Nov. 11, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in a six-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2010-11 Notre Dame winter sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish men's basketball team that made a remarkable turnaround late last season through its unique "burn" offense to reach the semifinals of the BIG EAST Championship and earn an NCAA Tournament berth.
There's a quiet, yet determined confidence among the Notre Dame coaches and players in 2010-11. While the disappointment of the Irish's NCAA Tournament first-round exit by Old Dominion still lingers, those returning know there is much to build on from last season's late-season surge that drew attention and plaudits from college basketball experts around the nation.
After losing three straight in mid-February and playing without its leading scorer and rebounder, Luke Harangody, hopes for a sixth NCAA tournament appearance in 10 seasons seemed all but dead.
But after employing a "burn offense" into his bag of tricks that transformed Mike Brey's up-tempo style of play that has been synonymous with the Brey era, Irish rattled off four straight regular-season conference wins in dramatic fashion and won two games in the BIG EAST Championship to advance to the program's third conference semifinal appearance.
Despite a heartbreaking loss (53-51) to eventual champion and NCAA Final Four participant, West Virginia, the Irish received their sixth NCAA tournament bid in the last 10 seasons as the No. 6 seed in the NCAA South Region.
It marked the third appearance in the last four years for the senior class of Harangody, Tory Jackson, Jonathan Peoples and Tim Andree who finished off their careers as the all-time winningest class in program history with 93 wins overall and 43 BIG EAST regular-season victories. In addition, the quartet helped Notre Dame advance to the semifinals of the conference championship in two of those seasons (2007 and '10).
Notre Dame's run at the end of last season certainly helped build the foundation for this year as well as the confidence of Brey, his coaching staff and players. The Irish, who finished last season with a 23-12 record and 10-8 mark, return four players -- Tyrone Nash, Ben Hansbrough, Tim Abromaitis and Carleton Scott. The quartet was instrumental and played a big part in the team's late-season success.
"I am confident and looking forward to the upcoming season because the group that did it accomplished it without one of the greatest players in the history of this program (Luke Harangody) in the lineup, Brey says. "One of my themes for this group has been `we did it for six games in 2009-10 without Luke, now can we do it for six months.'
"Despite the losses of Luke and Tory, there is still a considerable amount of game experience in our program. The nucleus from last season that we are going to be working with is still there," Brey adds. "I am excited and feel good about what this group can accomplish this year."
Last season's unprecedented run has left the Irish with confidence, while the NCAA first-round loss has left Notre Dame hungry to get back in position where it was at the end of the season -- controlling its own fate and destiny.
"I was really proud of where we put ourselves at the end of last season," Brey remarks. "We went from being on the bubble to earning not only a bid, but a number-six seed. Because we lost in the first round, I think there is some hunger on the part of our guys to get back into that position again."
Under Brey, Notre Dame has experienced the Friday night semifinal atmosphere of the BIG EAST Championship and Madison Square Garden on three occasions. But one of his talking points to his squad throughout the offseason has been about playing on Saturday night and what that would mean to the players and program. It's a goal the 11th-year head coach has challenged his players with this season.
"I've talked openly since last season ended about playing on Saturday night in New York City at Madison Square Garden," Brey says. "We have played there on Friday a couple of times in the last four years and would love nothing more for this year's group and our program to experience the atmosphere of playing on Saturday night.
"I think that with this year's group there is a confidence and camaraderie among the returning players that they did something pretty special to finish off the end of last season in order to earn that NCAA tournament bid. While getting that NCAA bid is obviously our ultimate goal, I would like nothing more than to have this group experience playing on Saturday night at MSG ."
Notre Dame's success over the past four seasons can certainly be attributed to the overall leadership that has existed within the program. Brey once again will have the luxury of strong leadership both on and off the court.
Look for Hansbrough to be the voice in the locker room once again. He brought a toughness and fearlessness on the court during his first season in an Irish uniform. His leadership will be something Brey will point to throughout the season,
"I think that Ben is really looking forward to being the voice of this team and our leader."
With the loss of Jackson at point guard, Hansbrough also will be counted on to handle some of those duties, especially early on in the campaign as freshman Eric Atkins gets acclimated to the collegiate game. Hansbrough shared the duties somewhat with Jackson a year ago, but for him to be effective as he was last season, he needs the freedom of being able to play the two guard.
"We've had young point guards before in our program and we've proven that in a short period of time, they have been able to develop within our system," Brey says. We've got some options with Eric, who is a true point guard in every sense, and with our other two freshmen, Alex and Jerian. In a sense, three of our four best players with the ball are freshmen.
"I think Ben will be able to handle the point guard duties on a limited basis during the game as he did a year ago, but for us to be successful in the long term throughout the season, we need to give him a little bit more freedom on the floor to do what he does best. Ben is at his best when he can drive to the basket, shoot from the perimeter and our secondary option in distributing the basketball. It's a great insurance policy for us to have a fifth-year senior in the backcourt that can handle the basketball.
The guard and wing play also will be strengthened by the return of Abromaits, one of the nation's top three-point shooters, and Scott Martin. Martin, who transferred to Notre Dame following his freshman year at Purdue in June 2008, was sidelined last year after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in October 2009 and then undergoing knee surgery. Both are proven scorers from the outside and are expected to give the Irish tremendous depth along the perimeter. Each, however, has shown versatility in their game to score in a variety of ways.
Sophomore Joey Brooks adds depth to Notre Dame's guard corps and will be counted on not only for his scoring, but also for his ability as a defender.
Brey will enjoy the luxury of having a talented and experienced frontline to work with this season. Nash and Scott are the top returnees who give the Irish both size, strength and athleticism in the frontcourt. Both handle the ball well in the open court and down low. While both are proven scorers inside, Scott also is effective along the perimeter.
This is year's squad may be one of Brey's deepest in recent memory and will provide the 11th-year head coach and his staff with the ability to change up his rotation with a several different lineups during the course of a game.
"I do think that we have the opportunity to have a deeper group than ever before with many different lineups that we can play," Brey says. "We can play without a big and we can play without a forward because our forwards do handle the ball so well. With the personnel we have returning, we'll be able to play both an up-tempo and disciplined style."
Whether or not Brey employs the "burn offense" will be dependent on how the season progresses and what gives his squad the best chance to be successful," Brey says.
"We have a nucleus that was part of something that worked well and we believed in it. Being able to change gears this year could be a real strength of ours; we are going to be hard to scout and hard to prepare for because we can play a couple of different ways."
Once again, Notre Dame's unselfishness and its ability to distribute and take care of the basketball will be one of the team's strengths. The Irish owned a 1.62 assist-to-turnover ratio (585 assists and 362 turnovers) and finished nationally in that category last season.
"We've always had players who have been good with the ball and can handle the basketball," Brey says. "Our guards and our post players always have made good decisions with the ball from anywhere on the court."
Notre Dame will look to capitalize on its size inside to make rebounding one of the team's strengths this season.
"I think that rebounding can be something that we can really hang our hat on this year," Brey remarks. "We have not always been a great rebounding team, but I look at it as being one of strengths this year that we can rebound at both ends of the court. I would be disappointed if this wasn't a real plus for us throughout the season."
Notre Dame will face one of its most challenging schedules with non-conference matchups against Kentucky and Gonzaga. In addition, the Irish are slated to play in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando where they will open up against Georgia and play either Temple or California in their second game, while Wisconsin, Boston College, Texas A&M and Manhattan are on the other side of the bracket.
"Our non-conference schedule is going to be an unbelievable barometer for us and is going to be a real challenge," Brey says. "We'll be able to evaluate our team and know what we have to improve on before heading into the BIG EAST. We have some great opportunities early on and look forward to having to play tough games early on in the season."
"When you look at our overall personnel, we will enjoy some real size and strength in the frontcourt that we haven't had since my first couple of years here," Brey says. "Tyrone and Carleton have been in the trenches for us and have been in a lot of game situations. With Jack, Mike and Tom we have some really big bodies that can be physical. In the most physical league in college basketball, our size and strength up front will pay off for us.
"We want Tyrone to rebound and defend for us and to set a tone with a higher motor," Brey says. "He'll be a leader for us in a quiet way. We want him to be an option in the post when we throw the ball into him and we want him to look to score inside.
"He such a versatile player for a guy with his size because he passes the ball so well and has a great feel for the game. In certain situations, I'm comfortable with having him bring the ball up the floor. Tyrone can be a double-figure scorer for us and that is what we're hoping he can do."
No player has had a bigger impact during the second half of the season than Scott and was more instrumental in Notre Dame's late-season success. A starter in nine contests, he averaged 5.0 points and 4.6 rebounds, but down the stretch, he proved to be a key both on the offensive and defensive end.
No player on the Irish roster is as versatile as Scott with regards to his ability to scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking abilities. He's a proven scorer from anywhere on the court, and because of that, is a hard player to guard.
"I want to build off the confidence that Carleton had at the end of last season," Brey says. "I am so proud of the way he finished the season and how he as grown into a man in our system. His ability to shoot the basketball as our second big guy really helps and makes us hard to defend.
"This season he can develop into a great rebounder for us. Carleton also is the one guy that we have that is a true shot blocker. He's a great passer and his basketball IQ is underrated at times. The biggest thing we're going to do is continue to nurture the confidence that he displayed at the end of last season."
No player may surprise Irish fans more this season than Jack Cooley. Despite averaging just 1.0 points and 1.8 rebounds a year ago, Cooley showed signs that he could become a real contributor within Brey's system because of his toughness and physicality. Look for the Irish to count on him to be a defensive presence on the floor.
"Jack is really easy to play with offensively because he doesn't try to do too much," Brey says. "He's a good screener and does the dirty work; our players love playing with him because of what he brings to the table. He's also more talented offensively than anyone gives him credit for.
"Jack has worked himself into better playing conditioning and that's going to be important because we need him on the floor. We want to be able to take advantage of his rebounding and his ability to defend and screen in the low post."
Like Cooley, Mike Broghammer will be another player the Irish will look to as a physical presence inside. He averaged 1.8 points last season while playing in 13 contests. Broghammer has good feel for the game offensively; he passes, catches and can step away from the post to make a mid-range jump shot.
"I'm excited to see the improvement Mike made since last season because we are going to need his body down low," Brey says. "We want him to be a responsible defender for us with his big body and to assert himself on the boards. We need his defensive and rebounding presence on the floor and for him to embrace that role."
Tom Knight did not see action last season, but Brey is hoping that he can count on him to become a physical presence inside.
"Tom knows that he needs to get tougher on the defensive end," Brey says. He's a very gifted offensive big man right now, but we need him to get more physical for us defensively."
Hansbrough will prove to be Notre Dame's backcourt general in `'10-'11. With the graduation of Jackson, it will be Hansbrough's turn to be the voice and leader on the court and in the locker room. He was the third-leading scorer last season with a 12.0 scoring average, but proved to be much more than an offensive threat as he averaged 3.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.1 steals.
Hansbrough is an attacking offensive player whose greatest assets are his toughness, fearlessness and decision-making abilities. Brey will rely on him to do a little bit of everything as a scorer, rebounder and playmaker.
"Ben's leadership, voice and toughness will be an example for the rest of team," Brey says. "He is our strongest personality on the court and we need him to be a scorer and have a really attacking frame of mind. We need Ben to do a little bit of everything for us this season. I believe that he is ready to all that we are going to ask of him."
"Tim really understands the game and is an incredibly efficient scorer," Brey says. "He takes good shots and knows what a good shot is. He scored at an incredible clip a year ago, and that may change this season because we'll have more scoring options and a real balance across the board.
"Tim has gotten better off the dribble and in getting to the basket. He needs to continue to do that. At the end of last season, he was a target for defenses and I think that wore him down. Considering our options this season, I'm hoping that we'll be more dimensional."
After not playing for two seasons, no one is more ready for the season to start than Martin. He sat out the 2008-09 campaign after transferring from Purdue and missed all of last season after tearing his ACL. In his freshman season with the Boilermakers, Martin averaged 8.5 points and 3.8 rebounds.
A talented all-around player and underrated rebounder and defender, Martin has will certainly provide the Irish with offense from anywhere on the court.
"The first thing for me is to be patient with Scott and his development on the court," Brey says. "He is an extremely talented all-around player on the offensive end of the floor and is a guy who can be a scoring threat from the inside and outside.
"He's a natural scorer and we need him to do that for us this season. Having Scott on the court makes us a very potent offensive team."
Sophomore Joey Brooks will add depth to the Irish backcourt. As a freshman last season, he averaged 2.0 points and played in 22 contests. A proven scorer during his prep career, Brey is plans on taking advantage of Brooks' athleticism and the intelligence that he displays on the court.
"Joey is a great communicator on the floor," Brey says. "While I know that he wants to be an integral part of our offense and be a really scoring threat, what we need him to do is help us out on the defensive end of the floor. He just needs to patient, defend and keep it simple. I want to take advantage of his physicality because I believe that he can really help us this season."
Rookie Eric Atkins appears to the heir apparent as the only true point guard on the Irish roster. Brey has been in this position before of having to invest in nurturing a first-year points guard, but will take advantage of his playmaking ability, athletic skills and quickness.
"When Eric signed to play here at Notre Dame, he knew that he would have the opportunity to come in and see playing time right away," Brey says. "He's the only true point guard on our roster. I'm confident that he will be able to help us season as he makes progress from week-to-week and game-to-game. We've been in this situation before and I'm confident that Eric will fall in line with the other great point guards that we have had here at Notre Dame."
Like Atkins, Grant has speed and athleticism. He's a player that likes to drive to the basket, score from the perimeter and handle the basketball.
"Jerian will help us with our overall team on floor," Brey says. "He's a slasher and guy who can drive to the basket, but he also has excellent range from the perimeter. Jerian can also be a defender for us. We just need him to get stronger and to get him playing time and game experience. I look for Jerian to have a great career here at Notre Dame."
Dragicevich's size and skills will make him a unique player within the Irish system. He has a great feel for the game, handles the ball well and shows great prowess as a shooter from the perimeter.
"Alex's ball-handling abilities and his ability to play point guard make him valuable for us," Brey says. "Overall, he just has a great feel for the game. His size and his ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter and make baskets are things that we are going to be to our advantage."
Senior walk-on Tom Kopko is in his fourth year with the program and adds depth to the Irish backcourt.