Mike Brey looks to get Notre Dame back in the NCAA tournament again. (und.com)
By Phill Fattore
Friday, October 05, 2012
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2011-2012 record: 22-12 (13-5 Big East)
Head Coach: Mike Brey
Projected Starting Line-up:
• PG-Eric Atkins JR
• SG-Jerian Grant JR
• SF-Scott Martin SR
• PF-Garrick Sherman JR
• C-Jack Cooley SR
The story of Notre Dame’s 2011-2012 season, for many, could be described as one that started with many confidence-rattling low points but ended favorably and provided a good deal of optimism for this upcoming year. Early losses on the court and to the roster has some in the Irish fan base worried about the team’s chances in the Big East conference, but the team got it together and finished on a March Madness high. Notre Dame’s early trouble last season started after the team fell to Missouri in a 29-point blowout loss and was then defeated by Georgia. As the team re-grouped they hit a major road bump after starting senior forward, Tim Abromatis suffered a season-ending injury in late-November. With Abromatis out of the line-up and the Irish game-plan direction in flux, the team continued the trend of bad non-conference losses as the Big East schedule approached (a 20-point loss at Gonzaga, a 7-point defeat against Maryland and an 11-point loss to Indiana). Things began to take a positive turn with Mike Brey’s decision to run the offensive game plan through the sophomore backcourt duo, Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant. Brey’s change in philosophy helped the Irish end with a third-place finish in the Big East and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The team fell to Xavier in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament, but the developed maturity of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant as well as the Irish depth in the frontcourt has many, including coach Mike Brey, excited about the 2012-2013 hardwood campaign.
Point guard Eric Atkins first made his mark on the Notre Dame basketball scene in his freshman year during the 2010-2011 season. That season, Atkins averaged 25.4 minutes per game and contributed 5.8 points per game with a 2.56-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio that showed maturity beyond his years. With more responsibility last season, Atkins posted an average of 12.1 points per game, 4.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game; but it was the leadership that Atkins displayed during Notre Dame’s winning stretches that showed Atkins’s added worth. Atkins is a solid defender, averaging 1.3 steals per game last season, and can shoot fairly well from three-point range with a 37.5% average. The season-ending loss to Xavier saw Atkins struggle as he turned the ball over 4 times and only contributed 7 points and 2 assists to the mix, but Mike Brey sees those end-of-season struggles as motivation for Atkins. The hope is that Atkins, who played beyond his years in spurts last season, will elevate his game-to-game consistency, keep his turnovers down in big games and be the strong ball-handler and distributor the Irish will need this year.
The starting shooting guard, like the point, is not up in the air according to Mike Brey; expect Jerian Grant to re-join Eric Atkins in the backcourt. Mike Brey feels that the possibilities Grant and Atkins present when played together are limitless, and believes they’re one of the best tandems in the nation. “I feel we have one of the best backcourts, not only in the Big East, but one of the better backcourts in the nation,” Brey said recently on the junior duo. Grant has been described as an athlete-scorer-ball distributor-defensive disruptor and his numbers seem to back up that assessment. Grant averaged 12.3 points per game alongside Atkins and posted team highs with 5.0 assists per game and 44 steals by the seasons end. Grant is a long 6’5” and is a tough defensive assignment for any guard, as Grant has the ability to drive the basket or shoot from the outside every time he touches the ball. With Atkins distributing, Grant will be able to play off screens more often and explore the floor as Atkins works to find him. Expect sophomore Pat Connaughton to get some time at the shooting-guard spot, as he saw time there in his freshman season, but Mike Brey has said he’s not exactly sure if Connaughton’s role with be more at the small forward or shooting guard position. Either way, with a 6’5” 205 lbs. build, Connaughton provides a good rebounding presence and an unselfish mindset that will help the Irish this season.
While there will be some rotation at the small-forward spot with Pat Connaughton possibly playing at the two and three, many believe that the sixth-year senior and graduate student, Scott Martin will start at the three when the season begins. With a stable of post players available on the Irish roster, Scott Martin’s 6’8” presence and proven ability to score from both the inside and outside will allow the Irish to go “big” against teams while still forcing the opponent to guard the perimeter. The attention Martin draws from the perimeter will open up the paint for the Notre Dame post players and slashing guard play. Tied with Jerian Grant for a team-high 33 starts last season, Martin played big minutes and averaged 9.5 points per game with 5.7 rebounds and nearly one steal per game (0.9 stl). Martin has played at the four spot in the past, and when he did last season the team’s overall productivity did improve, but with Brey excited about the availability of 6’10” Michigan State power-forward transfer Garrick Sherman this season, it is likely that Martin will be penciled in as the three man.
When it comes to Mike Brey’s hopes for the structure of his post-game this season, one need only look back to Brey’s past success to understand his vision. “One of the things we have to do is get back to playing some high-low with big guys like we did my first two years with (Ryan) Humphrey, (Harold) Swanagan and (Troy) Murphy,” Brey said about his outlook on this season’s down-low strategy. With that in mind, Brey has pointed out 6’ 10” senior, Garrick Sherman as the guy he’s looking at most closely to compliment returning starter, center Jack Cooley. Sherman’s got a great shooting touch that saw him score at 69.6 field goal percentage in his sophomore season at Michigan State. He’s long and the fact that he doesn’t have to be right at the rim to finish should help to clear out space for Cooley’s more aggressive post play. Scott Martin is a possibility to play some minutes at the power-forward position, but Mike Brey will see how the Sherman-Cooley high-low game goes before turning to Martin in the post.