The first part of this year's men's basketball preview- which broke down the frontcourt- can be found here. This second part will take a look at the other side of the team, the Irish backcourt which features a returning starter and another spot up for grabs between 3 talented youngsters.
While the frontcourt comprises of 3 players already used to major minutes, the Irish backcourt will feature some faces that we haven’t seen much of until now.
We start off with the only returning starter in the Irish backcourt – point guard Eric Atkins.
Atkins is in line to become the next ND point guard to play very extensive minutes – following in the line of Chris Thomas, Chris Quinn (who literally never touched the bench his senior year), and Tory Jackson (Hansbrough and McAlarney don’t qualify as pure point guards). Atkins will have to become a much stronger playmaker and floor general since the team’s top two scorers are not adept at creating their own shot off the dribble. As the new chief signal caller in an intricate motion offense, Atkins will have to drive the lane effectively, protect the rock, create for others and increase his scoring – a tall order, but one I expect him to meet.
*And the competition will be fierce as due to Tim Abromaitis' unduly suspension by the NCAA two of the three guys will get to start in the first four games. I know the opponents are just Mississippi Valley State, Detroit, Sam Houston State and Delaware State but at least there will be some drama in these games that would have otherwise been simply an extension of the exhibition season.
If the season were to start today, I would say that the veteran Brooks is the clear front runner in this race. As one of the best athletes on the team, Brooks has the potential to become a shutdown perimeter defender and can defend up to 4 positions. In limited playing time during his first two years, Brooks has shown that he can be the heart and hustle of this team, something that stars like Luke Harangody and Ben Hansbrough brought in the past and is a prerequisite for any successful basketball team. Any backcourt player for Brey will have to hit jump shots and Brooks will have to make strides there but indications are that he has been playing very confidently on both sides of the ball in the summer scrimmages and team workouts. With youngsters like Grant, Dragicevich and even Pat Connaughton breathing down his neck, no one needs a breakthrough year more than Brooks does, and my bet is that he'll do just that.
Even though Atkins got the early start in his career, multiple scouting sites had his recruiting classmate Jerian Grant as the more talented prospect coming out of high school. A product of the elite D.C. program of DeMatha High School (which also happens to be Brey’s alma mater) and son of former NBA player Harvey Grant (yes, Horace Grant’s twin borhter), Grant is an exceptional athlete with length and tremendous potential. His slashing and ability to fill the lane in transition can give ND a change of pace element on offense. In addition Grant can use his wingspan to be an effective defender on the perimeter. He has a good midrange game and is reliable with the ball in his hands but those things tend to matter less in Brey’s offense.
The Chicago native Dragicevich can play up to 3 positions and even drew comparisons to other Chicago standouts like former ND standout Colin Falls and Duke player Jon Scheyer. An excellent shooter both off the catch and the dribble, Dragicevich also has the ability to play some point guard and is regarded as the second best ball handler on the team after Atkins. While his athletic abilities are not nearly as good as those of Brooks or Grant, Brey’s penchant for shooters and versatile offensive players gives Dragicevich just as good a chance as the previous two players to be the 5th starter.
The real question will be whether Brey will be willing to use all three of these guys in the regular rotation because while all three can help the team win, Brey has never used 4 backcourt players at the same time (at least extensively as part of the full time rotation – JONATHAN PEOPLES in '06-'07 DOES NOT COUNT!).
At the end of the day, like most Brey coached teams, this year’s Irish team shouldn't have trouble scoring for most the game but leaders Abromaitis and Scott Martin will have to take a major step forward as reliable crunch time scorers during those grind-it-out Big East games. With nearly half a dozen players who are capable of having a breakout year this season, this Irish team, while not bursting with talent like some of their conference rivals, is still going to be worth looking out for and I think a top 4 finish in the Big East regular season is certainly not out of the question. But that's actually nothing special and we as fans are privileged to have a team that consistently knocks out 20+ wins and finishes among the top tier in the best basketball conference in the country. The question is whether this team will go further than that, especially in the NCAA tournament.
All we can hope for is that this time around, our regular season success doesn't look like a mirage, because chances are my heart will be picking them go deep again for the 5th consecutive year.