Notre Dame Fighting Irish Basketball Season Preview

The college hoops season is right around the corner, and Busting Brackets is here to whet your basketball-starved appetite. Over the next five weeks, we are publishing season previews team by team, conference by conference, to offer a glimpse into the upcoming season. Busting Brackets is giving you the lowdown on the biggest storylines, offseason changes and x-factors for each team and each league as we roll into the 2012-13 season. Our complete season preview archive can be accessed here. Buckle up, peeps.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Last Season 22-12 (13-5 Big East)
Lost to Louisville in Big East tournament semifinals
Lost to Xavier in second round of NCAA tournament
Key Returning Players: Jack Cooley, F
Jerian Grant, G
Eric Atkins, G
Scott Martin, F
Pat Connaughton, G/F
Tom Knight, F
Key Additions: Cameron Biedscheid, F (Cardinal Ritter College Prep)
Garrick Sherman, C (Michigan State transfer)
Zach Auguste, F (New Hampton School)
Austin Burgett, F (Avon HS)
Key Losses: Tim Abromaitis, F (Missed most of last season w/ACL tear)
Alex Dragicevic, G (Transferred to Boston College)
Joey Brooks, G (Will redshirt, then transfer at season’s end)
Top Non-Conference Games: Nov. 16 vs. Saint Joseph’s (CVC Classic, Brooklyn, NY)
Nov. 17 vs. BYU or Florida State (CVC Classic)
Nov. 29 vs. Kentucky
Dec. 15 vs. Purdue (Bankers Life Field House, Indianapolis)
Top Conference Games: Jan. 7 @ Cincinnati
Jan. 21 vs. Georgetown
Jan. 26 @ South Florida
Feb. 4 @ Syracuse
Feb. 9 vs. Louisville
Feb. 18 @ Pittsburgh
Feb. 24 vs. Cincinnati
Mar. 2 @ Marquette
Mar. 9 @ Louisville
Breakout Player: Jerian Grant. Veterans Jack Cooley and Erick Atkins received all of the press last season, and they’ll get most of it again this year. But don’t let that obstruct your vision of Jerian Grant’s forthcoming emergence. An under-the-radar high school recruit (his brother, Jerami, a freshman at Syracuse, was the more touted of the two), Grant had a similarly under-the-radar rookie season. The unheralded redshirt freshman ranked fourth among Big East newcomers in points per game (12.3) and was Notre Dame’s second leading scorer on the season. Despite being recruited as a 2-guard, Grant ultimately led the Irish in assists (5 apg) and at times looked more comfortable in Mike Brey’s motion offense than Atkins, a two-year starter. Factor in his stout defense and advanced poise and maturity for a first-year starter and it becomes clear Grant had one of the most unsung, solid rookie seasons in all of college basketball. Now a third-year sophomore, Grant’s not likely to catch anyone off-guard this time around. The Maryland native will be counted upon as Notre Dame’s primary scorer on the perimeter this season, but that doesn’t mean he should plan on upping his shots load. Grant was a volume scorer last season, and his 326 shot attempts were the most of anyone on the team. Even in an expanded role, Grant’s efficiency needs stark improvement, which required fewer forced shots and greater selectivity. Grant can be an All-Big East second-team talent as a sophomore if he shores up his shot selection. But forget the individual accolades. For the Irish to be a viable contender in the Big East this season, Grant must learn that sometimes the best shot is the one you let someone else take.
X-Factor: Offensive Pace. Five of Notre Dame’s six main rotation players last season had only two years of experience or fewer as part of the Irish program. Only versatile handyman Scott Martin owned enough experience to win the trust of Mike Brey. As a result, Brey’s offense last season was largely conservative. ND played at a methodical pace, hoping to ease Atkins and the then-freshmen into the system. What a difference a year makes. One year later, the training wheels in South Bend are coming off, or at least they should. Martin is now a senior. Jack Cooley gives off the impression of a grizzled vet. Atkins is seasoned. Grant logged enough minutes to be considered an upper classman (technically, as a redshirt sophomore, he is one anyway). And Pat Connaughton assumed a reserve role befitting of a sophomore or junior. These Notre Dame youngsters are all grown up now. And it’s time for Brey’s offensive system to take that into account. The newly-extended (to the tune of 10 years) head coach is chock full of athletes on the wing this season—from Atkins to Grant to incoming freshman Cam Biedscheid. Spreading the floor, running a methodical motion offense and playing at a snail’s pace no longer best suits this more experienced and athletic bunch. Affording Atkins and Grant more freedom early in the shot clock to attack the basket and create plays themselves would diversify the offense and allow the Irish to play more on the offensive than the defensive. A passive, ball-control offense can work to an extent. It worked, for example, against Syracuse last January, when Notre Dame dealt Syracuse its first and only regular season loss. But this approach only works when the Irish defense is keeping the opposing team in check (in the Syracuse game, for example, SU was lifeless offensively and fed right into the hands of ND). Brey’s system ultimately backfired, however, in the Big East tournament semis, when the Irish fell behind early to Louisville and didn’t have the firepower or system to make up ground fast. By speeding up the offense when appropriate—note, I’m not suggesting the Irish switch to an up-tempo style all the time—Notre Dame should be better positioned to win games in which they fall behind early. With a newfound philosophy, the Irish are capable of winning games in the 70s too. They’d just prefer a grind-it-out game played in the 50s or 60s.
Best Case: Jack Cooley is the best big man in the Big East, leading the league in field goal percentage [again], rebounds per 40 minutes and points per 40 minutes. Because he doesn’t dazzle you with highlight-caliber dunks, jaw-dropping athleticism or the smoothest post moves, Luke Harangody 2.0 hasn’t yet garnered the national recognition he deserves. That changes in 2012-13. Grant is a more efficient scorer. Atkins is a more adept playmaker with better decision-making. Biedscheid makes an immediate impact as the No. 1 guard off the bench. Preoccupied with Grant, Atkins and Cooley down low, ND springs Pat Connaughton for open, uncontested 3s all season, and the sophomore sharpshooter capitalizes. Scott Martin goes out on a high note. The senior southpaw is a more efficient scorer, with a more consistent mid-range jumper. Brey mixes up his offensive looks to avoid becoming predictable and transparent. The philosophical change enables the Irish to fight back from a double digit point deficit against Louisville during conference play and squeeze out the victory. Notre Dame’s defense remains stout, and the Irish are still able to win games in which the offense is off-the-mark. The Irish perform well against a manageable non-conference slate, notching a marquee home win over Kentucky which sends the loyal ND faithful into a tizzy. This seasoned bunch avoids another rough start to the season similar to the one last year’s younger squad withstood. Notre Dame, bring back the core pieces from last year’s overachieving 12-win Big East squad, wins 14 games in conference this go-around, notching a Big East championship and favorable seed in March. Jack Swarbrick receives early [positive] returns on his handsome investment in Mike Brey.
Worst Case: Notre Dame doesn’t handle the elevated expectations. It’s no coincidence that the Irish, who as a rule of thumb play their best when overlooked and tend to disappoint when overhyped, were picked in the preseason to finish ninth in the Big East last year by both the coaches and writers. Now that the book is out on Cooley, coaches scheme to take him out of the offense. Cooley’s production dips, much in the same way estranged brother Harangody’s did between his sophomore and junior season. Grant is a prolific scorer, but still inefficient. His clutch shots and moments from last year—like the 3 he hit to temporarily give Notre Dame the lead against Xavier with one minute to go in the second round of the NCAA tournament—get to his head, and he becomes a more voluminous shooter and me-first player. The underrated loss of Alex Dragicevich, who transferred to BC, is felt more than expected. The Irish struggle from the perimeter, and the absence of their former deadeye shooter is one reason why. Notre Dame still settles for a slow, methodical pace, and teams learn to go for the jugular early and force the Irish to play catch up (which they’re not built to do). The bloom is off the ND rose, and last year’s wonderful success story proves to be an anomaly, not the beginning of a trend. The Irish fall into the second tier of Big East contenders, bunched with Georgetown, Pitt, Marquette and South Florida. The Irish are still competitive, an NCAA tournament team too. But a sophomore slump from Grant and Cooley’s statistical regression bring ND closer to the pack. For the most part a non-descript tea, the Irish settle for a middling seed in the Big Dance.
Projected Finish: Regular Season: 24-7 (13-5 Big East), 3rd place Big East
Win Big East tournament
NCAA tournament No. 3 seed

Topics: Basketball, Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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