This is part two of OFD's three-part positional preview for Mike Brey's 2012-2013 basketball program. You can read 4pointshooter's part one detailing the returning backcourt here.
The only proper way to begin the preview of Notre Dame's frontcourt is to relay to you just how good Jack Cooley was last season. As the league's Most Improved Player, Cooley led the Big East in every possible scoring percentage (including FG%, TS%, and Eff FG%). He ranked 2nd in offensive rebounds per game and 4th in rebounds per game, incredible when you consider the slow pace of most ND games last season. He also led the conference in Floor Percentage, which takes into account scoring, turnovers, and assists. He was even 7th in the conference in blocks despite his obvious physical limitations, and this without getting into much foul trouble (about 2.5 fouls per game). All this is to say that he is one of the most effective players in the Big East in every facet of the game.
Cooley comes into this season as a no-brainer first team All-Conference selection with a very real chance of winning the 4th Big East Player of the Year award in the Mike Brey era. He has also "shocked" the Irish head coach with his transformation into a legitimate leader, going from a kid with a greater passion for Xbox than X's and O's to the conference's most efficient player. And let's be honest, a power forward in the Big East who is less physically gifted than most of his low post opponents needs to relentlessly work at his craft to achieve any measure of success. But Cooley has done just that and emerged as one of the primary reasons Notre Dame is going to compete for that elusive conference championship this season.
The Irish also received great (if unexpected) news this offseason when they found out that forward Scott Martin would be returning for a seldom-granted 6th year of eligibility. As the unquestioned leader of last year's inexperienced squad, Martin returns in a similarly crucial role as team captain. He was often seen directing his teammates during timeouts, out-of-bounds plays, and offensive sets. He brought all those things that coaches love to talk about but we often can't fully grasp.
At least that's what we all told ourselves when he got off to a very rough start to last season. When conference play rolled around, however, Martin began hitting some key shots and filling up the stat sheet (10 ppg, 6 rpg, 2 apg, 1 spg) in conference games. The change in his play was evident to everyone watching, and he suddenly became key to the Irish as they ripped through 9 straight conference wins en route to an unexpected 3rd place Big East finish. Mike Brey is positively giddy to get Martin back for one more go.
As far as what to look for from the Irish frontcourt seniors, we should first look for more of the same from Cooley in that I doubt he will add anything to his repertoire this season. He is what he is. I would, however, expect the more experienced backcourt to prompt Brey to pick up the pace in his offense, so Cooley should amass higher per-game numbers this season. If he can repeat his super-efficient shooting and rebounding rates (which is not always easy as usage goes up), he will be a shoo-in All-Big East player this season.
As for Martin, the Irish could really use a more consistent stroke from outside from the lanky forward. At times, Martin tended towards Zach Hillesland territory where he tried to do everything on offense and just couldn't do any of it very effectively. If he leaves most of the ballhandling to Atkins and Grant and becomes a post option and occasional spot-up shooter, Martin could become much more efficient. For him, less may be more. On defense is where Martin is especially crucial. He guarded every position last season and did so very well, particularly against opposing guards. Look for more of the same this season.
I would be remiss not to talk about sophomore Pat Connaughton, who is expected to hold off freshman sensation Cam Biedscheid and maintain his starting gig, at least to begin the season. The two-sport star (baseball being the other) was probably Notre Dame's best player in huge wins against Marquette (24 pts, 11 reb) and Villanova (21 pts, 9 rebs). The Irish are going to need more consistency from the sophomore beyond the arc, because if Connaughton can keep wing defenders honest, it opens up the offense a lot more for Notre Dame's primary scoring options.
With the addition of Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman as well as freshmen Biedscheid, Zach Auguste, and Austin Burgett (more coming on these four tomorrow), minutes may be a little tougher to come by for senior big man Tom Knight, who averaged 9 minutes per game last season. He will likely be an option off the bench to spell Cooley and Martin for short stretches and provide some energy in the post.
But at the end of the day, we can't overstate the importance of Cooley and Martin on this team. If we are truly to be dreaming those big dreams Mike Brey talked about after he signed his extension, Notre Dame is going to need their two big men to take their games to another level this season.