Harangody emerging as Big East's best big man

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Time after time, Luke Harangody stomped toward the bench press, shoving logic and reason out of his path as he positioned himself below the bar.

With every attempt, the howls in Notre Dame's weight room grew louder. Fighting Irish players huddled around Harangody, playfully prodding their teammate, whose bullishness was wildly entertaining, never mind borderline insane.

Strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski, in an effort to simulate the NBA combine, was recording each player's bench-press repetitions at 185 pounds. Harangody aimed to beat his mark from the previous week, but on his first stab, he finished with the same total.

"He was so mad about it, he went through the rest of the workout and then would go back and try it again and again after he was dead tired," Rolinski recalled of the scene last summer. "We'd keep egging him on, being like, 'Luke, you're not going to beat it. Let's just wait 'til next time.'

"We were in hysterics."

Months later, Harangody admits the display was "just stupid."

"It wasn't logical that I was going to do better," he said, "but I just wanted to try."

Before the season, the notion that Harangody would become the Big East's most dominant big man truly defied logic. He had turned in an efficient freshman year, averaging 11.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in only 20.6 minutes per game, but nothing suggested a supersized jump in production.

Besides, look at the guy. Listed at 6-foot-8 and 251 pounds, Harangody seems more suited for the offensive line than the front line. Those interstate-wide shoulders and that Porterhouse-thick neck could help Notre Dame's woeful rushing attack, but in a sport in which length and agility mean everything, Harangody appears out of place.

This season, however, there's no doubt about where he belongs.

Through Monday's games, Harangody is leading the Big East in scoring (20.2 points per game) and ranks second in rebounds (10.5), and he has propelled No. 17 Notre Dame to a 21-5 mark. He leads the Big East in double-doubles (16) -- recording six straight before a Feb. 17 win at Rutgers -- and has scored in double figures in 24 consecutive games.

Harangody's deceptive athleticism and brute strength have triggered the upsurge, but anyone in the weight room last summer knows the real reason behind it.

"He's wired, man," Irish coach Mike Brey said. "There's a body language of confidence, and he backs it up. It's a perfect storm of athletic ability, unbelievable hands, timing, technique, feel for the game -- and then psyche."

The last trait took the longest time to mold.

Notre Dame's recruitment of Harangody consisted of "convincing him he was good enough" to play in the Big East, Brey said. The beefy power forward remained skeptical even after he arrived on campus in the summer of 2006.

Harangody struggled during nightly open gym sessions, getting "absolutely destroyed" by teammate Rob Kurz in two-on-two games. On the way back to the dorms, Harangody usually called his father, Dave.

"I will never see the court, I will always be a bench player," Dave Harangody remembers his son saying.

"I seriously doubted myself," Luke said.

The doubts dissipated soon after the season started. Harangody scored in double figures in his first five games.

He's wired, man. There's a body language of confidence, and he backs it up. It's a perfect storm of athletic ability, unbelievable hands, timing, technique, feel for the game -- and then psyche.

--Mike Brey on Luke Harangody

After Harangody tallied 17 points and 10 rebounds against Butler in Notre Dame's second game, Brey considered adding the freshman to the starting lineup. But when the coach broached the possibility, Harangody recoiled. So Brey waited until Big East play.

"I never forget the day I said, 'White jerseys are the starters. Luke H., turn it white,'" Brey said. "Colin Falls looked at me, like, 'Where you been, Coach? That should have been like two weeks ago.'"

Harangody started the final 16 games, earning Big East All-Rookie honors. Once unsure that he belonged in the lineup, Harangody now bounds off the bench when he's introduced as a starter at the Joyce Center. ("He gets our whole building confident," Brey said.)

He has also shouldered a greater leadership role this year. After Notre Dame lost to Georgetown on Jan. 19, Harangody saw several freshmen giggling in the locker room and lit into them.

"Psyche-wise, I've made the comparison to [Christian] Laettner, but he plays harder than Laettner," said Brey, an assistant coach at Duke when Laettner played. "[He's] really kind of a throwback guy. He only knows one way to go at it.

"His will is amazingly strong, and he's got his teammates confident because of his will. He's grabbed them and dragged them with him."

When Rolinski wants to rile up Harangody, which isn't hard to do, he points out the sophomore's one weakness.

"He's not the toughest guy in his house," Rolinski said. "His brother Ty will kick his ass."

Separated by just 20 months and one grade level, Luke and his older brother Ty took sibling rivalry to new extremes while growing up in Schererville, Ind.

Their contests began in Luke's bedroom, with a mini-hoop hanging from the door, until they were kicked out for shaking the light fixtures. They moved to the basement, where their father had painted a basketball court, but they soon grew too big to play there. The next stop was the backyard, but that ended badly, too.

"Games would just end in fistfights all the time," Ty said. "We were actually banned from playing in the backyard one-on-one, so we would sneak out to the park and play each other. And it wasn't just basketball, it was football, it was Wiffle Ball in the front driveway."

Bigger and stronger, Ty won most of the battles, but Luke never gave up.

"It was such a big deal if I beat him in anything," Luke said. "I would feel like I won the national championship."

The brothers' athletic paths forked in high school, as Ty followed Dave's lead into football and earned a scholarship to Indiana as a tight end (his career was ended by a torn ACL early in his sophomore season). Luke grew 3 inches as a high school freshman and entrenched himself in basketball.

But the rivalry rarely let up.

"I still look back on that as where most of my competitive nature comes from," Luke said. "To beat him, I'd go all out, all the time."

Harangody gets the question all the time, especially after Notre Dame's flagship sports program dipped to historic lows last fall.

"People are always saying, 'Has Charlie Weis ever talked to you about playing football?'" Harangody said, shaking his head. "They're always surprised that he hasn't come out and asked me to play."

The inquiries, albeit annoying, are understandable for an athlete who, as Rolinski puts it, "looks like a big tight end or a smaller O-lineman." Despite his frame, Harangody never gravitated toward the gridiron.

Weis can be spotted at Irish basketball games, but the coach has made no push for Harangody.

"I will never return that call if he calls," Brey said, smiling. "I'll help him with any plays that he wants, but he can't have Harangody."

Harangody has always considered his size an advantage, but it brings unique challenges. While most college players lose weight during the season, Harangody packed on the freshman 15 last winter.

It caught up with him in the NCAA Tournament. He finished with four points and one rebound, tying a season low, and played just 17 minutes in Notre Dame's first-round loss to Winthrop.

"It was hard to get up and down the court," Harangody said. "I hit that wall and there was nothing I could do to get out of it. I never wanted to feel like that again."

After the game, Harangody met with his parents at a restaurant near the team hotel in Spokane, Wash.

"On the spot, he says, 'I've got to do something,'" Dave Harangody recalled. "He rededicated himself from the minute they lost that game."

Harangody worked with the trainer to change his diet, eating smaller portions and limiting fried foods and carbs. They also increased his regimen of cardiovascular exercise.

The big man still eats pizza and allows himself the occasional indulgence -- after a recent interview in Notre Dame's sports information office, he swiped a Jolly Rancher on his way out -- but he has become much more disciplined.

His body fat has dropped to 8 percent, down from 14 percent at the end of last season. The result is greater durability: Harangody averages 28.8 minutes and has played more than 30 minutes in 13 games after doing so just once last season.

"He just keeps coming," Brey said. "In a lot of ways, the only way you can stop him is foul him."

Harangody's improved stamina and underrated athleticism has paid off in the post, but early in league play he struggled against so-called "true" big men. He shot a season-worst 5-for-23 from the field against Connecticut's 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet and went 3-for-13 against Georgetown's 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert.

He redeemed himself in the Feb. 13 rematch with Thabeet, scoring a career-high 32 points and matching his best with 16 rebounds.

Not bad for a guy who didn't think he'd ever get off the bench at Notre Dame. Harangody is now among the frontrunners for Big East Player of the Year.

"The media have been hyping up that the only thing I can't do is play against a tall guy," Harangody said. "That kind of hurt me personally. After that game … I kind of proved everybody wrong."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football and college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.