Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.
Last Season: 22-12, 13-5 Big East (3rd); Lost to Xavier in the Opening Round of the NCAA tournament
Head Coach: Mike Brey
Key Losses: Tim Abromaitis, Alex Dragocevich
Newcomers: Garrick Sherman, Cameron Biedschied, Zach Auguste, Eric Katenda, Austin Burgett
– G: Eric Atkins, So.
– G: Jerian Grant, Jr.
– F: Pat Connaughton, So.
– F: Scott Martin, Sr.
– C: Jack Cooley, Sr.
– Bench: Garrick Sherman, Jr.; Cameron Biedschied, Fr.; Zach Auguste, Fr.; Austin Burgett, Fr.; Joey Brooks, Sr.
Outlook: The key losses section of this preview is deceiving. Yes, Tim Abromaitis played for the Irish last season, and no, he’s no longer with the program. But in all actuality, Abro — a first-team all-Big East caliber forward — had zero effect on the Irish finishing third in the Big East last season. In fact, Notre Dame went 0-2 with him in the lineup last year — a 29 point drubbing at the hands of Missouri that was followed up the next night with a loss to Georgia. Abro tore his ACL in a practice following that second loss, an injury that ended his career and, according to most pundits, ended any hope of the Irish being at all competitive.
But as the season progressed, the Irish only got better. Starting with a double-overtime win over Louisville in January, Notre Dame ended the season winning 12 of their last 16 Big East games, which included a victory over then-undefeated and No. 1 ranked Syracuse that sparked a nine-game winning streak. The ‘Burn Offense’ that Brey had made famous the previous two years was back in full force, and while the Irish probably have enough talent on their roster to play a different style, I’d expect the Burn to once again be in full effect this season.
Because Notre Dame’s lineup is perfect for it.
Last season, I went into detail on how the Burn Offense works, but I’ll give a quick summation here: Brey, essentially, wants his team to drain the shot clock on every possession, getting the ball into the hands of a play-maker with 10 or 12 seconds left in the possession. Then he spreads the floor with shooters and runs a high-ball screen, allowing his guards to use their natural ability to create a good shot, be it for themselves or by finding a teammate for an open look.
Brey has two terrific options in his back court to take on that role of play-maker in juniors Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins. Combined, the two averaged 24.4 points, 9.1 assists and just 4.1 turnovers last season, numbers that are more impressive when you consider the fact that the Irish were one of the 20 slowest teams in the country, according to Kenpom. It’s reasonable to expect those two to improve on those numbers this season. Last year was Atkins’ first in the role of starting point guard, while Grant is technically a redshirt sophomore. He sat out his first season in South Bend with a foot injury, but Notre Dame lists their athletes based on academic year, not athletic eligibility.
At the forward spots, Brey has a pair of versatile players capable of spreading the floor in Patrick Connaughton and Scott Martin. Connaughton, a sophomore, went through some shooting slumps as a freshman, but had a few games throughout the year that showcased what he can do when he gets hot. Ask Villanova, who watched him hit seven threes in an overtime loss to the Irish. He’ll need to be more consistent, but the ability is there. Martin wasn’t even supposed to be on the team this year, but thanks to back-to-back redshirt seasons — after he sat out a season transferring from Purdue, Martin tore his ACL — he was granted a sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA. He had his worst year shooting the ball in 2011-2012, but the lefty is always a threat to score on the perimeter.
Even if Martin doesn’t improve much this season, his return was important because it bought Brey a year where he could have his quartet of freshmen forwards learn from the veteran Martin. Austin Burgett and Eric Katenda are face-up four men who can step out and stroke the ball from three. Katenda is still battling an eye injury, however, and won’t be eligible to play until January if he doesn’t redshirt. Burgett needs to spend a season in the weight room. Zach Auguste is a lanky and athletic low-post presence with a very high ceiling but a long way to go until he turns that potential into production. Cameron Biedscheid may be the freshman that sees the most playing this season, as he’s more of a wing and would be able to spell Connaughton on nights when the sophomore’s shot isn’t dropping.
Ironically, I’ve made it this far into the Notre Dame preview without mentioning arguably their most important player in big man Jack Cooley. There are a number of reasons that Luke Harangody’s doppelganger is incredibly valuable to Brey: for starters, he’s an excellent rebounder — especially on the offensive end of the floor — that gets a lot of easy buckets off of missed shots. He’s also the only reliable low-post presence on the roster. But, more than anything, Cooley is an excellent screener simply because he’s massive. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, 246 pounds, but that number seems low when you walk by him. With the frequency that Notre Dame utilizes screen-and-rolls, that’s a major factor for this team.
It’s also worth mentioning the addition of Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman. He didn’t put up huge number under Tom Izzo — 3.1 points and 2.6 boards — but spending two years in the Michigan State system should allow him to bring a measure of toughness and physicality that Notre Dame needs.
Predictions?: Mike Brey is one of the most underrated coaches in the country, and he has a team with quite a bit of talent that fits very well into the system he wants to run. They are also experienced; this group basically returns their entire rotation from the team that finished third in the Big East last season. Louisville is the best team in the Big East, and, for my money, Syracuse is the second best. But Notre Dame is not far off the pace.