definition of efficiency midway through the season, averaging 16.3 points per game while shooting 43.9 percent from the field and 87 percent from the free throw line. He’s also making 44.6 percent of his threes, good for fifth in the Big East.

And it’s not as if Gibbs has been feasting on inferior competition. The junior point guard has saved his best performances for the biggest stages, notching 24 points in a November win over Texas, a 21-point effort to open Big East play against Connecticut, and 22 points in a road win over Georgetown. Pittsburgh began the year with large expectations and, outside of a neutral-site loss at Tennessee, Gibbs and the Panthers have been perfect.