When you look at the rosters around the ACC, there is not the same post presence as there was in the Big East for the past few years. Irish coach Mike Brey has noted the tendency for ACC teams to stretch out the floor, particularly at the traditional power forward position, with a longer, leaner athlete who often steps out further than has been historically true of power forwards.
I don't want to overstate this; the Irish have a clear leg up by having three regulars listed at 6'10", but there are plenty of good post players around the league. North Carolina is counting on junior James Michael McAdoo and sophomore Joel James. Boston College has probably the best pick-and-roll player in the nation with Ryan Anderson. Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas was the 2nd ranked center recruit in his class. Virginia's Akil Mitchell is a complete player inside and outside. Duke has another Plumlee hanging around.
But few opponents will be playing two traditional big men as much as it looks like Notre Dame will this season. With fifth-year seniors Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman, as well as sophomore Zach Auguste, the Irish have a huge leg up with their length in the post. But that blessing can also be a curse, especially when asking Knight and Sherman to guard much quicker opposing forwards.
Despite the obvious potential athletic disadvantages, Notre Dame can use this size to their advantage as well. Limiting easy buckets, eliminating second chance opportunities while creating some of their own, forcing opponents into lower-percentage shots; these are all the little things that can often be the difference between winning and losing.
That said, none of the three have proven consistent success to starting checking off victories for the Irish.
Start with Tom Knight, who will likely be a constant in the starting lineup this season. Knight was barely in the rotation until Scott Martin's injury midway through last season. He provided a major spark, including 6 double-digit scoring games and plenty of key rebounding efforts. However, he is a fifth-year senior with only a half season of major minutes under his belt, and he wasn't terribly efficient for a big man, preferring a mid-range game as his go-to offense. Mostly, by his own admission, he needs to prove his toughness down low and on the boards, because if there is anything that this group needs to replace, it's Jack Cooley's attitude in the paint. Tom Knight agrees:
"Right now we don’t have that beast on the glass like Jack was. Jack took it to heart that he was going to get every rebound and now we don’t have guys that are used to doing that. Maybe as the season goes on, we will find that one person that will be that guy.
For his part, Zach Auguste thinks he can be that guy:
We understand we’re missing a big guy who rebounded for us and finished around the hoop. Of course I feel like I can step in and take his place.
I take that on almost fully. That’s my job. Every time I’m in, I always think I have to get rebounds. That’s a big thing we need this year.
Auguste may be the biggest x-factor to this whole ACC transition. He has the size, length, and athleticism to hang defensively with literally anyone in the conference. He certainly adds an above-the-rim dimension that the Irish often lack and has been working on a mid-range jumper that can make him a deadly offensive force. But in his freshman campaign, he often disappeared or, even worse, made costly freshman (hopefully) mistakes that led directly to turnovers and easy points for the opponent.
Finally, former Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman has been quite an enigma in his time at Notre Dame. We all know about his 17-point, overtime-only game against Louisville, and he put in a strong Big East Tournament as well. But Mike Brey didn't trust him to be a regular until late in the season, even earning the "DNP - coach's decision" multiple times during conference play. According to Brey, it's all about confidence with Sherman, because the talent, skill, and size are all there for him. But whether he can be consistent, particularly on defense and the boards, is something he needs to prove to his coach and to a new conference.
In addition to the three major rotation guys, the Irish also return two forwards that seemingly no one - not even Mike Brey - knows what to expect of this season. Eric Katenda, now listed as a sophomore, has had a rough run of luck since signing to play for Notre Dame. His summer before beginning in South Bend, he suffered an eye injury in a pickup game that left him nearly blind in his left eye. He would not have even been playing in that game were it not for NCAA clearinghouse issues that resulted in part due to his emigration from France.
Since somewhat miraculously returning from his eye injury, Katenda has suffered from plantar fasciitis as well as additional minor ankle and knee injuries. Whether he ever suits up for serious minutes for the Irish is still very much in question, but he brings length and athleticism that could really help against many of the stretch fours that Notre Dame will face in the ACC.
Austin Burgett is the last member of the front court rotation. Brey's policy has always been to let the player decide if he wants to redshirt or not, and Burgett chose not to last year despite very limited minutes available to him. He is the only real "stretch" four the Irish have, but whether he is able to work into the rotation consistently remains to be seen. His playing time likely depends on whether he can shoot the three and limit his liabilities defensively.
Regardless of the contributions from the latter two players, the Irish have a solid three-man rotation that gives them more size and true post presence than most other teams in the conference. Those three players have plenty of questions to answer individually and collectively, particularly when it comes to replacing Cooley's All-Big East productivity. Said Mike Brey at media day:
What's my biggest concern moving forward? How are we going to rebound the ball, because Jack Cooley rebounded the ball on both ends of the floor. That's something I've really been after our guys.
If the Irish want to compete for the ACC title, their size advantage and Big East experience better result in making life difficult inside for opponents, particularly on the boards. With the trio of Knight, Sherman, and Auguste, they might have the combination of size, skill, and athleticism to do just that. Everyone knows about the Irish backcourt, but the key to an ACC title and an elusive deep run in March might be the unproven but talented frontcourt providing some balance and edge in Notre Dame's inaugural ACC season.