Led By Jack Cooley, Notre Dame’s Returning Core Powers The Irish

Midnight Madness is over, and with it went the smoke machines, dunk contests and laser shows that kick off the season. College basketball begins now, and while the excitement still remains it’s time to peel the hype back and see who the nation’s best truly are. That’s why Dime has you covered with individual previews of the nation’s top 15 teams and a few others just outside, all over the course of the next few weeks. Today, Notre Dame.

Mike Brey enters his 13th season at the helm of Notre Dame men’s basketball. Even though his team isn’t the most popular basketball squad on campus, thanks to the women’s team’s back-to-back national title game appearances via senior point guard Skylar Diggins, the men’s team has all the pieces to get to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. Building on last season’s promising third-place finish in the Big East, the team returns the core of its lineup, looking to take advantage of smaller teams inside led by 6-9 246 pound senior center Jack Cooley, a Wooden Award watch list selection. Ranked 22nd in most preseason polls, the Fighting Irish have a bitter taste in their mouth from a 67-63 NCAA second round loss to Xavier.

The Fighting Irish are stacked in the frontcourt. They aren’t going to jump out of the gym, but their big men can score the basketball. Cooley can get you a double-double every night. As last year’s Big East Most Improved Player, he averaged 14.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per contest in league play. In his final season, he’s looking to make the jump to a 20 and 10 outing per night, as he’s also efficient, hitting 62.5 percent of his field goals last year. He’s joined by senior center Garrick Sherman (6-10), who transferred from Michigan State, as well as freshman power forwards Austin Burgett (6-9), and Zach Auguste (6-10) and small forward Cameron Biedscheid (6-7).
Grade: B+

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Notre Dame isn’t going to get out and running in the open court. They do, however, have disciplined and skilled guards made for the half-court set, facilitating the motion offense while also creating opportunities for themselves. The backcourt of juniors Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant not only got the posts involved, but combined for almost 25 points a game last season. Their quickness and ability to get to the basket will force teams to step up and stop their penetration, allowing them to dish it off to their big men for easy buckets.
Grade: B

After losing standout Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending ACL injury at the start of last season, no one thought Notre Dame would finish in the upper-half of the Big East, let alone upset top-ranked and unbeaten Syracuse 67-58 on Jan. 21. Returning all five starters this year, the Irish have gotten past the growing pains and aches to finally jell together. They’re looking to make even more of a statement as they rely on the senior leadership of co-captains Cooley and guard Scott Martin, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA. Martin scored in double figures in 18 contests last year and grabbed 10-plus rebounds in three games.
Grade: A

Atkins is no longer an underclassman — he knows he has to facilitate the offense and step up more than ever before. As a true point guard, not only does he have the task of getting Cooley and Co. the ball, but his 12.1 points and 4.1 assists per game last season gave the Irish an extra threat offensively, as he hit double figures in 21 contests. He’s the team’s most efficient player, averaging a team-high 37.9 minutes per game in all 33 starts last season, while leading the Big East with a 2.56 assist-to-turnover ratio.

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When all of its pieces are in sync, this team can be really good — nine-game winning streak good. By defeating Syracuse at the start of that streak, Notre Dame sent a message that it is capable of beating elite teams, especially in a conference as competitive as the Big East. With Brey signing a 10-year extension, the Irish are in it for the long haul, but have their eyes set on the Big East title for now.

What do you think?

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