Jack Cooley was the man for ND this week - Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Fighting Irish Basketball Goes 3-0 in 5 nights as Jack Cooley officially turns into a Big East POY favorite
The #22 Irish had a jam packed week as they head into their holiday break with 3 wins in as many games in 5 nights against IPFW (74-62), Kennesaw State (85-57) and Niagara (89-67). Going 3-0 wasn’t always pretty though as ND struggled at times against lesser competition - not always giving forth its best effort especially on Monday night against IPFW.
Yours truly was on hand to witness the Irish in person all three nights and I kept note of things not on the court that you OFD’ers would be interested in knowing. You can check those out in the notes at the end below.
As many of you may already know or can deduce – it can get pretty quiet and dead when the students leave during Christmas break around the Bend and the effect is exacerbated when the team that comes into town isn’t quite worth showing up for. While some IPFW fans made it into Purcell Pavilion Monday night, the home crowd was bored and got antsy quite often as the Irish gave up 13 offensive rebounds throughout the night.
The defense was lackadaisical and the backcourt play was especially poor early as both Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins didn’t look zoned in. It was so bad that Mike Brey went to walk-on guard Patrick Crowley for the last few minutes of the first half to bring a different kind of energy.
The Irish survived Monday night on the strong offensive play of their front court as Jack Cooley (14 points 8 rebounds 2 blocks), Scott Martin (13 points 7 rebounds) Pat Connaughton (18 points 6 rebounds) and Garrick Sherman (8 points 5 rebounds) combined for 53 of the 74 points ND scored that evening.
Brey shook up the starting lineup on Wednesday night by giving Garrick Sherman the start over Jerian Grant. The move was likely a way to get the junior guard's attention and it must have worked as Grant bounced back with a 14 point 4 assist performance Wednesday night. He took a scary spill late in the game which led to a bruised back but one day of rest was apparently enough for him as he returned to the starting lineup on Friday night. Brey also experimented with an all guard line up of Martin-Connaughton-Biedscheid-Grant-Atkins for a few minutes but didn't stick with it long enough to see any real results. It did show a new wrinkle to the offense as it could act as ND's small-ball lineup - a counter to its twin towers offense with Cooley and Sherman out there alongside Martin on the frontcourt.
While the team defense in the first half was mediocre at best, it was nice to see freshman big man Zach Auguste get some early minutes. He made the most of it by scoring 5 early points in the first half in limited minutes. He was a revelation in the second half finishing strong at the rim and protecting it on defense when called upon. He finished with 12 points and 7 rebounds (and a "WOW" block) in less than 13 minutes of game time.
The real star of the night was co-captain Eric Atkins who orchestrated a masterful 13 assist performance (along with 9 points on 4/5 shooting) that led to ND shooting a season high 61.5% from the field on the night (including 69.2% in the second half) which marked the highest outing since 2007. Brey's motion offense was in full gear as ND took advantage of an outmatched Kennesaw State team beating both the man to man and zone defense former Irish assistant coach Lewis Preston threw out there.
The laziness seemed to creep in again on Friday night against Joe Mihalich's Niagara squad as ND's 2-3 zone was routinely exposed by the Purple Eagles' spacing and shooting in the first half.
But co-captain Jack Cooley refused to let the Irish slip into poor play as he powered ND with 20 points and 10 rebounds in the first half alone. He established himself as the emotional leader of the team as he energized the crowd with his effort play on defense and on the boards. He finished the night with 24 points and 15 rebounds - both season highs. He finished the week with a three game average of 17.3 points 12 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Niagara wanted to take the ball away from Atkins as much as possible as they applied extra pressure on the Irish point guard during inbound situations which allowed Grant to step into the playmaker role. The junior guard excelled, especially in pick and roll situations chipping in a game high 8 assists along with 13 points.
Sophomore forward Pat Connaghton was also a nice revelation during the three nights as he continued to make strides as a shooter, penetrator and facilitator. Brey seems to be using him especially well along the baselines where little triangle offense pockets form with Connaughton playing the passer role for Cooley post positions or kickouts to others.
The Irish - winners of 10 straight - now have two weeks off before their next game against Seton Hall on January 5th. CW, Alstein and I will bring you a Big East Preview of sorts around New Year's Day while you engage in Bowl Game watching.
A few notes from in and out of the games:
- Purcell does an outstanding job with the video board. Be it replays, highlights from a previous night, player intros or a Christmas Carol video featuring the players (the highlight of which is a clip of Cam Biedscheid and Zach Auguste doing a hip-hop remix of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" with Auguste doing a pretty solid beat box - this is a highlight because literally every other player cannot hold a note on key), the Pavilion's video board is further proof that it can be done in a classy manner with no corporate ads. It doesn't matter if BK wins on January 7th, he can have whatever the hell he wants - video board, astro turf, retractable dome - whatever. He can have it all.
- Every time ND hits a 3, a cute girl - looks like an athletic department intern of sorts - starts jumping around in the corner then throws a free t shirt into the crowd somewhere. She smiled at me on Friday night. No T shirt though.
- ND's end of half defense has routinely been terrible this season. Too many teams have been able to execute whatever they want as time runs down. This needs to be fixed.
- Jerian Grant is in a bit of a outside shooting slump and that includes during warm-ups too. He'll need to snap out of that for ND to finish in the top 4 of the Big East.
- The debate of Sherman vs. Auguste is slowly making it around the ND twittersphere. I think we all would like to see Auguste's outstanding athleticism being used out there more frequently so here's me crossing my fingers wishing for that to happen.
- Is Cooley a dirty player? I've seen enough of him to realize that he likes to swing his elbows and that he doesn't mind getting physical with you. He's no Bill Laimbeer (a ND alum... that most people don't like very much) but I can see Cooley's "dirty" play coming to light here and there throughout the course of the season as the spotlight on him grows stronger
- Most ND fans are familiar with LaPhonso Ellis - the newer fans will recognize him as the color commentator alongside Jack Nolan or on ESPN and the older fans will know him as a big man during the late 80s and early 90s who went on to have a decent NBA career. I've always heard that he was a good guy but I came away really impressed this past week. After every game LaPhonso turned around and took pictures with any lingering fans, got up and shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with almost every usher - whom he knew all by name - he could, gave kids high fives, hugged old ladies and even gave words of encouragement to players from the visiting team. I believe that a person like LaPhonso Ellis is the embodiment of Notre Dame culture and it was such a beautiful sight to see.
- The Purcell DJ played "Gangnam Style" all three nights as every little kid in the arena started to do the dance for the dance cam. As a Korean I officially would like to make a motion for this practice to stop. Oh yea, and you bet people around me turned around to see if I was doing the dance.