CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 20: Head coach Mike Brey of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the second half of the game against the Florida State Seminoles during the third round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the United Center on March 20, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Nearly every year since Mike Brey has been head coach, Notre Dame has churned out teams with 20+ wins and even ones that finish in the top 5 in the polls going into the tournament. They give us hope and year after year we pencil our Fighting Irish going into the sweet sixteen or even deeper (as I consistently have for the last few years) into March as ND fans lose their office brackets across the country.
Now of course sometimes luck just isn’t on your side. I mean, how the hell was Florida State just a 10 seed? Or how is a single game elimination tournament a true reflection of superiority? Don’t pro teams have a playoff series format for that very reason?
We can make excuses, many of them legitimate – most elite basketball talents don’t like to play at football schools, they don’t want to stay for four years, academic requirements are tougher in basketball recruiting than on football recruiting – but history is history and it’s beginning to look like Notre Dame will never be able to get over the hump and become an elite basketball program.
Will this year be any different? Or will our hopes be dashed once again? Let’s take a deeper look at your 2011-2012 Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team. This first part will focus on the Irish frontcourt and we will preview the backcourt in the second part later in the week.
The two smooth shooting forwards are both 6’8" and versatile enough to play either forward position (though I suspect Abromaitis will mostly play the PF position acting as a stretch 4 but also because of his summer experience playing for Team USA in China which did not involve an on court melee with a Chinese Military team). Both players have proven that they can score and with the departure of Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough and Carleton Scott, they will have to do that in bunches this season. In order for ND to have a successful season in the last year of Big East basketball as we know it (screw you Pitt and Syracuse), these two guys will have to combine for at least 30 points and 15 rebounds a night.
Abromaitis, who has been a standout in the classroom as well as on the court already has two Notre Dame degrees – a BBA and MBA – is also on the watch list for the Wooden Award and the Big East Player of the Year, and is expected to make a push for a late NBA draft pick. If he can live up to just half of these lofty expectations, the Irish should be in good shape heading into both the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
Jack Cooley – the presumed starting center made major strides last season but still has some more he needs to make, particularly in the stamina area. Cooley averaged just over 10 minutes a night last season and each time he looked like he played the whole game. Cooley needs to play 25+ quality minutes a night. His strengths are his tough defense, his infamous screens, and his rebounding and each of those qualities will have to be augmented. He won’t have to put up double digit points on offense, but he will need to crash the boards, make tip-ins and finish around the basket.
When Cooley arrived with fellow big men Tom Knight and Mike Broghammer two years ago, it seemed like ND was set at the 5 for years to come but injuries have prevented both Knight and Broghammer from playing a significant role up until now. After several surgeries on both knees, Broghammer will attempt to come back one more time but if pain persists, he’s likely done for his career which leaves Knight with the bulk of the workload backing up Cooley. Since Cooley won’t be able to play more than 30 quality minutes a night, playing time for Knight is virtually guaranteed and he’s always been the most skilled of the three big guys on the offensive end so it will be interesting to see if he can seize the opportunity this year.
In addition to the names mentioned above the Irish frontcourt also features freshman wing Pat Connaughton and junior big man Garrick Sherman. While both players are not likely to see the court this year (Sherman is restricted by transfer rules and Connaughton is a freshman who plays in a position with nearly no minutes left to distribute) their pedigree suggests that they will be impact players as early as next season.
Connaughton – a four star prospect according to most scouting websites – has been likened as the wing version of former Irish favorites Luke Harangody and Ben Hansbrough due to his indefatigable motor. He stands 6’5" but with a wingspan near 7 feet, he plays bigger on both ends of the court. His work ethic and other similar intangibles makes him a promising piece for the near future (which will also have the arrival of a few very exciting forward prospects).
The transfer wire, which has been generous to the Irish in the recent past, seems to have continued its path yet again with the addition of former Michigan State Spartan Sherman. The 6’10" junior from Ohio was a frequent starter for Tom Izzo and should step into a major role as soon as the year is up.
In Brey’s motion offense, the frontcourt has generally been the beneficiary of solid backcourt play (which we will explore deeper on Wednesday), but given the status of the two returning 5th year forwards, they will have to be more than just recipients and provide consistent scoring, leadership, toughness in the paint and versatility.