Tipping Off The Big East Countdown: #3 Notre DamePosted by mlemaire on November 10th, 2012
Expectations; it’s something that coach Mike Brey and Notre Dame aren’t used to. Last season the Fighting Irish were pegged to finish ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll and they went on to win 13 conference games and make it to the Third Round of the NCAA Tournament. But this season, thanks to the return of nearly every meaningful contributor from last season’s team and the addition of a few precocious freshmen, expectations are high and the Fighting Irish are expected to contend with Louisville, Syracuse, and Cincinnati for the Big East crown. Brey and his squad won’t be able to play the role of underdog anymore, but they won’t have to either as they finally have the talent and the depth to compete with any team in the conference. If they can tighten up their defense, develop more interior depth, and become more efficient offensively, this team will be one of the best in the country. But if they struggle to defend and the offense becomes stagnant, we could be looking at just the latest in a long run of Notre Dame teams to flame out on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
2011-12 Record: 22-12, 13-5
2011-12 Postseason: NCAA Tournament Round of 64, lost to Xavier 67-63.
Schedule: Last season the Fighting Irish played the 236th-most difficult non-conference schedule and so this season, the program added a few challenges while also keeping most of the creampuffs as well. The biggest match-up will be against No. 3 Kentucky in the SEC/Big East Challenge at the end of November, but St. Joseph’s is their first opponent in the CvC Classic Championship and while they aren’t ranked, they favorite to win the Atlantic 10. And Purdue under Matt Painter won’t be an easy game either.
Other than those three tilts, the Fighting Irish’s schedule is littered with opponents like Monmouth, Saint Francis (PA) and Kennesaw State. And they won’t play a true road game until they travel to Cincinnati in January. The conference schedule doesn’t have too many worth noting, but a five-game stretch at Pittsburgh, against Cincinnati, at Marquette, against St. John’s, and at Louisville to end the season will be daunting and crucial if the Fighting Irish find themselves on the bubble.
Who’s out: If we are being technical, the Fighting Irish lost two players of note. The first is long-range specialist Alex Dragicevich, who transferred out of the program after averaging 6.6 points per game and shooting 34.2 percent from downtown. The Fighting Irish would probably welcome his marksmanship but he shot just 39.2 percent from the field last season and it may be a blessing in disguise to get rid of his streaky and occasionally ill-advised shooting. The other departure was one of the best players in program history, Tim Abromaitis. If Abromaitis had been granted a sixth year of eligibility, Notre Dame might be considered a top-10 team in the country, but they played almost the entirety of last season without him so they should be used to playing without his abilities anyway. Other than those two, Notre Dame returns basically everyone of note, which is a big reason why expectations are so high this season in South Bend.
Who’s In: Brey is not known for his ability to recruit top-flight talent, but he brought in some exciting new players this season. St. Louis native Cameron Biedscheid was a top-30 recruit coming out of high school and will use his athleticism, length, and versatility to contribute on both ends of the floor. Massachusetts native Zach Auguste gives the Fighting Irish another big, skilled body in the paint and will make his presence felt on the defensive end and on the glass. The other notable newbie is Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman who, like Auguste, will serve as frontcourt depth and a solid interior defensive player. Sherman made 29 starts for the Spartans as a sophomore and averaged just 2.5 points and 2.1 rebounds per game. He won’t transform himself into an offensive force, but he brings experience, size, and basketball IQ to the frontcourt. The other two newcomers are freshmen forwards Austin Burgett and Eric Katenda. Both players have projectable athleticism and size, but they will probably spend the year on the bench and look to contribute to the program next year and beyond.
Whom to Watch: Forward Jack Cooley reinvented himself as an all-conference caliber forward last season and he will look to build on his success albeit without the same element of surprise he had last season. Cooley is the only true interior threat offensively for the Fighting Irish, and Brey is counting on him to continue to improve and solidify an area of supposed weakness for Notre Dame. However, the Fighting Irish’s offense will go as its two mercurial guards – Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins – go. The junior duo form quite possibly the most lethal scoring backcourt in the conference as Atkins averaged 12.1 points and 4.1 assists per game and Grant was even better as he averaged 12.3 points and 5.0 assists per game. They both are excellent at creating open shots for themselves and their teammates; they just need to be more judicious in their shot selection. Both shot under 40 percent last season, which was fine when the offense was hard to come by, but now the roster is deeper, and they will need to improve their shot selection. But they will be the two most important pieces of Notre Dame’s team this year. They are easily the best athletes on the roster and are probably the only two players who can consistently create their own shot. So if they can improve, so will the Fighting Irish.
Predicted Finish: The only consistent criticism of Brey that he actually deserves is that while his teams often overachieve in the regular season, they rarely last very long in March. Brey has taken Notre Dame to the Sweet Sixteen just once and that was all the way back in 2003. This season’s team looks like Brey’s best bet to end that ignominious streak in a long time. They have talent and depth all over the roster, and a coach with a proven track record of squeezing the most out of every player. The Big East has more than its fair share of teams with questions and the middle of the conference looks soft, so it shouldn’t take Notre Dame too much effort to finish in the top half of the conference and return to the NCAA Tournament. It will be what the Fighting Irish do once they get in the Big Dance that will determine if this season is a success or a failure.