Nov. 10, 2011
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2011-12 Notre Dame winter sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish men’s basketball team, which will rely on two veteran leaders as it looks to build upon last year’s 27-7 season and trip to the third round of the NCAA Championship.
Notre Dame’s record-setting 27-7 campaign in 2010-11 may be a distant memory, but to those returning, the feeling of disappointment following a third-round exit still remains strong as the Irish are set to usher in the 107th season in program history.
Beginning his 12th season along the sidelines, Mike Brey will rely on a heavy dose of patience early on as he adjusts his lineups and rotations. Known as a coach who gets the most out of his players, one of Brey’s hallmarks always has been player development.
The loss of three starters will certainly test his patience early on as Notre Dame looks to build a nucleus and foundation that it hopes will earn the Irish a sixth consecutive 20-win campaign and third straight NCAA tournament berth.
Following the graduation of Ben Hansbrough (2011 BIG EAST Player of the Year and an NCAA second team consensus All-American), Tyrone Nash (two-year starter and second-leading rebounder) and Carleton Scott (leading rebounder), the Irish will count greatly on the experience and leadership of fifth-year senior forwards Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin. The duo, who will serve as co-captains this season, were certainly keys to Notre Dame’s success a year ago. They will be counted on to lead a youthful Irish squad that Brey expects will get better each and every week.
“There is no doubt that I am going to have to remind myself to be patient,” Brey says. “Early on in the season, it is going to be about week-to-week improvement with this group and developing the playing rotations that we are going to use throughout the season.
“With so many experienced players a year ago, we were nearly a finished product before the season began. This year is different, and because of our youth, the players we have to work with and the potential that we have for improvement throughout the entire season will motivate me. I also am anxious to watch Tim and Scott lead this team as they are clearly our commanders both on the court and in the locker room.”
Notre Dame has enjoyed tremendous success and consistency throughout the past four basketball campaigns. Since the 2007-08 season, Irish teams have posted a 96-42 mark for a .696 winning percentage. The 96 wins represent the most in program history over a four-year span. In addition, Brey has guided his squads to the most BIG EAST regular-season victories (46) in school history as the Irish have posted a 46-26 (.639) record.
With Abromaitis and Martin back as the only two returning starters, there will be plenty of competition for the remaining three starting positions on the floor and for playing time off the bench. In analyzing his personnel, Brey feels that this could be a season in which he receives key contributions from a number of different players in a variety of ways.
“I’ve emphasized to our guys that everybody needs to be ready to play,” Brey says. “We’ve had the luxury the last two or three years of staying older and returning veteran guys. This season we have that experience in Abromaitis and Martin, but we’ve also got some guys who are young, yet eager and ready to step in.
“There will be a lot of unknowns as we begin the season, but that’s pretty exciting for me. I’m anxious to teach these guys and work with this group to see how everything comes together throughout the year and to see who emerges to help us out on a given night. I’ve never had a more open mind about our depth.”
While Abromaitis and Martin are the two veterans, look for junior forward Jack Cooley and sophomore point guard Eric Atkins to have firm grasps on the two other starting positions. Atkins saw action in all 34 contests while averaging 25.4 minutes a game a year ago as a backup to Hansbrough, while Cooley also played in every game and averaged 10.3 minutes per contest.
Beyond those four, the final starting spot will certainly be up for grabs as will significant playing minutes.
“Ever since I have been here, we have had a pretty good rotation and pretty much knew heading into the season who the five or six were going be,” Brey says. “This year, I believe that we are going to have more bodies in the rotation and more guys who are going to emerge as contributors as the year goes on. It’s pretty exciting because all season long there is going to be a lot of competition. I’ve told every player on our team that they are going to have a role on the team this season. We need a handful of guys to step up and deliver for us.”
While scoring has never been a problem for Brey’s teams during his stint on the Irish sidelines, the Irish mentor will be concerned early on about his team’s ability to make shots. Hansbrough, Scott and Nash combined for 1,285 of the team’s 2,558 points a year ago. Abromaitis and Martin have certainly displayed their abilities to score the ball, as did Atkins in spurts during his rookie season, but beyond that, Notre Dame’s offense is somewhat untested.
How his team is going to score the ball certainly is something that Brey will be focused on early in the season.
“Traditionally, we always have been a team that has been good offensively,” Brey says. “Our ability to have different guys make shots has been one of our staples and made us extremely hard to guard because we have always been able to spread people out.
“Obviously, we’re going to need more than just Tim (Abromaitis) and Scott (Martin) to handle the scoring and be our shooters.”
With the graduation of Nash and Scott, Notre Dame lost its two top defensive anchors; they were a tag team upfront when it came to rebounding. It’s something too that will concern Brey throughout the season.
“Ty (Nash) and Carleton (Scott) were really great at helping each other out defensively and on the backboards,” Brey says. “Covering the basket really concerns me and that will be something that we are going to be focused on in the preseason and during the first several games. As we will offensively, we’re just going to need people to step up and adjust quickly.”
Tim Abromaitis 6-8 – 236 – Forward – Graduate – Unionville, Conn.
Mike Brey will rely heavily on Abromaitis’ leadership and confidence this season as he returns for his third year as a starter and second as a team captain. He is one of the nation’s top three-point and perimeter shooters, but has diversified and expanded his game over the past two campaigns.
Last season, he averaged 15.4 ppg. and grabbed a career-high 6.1 rebounds. He became the 51st player in Notre Dame history to reach the 1,000-point mark and has scored more than 1,000 points over the past two seasons.
A third-team all-BIG EAST selection year ago, and preseason first-team all-BIG EAST pick to start the ’11-’12 campaign, he connected on 47.0 percent of his shots during his career and 42.2 percent from three-point range.
Brey on Abromaitis:
“Tim’s leadership and confidence is going to be big for us this season as he helps guide our younger players along. We are so proud of what he has been able to accomplish academically and athletically here at Notre Dame. Tim has been part of a lot of winning teams and he needs to show our younger guys how to win as well. I think he is one of the best players in the country, and certainly in the BIG EAST.
Scott Martin 6-8 – 222 – Forward – Senior – Valparaiso, Ind.
Scott Martin really emerged as a key player for the Irish throughout the second half of the season a year ago. After transferring to Notre Dame in June of 2008, he sat out the 2008-09 campaign and then missed the 2009-10 season after suffering a torn ACL in October of ’09. After not playing for more than two seasons, he really found his stride toward the end of January and carried that momentum during the final two months of the season.
Martin averaged 9.7 points and 4.8 rebounds and displayed a versatility in his game with his ability to score from nearly anywhere on the court. He will help the Irish out this season with his aggressive around the basket.
Brey on Martin:
“We need Scott Martin to play like he did in New York City in March during the BIG EAST Tournament and have him have more nights like he did. I think he is ready to do that. His defensive rebounding and low post game will be keys for us this season. He’s a fifth-year guy so it is time for him to be a leader on this team. Scott has helped teach our younger guys ever since he has been here and that will really benefit them this season.”
Jack Cooley 6-9 – 248 – Forward – Junior – Glenview, Ind.
Jack Cooley will look to emerge as a force on the frontline. Playing a backup role in his first two seasons, he is primed to make a big jump in his junior year. Mike Brey believes that Cooley has the potential to develop into a double-digit rebounding threat.
One of the team’s most physical players, he is as strong as any Irish player around the basket. With the loss of Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott, Notre Dame is going to need Cooley to assert himself around the boards as both a rebounder and scorer. Brey also needs the junior to increase his playing time on the floor. One obstacle that plagued Cooley last season was his tendency to get into foul trouble early in a game.
Cooley averaged 3.7 points and 3.1 rebounds a year ago, but look for those averages to jump during the upcoming season as he looks to spend longer stretches of time on the court.
Brey on Cooley:
“I believe that Jack can be a double-digit guy for us on any given night this year. We’re really going to need him this season to step up his game and he knows that. I am hoping to that he can give us more minutes and I feel that he can do that based on his conditioning since the end of last year. We also need Jack to stay away from silly fouls and find a way to keep himself on the floor.”
Mike Broghammer 6-9 – 265 – Forward – Junior – Orono, Minn.
Mike Broghammer’s playing time was limited in the second half of the year as he battled knee injuries and surgery. In two seasons, he has played in 23 contests overall and averaged 1.8 points and 1.0 rebounds. Broghammer can take up space inside with his body and gives the Irish a powerful presence inside, especially close to the basket. If he stays healthy, Broghammer will see playing time and be someone Brey and his staff can count on coming off the bench.
Brey on Broghammer:
“I am really excited to see where Mike is at and to evaluate how he can help this team. It was unfortunate that he was hampered by knee problems last season because I really was pleased at how far he had come since his freshman year. If he can stay healthy, Mike can really help us this season; he has a big, powerful body with a good feel for the game. He is a good screener and passer with a very efficient 15-foot jump shot.”
Tom Knight 6-9 – 250 – Forward – Junior – Dixfield, Maine
After sitting out his freshman season in 2009-10, Tom Knight saw action in 14 games and averaged 1.4 points during his sophomore campaign. He will give the Irish added depth and toughness on the frontline and should see time off the bench. Knight is deceptive around the basket and moves well for a player with his size. He has a strong feel for the game and good shoot touch. Knight’s all-around skills could make him a very effective player in the lineup this season.
Brey on Knight:
“After suffering an ankle injury in the spring, Tom has worked extremely hard to get himself ready for this season. I am expecting him to really help us this season. For a big guy, he can score for us in a number of ways and not just done low. Tom’s got a tremendous offensive skill set, but we’re also going to need him to have a defensive presence when he is on the floor.”
Eric Atkins 6-1 – 182 – Guard – Sophomore – Columbia, Md.
Eric Atkins will begin his second season with the Irish program as Notre Dame’s floor general. Atkins spent the 2010-11 campaign as Ben Hansbrough’s understudy at point guard, but make no mistake that head coach Mike Brey will turn the reigns over to him this season.
Atkins, who played in all 34 games and earned six starts during his freshman season, proved to be extremely effective for the Irish coming off the bench as he averaged 5.8 points and 3.2 assists and led the BIG EAST Conference in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Brey will look to Atkins to play heavy minutes this season as the lone true point guard on the Irish roster. He’ll be an outside threat from the perimeter, but also will be effective driving to the basket.
Brey on Atkins:
“Once the season ended last year, Eric knew what the expectations were going to be and that he was going to be our point guard this season. He is ready to take over and be our floor general. Eric learned a great deal watching and playing against Ben (Hansbrough) last season and realizes what it takes for him to manage the game for us. I think that he is going to continue to become a better shooter and scorer. I am excited to watch Eric help lead this team.”
Joey Brooks 6-6 – 220 – Guard – Junior – Houston, Texas.
One of the team’s best defenders and screeners, Joey Brooks is looking to become a big part of Notre Dame’s rotation as he begins his third year in the program. Brooks is one of the team’s most effective defensive players, a role Mike Brey will look for him to fill this season.
He is as quick and as skilled as any player on the team and has great court awareness. Brooks has a good offensive game, but it will be his defensive game that will be his greatest strength during the upcoming season.
Brey on Brooks:
“Since we lost two key guys on the front line in Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott, Joey’s strength for us this season is going to be his ability to defend and screen. We’re really going to need and count on him to do that this season. I am not worried so much about his scoring, but we do need him to have a defensive mentality when he is in the game. Joey has always given us a lift in that area when he is on the court.”
Alex Dragicevich 6-7 – 221 – Guard – Sophomore – Northbrook, Ill.
No player may show more improvement and upside this season than Alex Dragicevich. He has great versatility in his game both as a shooter and in his ability to handle the basketball. Dragicevich could see time at point guard when Eric Atkins is not on the floor. He also has great size for a guard and a good feel for the game.
Dragicevich’s game fits strongly into Notre Dame’s style of play because of his ability and consistency to shoot from the perimeter. Mike Brey believes that he will contribute in a number of different ways this season when he is on the court.
Brey on Dragicevich:
“With the loss of Ben Hansbrough’s shooting and ball-handling skills, we’re going to need someone to fill that void and I expect that Alex is going to be one of the players that is going to do that for us this season. I’ve always loved his feel for the game and the way in which he handles the ball and passes it. It is going to be important that we have him on the floor.”
Jerian Grant 6-5 – 195 – Guard – Sophomore – Bowie, Md.
Jerian Grant did not play in his freshman season, giving him a year to learn Mike Brey’s system. Grant battled a stress fracture last year, but he heads into the season at 100 percent. He and Atkins could be Notre Dame’s starting backcourt to start the season.
Grant has made steady progress since coming into the program. He is an attacking player with great athleticism, speed and quickness. Grant’s versatile game allows him to shoot from the outside as well as drive to the basket. He will be counted on to handle the ball as well this season to take some of that burden off of Atkins.
Brey on Grant:
“I am looking forward to having Jerian out there on the court this season. He has improved tremendously since last year and it was good for him and our program that he had the opportunity to learn our system a year ago. Jerian is going to have a big impact for us this year because of his speed and quickness. He is a very good shooter, but also has the ability to get to the basket and score or pass it off to an open shooter on the wing.”
Pat Connaughton 6-5 – 206 – Guard/Forward – Freshman – Arlington, Mass.
Pat Connaughton, the lone freshman on the Irish roster, is going to see playing time immediately and will be on the court for Notre Dame for extended minutes. While most freshmen historically have not seen a great deal of playing time that certainly will not be the case for Connaughton as he will be in the lineup early and often throughout the season.
He brings a toughness and edge to the Irish and knows how to play the game at both ends of the floor. His style of play fits in well with Notre Dame’s system; he can shoot and handle the ball extremely well. Mike Brey expects him to be an outstanding addition this season.
Brey on Connaughton:
“We’re going to need Pat Connaughton right away and I believe that he is ready to step in and contribute immediately. He has an edge about about him much like Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson did when they came into our program. Pat understands how to play the game and that translates well with how we do things here. He feels like he is ready and I feel like he can make big contributions for us this year.”
Notre Dame heads into the campaign riding a 19-game home win streak at Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center. Over the last five years, the Irish have been one of the nation’s most consistent teams at home and is the only program to post three undefeated seasons at home in the last five years. Notre Dame has registered an 84-6 mark for a .933 winning percentage at home and owns the best BIG EAST regular-season home record at 39-5 (.886).
Once again, the Irish will face the daunting 18-game regular-season BIG EAST slate, while a challenging non-conference slate awaits them as well. Notre Dame will have stiff tests against Detroit, Missouri and either California or Georgia in the CBE Classic during the month of November. In addition, the Irish end the month by making a trip to Spokane, Wash., to play Gonzaga. Notre Dame and the Zags faced each other a year ago in South Bend in the first-ever meeting between the two schools.
The Irish face Maryland in the BB&T Classic in Washington, D.C., in early December and also take on Indiana at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind., right before the Christmas break.
— ND —