Head Coach Mike Brey has already gone on record by stating that this year’s returning backcourt is the "greatest strength of the team" and will largely determine how well the squad does this year. The potential impact of freshman Demetrius Jackson and the punch provided by the growth of Zach Auguste and steady play by the Knight-Sherman combo are all big, but Brey is right in saying that the veteran backcourt will be the motor that keeps this team running this season.
The discussion for this position group should begin with senior and third year captain Eric Atkins. Just about every preseason coverage post that has come out so far about this team has mentioned Atkins and how this is now "his" team. From the same report that CW cited a few days ago:
Atkins really stood out. It appears that he has taken his game to another level. He was sharp running his team, and appears quicker and stronger than last year, and was much more assertive offensively, finishing consistently around the basket and hitting from outside. I think he will be the leader of this team.
Atkins will be entering his 4th year as a full time starter - sure Ben Hansbrough was the primary guard in 2009-2010, but Atkins still started every game alongside the current Indiana Pacer - and that is something that makes him really stand out and take command of this offense. Over the past two years Atkins was forced to play virtually every single minute but as CW discussed Monday, the arrival of Demetrius Jackson will allow Atkins to remain relatively fresh throughout the season. Couple that with an improved outside shot and physical strength with his already well established game management we could be looking at All Conference type of performer at the point.
Jerian Grant returns as Atkins' backcourt partner (and roommate) for the third year in a row and probably has the most to prove among all the players on this team. Grant's inherent talent is largely unquestioned. He has the ability to pull up and shoot from anywhere, get to the rim and even run the offense as the primary 1 guard in spells. He has shown offensive heroics (closing minutes of Louisville last season) where he scores in bunches but it seemed like for every one of those performances, he had an underwhelming 2-9 shooting night.
The senior (or redshirt junior at most schools) guard is not likely to suddenly change the way he plays. He's still going to take ill advised jump shots, drift and fade when he shouldn't and get lost defensively. But he'll make his share of those ill advised jump shots, nail the occasional fade in the way only he can and he'll occasionally use that long wingspan to jump a passing lane (like he did against Villanova and Georgetown where he collected 4 and 3 steals respectively). If the Irish can get Good Jerian 70-75% of the time as opposed to the 50-55% last season, a top 4 finish in the ACC - an arbitrary goal that I set for the team in the comments section on Monday - will be more than attainable.
Rounding out the starting backcourt / wing will be the returning junior dual sports star, Pat Connaughton. The Massachusetts native will be asked to do a little bit of everything for the squad this season - from handling the ball in some situations, defending the opponent's best player, to filling the lanes as a finisher and cutter as well as being the primary spot up guy from beyond the arc. On occasion Connaughton will be asked to slide to the PF spot in that small ball line up:
The article also cites to a physical training regiment that allows him to bang bodies on occasion in the post and be able to keep up physically with guys that are going to be 2-3 inches taller and 10-15 pounds heavier than him on the regular. That's asking a lot out of Connaughton - and he'll need to meet most of those requests throughout the season.
The young'n in this unit is Sophomore Sensation (the train is still going CW!) Cameron Biedscheid. Brey talked about his "microwave" offensive ability in the opening press conference - though to be fair, that happened maybe just twice last season (most notably against Villanova where he scored 18 points in 24 minutes on 5/7 from outside the arc). But Brey also knows that the St. Louis native will have to be more than just a scorer to stay out on the court this year.
"With his quickness of foot, he can stay in front of people, but also get out and get in passing lanes with his length. But that's something we'll have to continue to hammer home with him. To stay out there he's going to have to do it on the defensive end."
Biedscheid was a regular rotation feature and played a shade above 17 minutes and 6 points a game last season but also admitted during media day that he felt "worn down" by the time the tournament rolled around. He's obviously a skinnier frame but will have to add muscles, strength and stamina to improve his contribution and live up to his former high school reputation as a dominant scorer.
Walk on Patrick Crowley is also back for his senior season and will continue to be a big help in practices and a veteran voice that can help both Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia in their development.
The Irish are being discussed as a near unanimous top 20 team in most preseason polls and a contender in the ACC but everyone on the squad top to bottom knows that this season is more than just playing above average basketball in the regular season. Mike Brey has indicated that the team has been treating their performance last March against Iowa State as a "chip on their shoulder." If the Irish are going to do anything about that bad taste in their mouth, this unit will have to carry the bulk of the Listerine.