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August 5, 2008Zach Hillesland could be sitting at home, relaxing, doing nothing. But that wouldn't be any fun.
"This is my life at this point," said Hillesland, one of several senior leaders on the 2008-09 Notre Dame men's basketball team that will get an early jump on the season with a 14-day excursion to Ireland beginning Aug. 12.
"This is what I like to do. This is how I've set up my life-playing basketball and being around my best friends.
"Yeah, I could be at home. But I'd just be sitting around."
The Irish love the idea of getting an early jump on a season that could find them ranked as high as the Top 5-10 when the first poll of the season comes out. That's a far cry from the last two years when Notre Dame couldn't even make it into the top half of the Big East in the pre-season projections.
"I was home this weekend and my mom records all the games, so I was watching a couple of those and I was getting antsy," Hillesland said. "I guess it was a good time to watch some of those games because I was eager to get back on the court.
"I think everyone is excited, especially with the kind of year we had last year and then ending with a disappointing finish against Washington State. This is a great opportunity for us to get back out there and compete again."
With a veteran crew on hand, the Irish hit the ground running Monday night during the first practice session.
"We don't have any freshmen to introduce to our offensive system and our defensive philosophy, so this is really going to help us to get off to a quick start," said guard Kyle McAlarney.
"We're buying into that philosophy that no one else in the country gets to do this except us. We're going to take this seriously and use it to our advantage."
Luke Harangody, the reigning Big East player of the year, was already having withdrawals from his teammates when he slipped away for a few days upon the conclusion of summer school last week.
"It feels like I've been away from these guys forever," Harangody smiled. "I just want to see how hungry we are. I can already tell from the pickup (games) that we're flowing well as a team."
Harangody has been working diligently at improving his game, just as he did a year ago when he made strides with his left hand dribble drive and expanded his shooting range. This summer, it's been more of the same, working on his left hand, his mid-range shot and his defense. Now it's time to apply it against some competition.
"We feel kind of special as the only team in the country that is in here right now," Harangody said. "We get a full 10 days of practice. We're going to gel, we're going to work on things with the coaches...we're getting a head start."
Although the Irish will spend very little time scouting their opponents-an all-star team and teams representing Ireland, Poland and Iceland-this is a first step toward what they hope to be a truly special 2008-09 season.
"We don't take this like we're playing for a national championship," said junior guard Tory Jackson. "Then again it's competition. We want to go over there and treat this like they're a Georgetown or a Syracuse or one of the powerhouses in our conference.
"If we let up, that's when a lot of teams get knocked down. We want to have the mentality like it's March. We want to get that championship mentality going."
It was difficult to figure out Monday who was more excited: the players or head coach Mike Brey.
"I am fired up!" Brey declared. "I'm energized because usually at this time of the year, you're in just the recruiting mode. To get to work with your team in August, especially this group of veterans, I think it's going to energize our whole staff.
"You can experiment with things. You get to look at the younger guys who have not gotten much of a look in our program. It gives us some material to discuss in pre-season meetings.
"You want to use this time as an advantage, but you have to pace yourself through it because our season is so long. But at the end of the day, it will be a positive."