Jack Cooley (45) and Scott Martin (14) lead a core of experienced players that welcomes two talented freshman and one former Final Four participant into South Bend to give Mike Brey one of his best teams yet at Notre Dame. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)
One more Big East contender gets a feature profile today following last night's closeup of Sean Kilpatrick and Cincinnati.
Last season was a battle for Notre Dame. Following a lackluster 8-5 start to the year in nonconference play that saw senior forward Tim Abromaitis go down for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL, the Fighting Irish split their first six Big East games, the last of which was a crushing upset loss to Rutgers at the RAC. Suddenly, the Irish went on a roll, vaulting themselves into the top four in the conference standings with a nine-game winning streak that commenced with a nationally televised victory over then-undefeated and No. 1 Syracuse. Notre Dame lost four of their last six, but still managed to reach the NCAA Tournament once again, where they were defeated by Xavier in the Round of 64.
Even after the loss, the Fighting Irish made headlines in the offseason, as it was announced that they would join Syracuse and Pittsburgh in leaving the Big East in favor of the Atlantic Coast Conference. However, unlike the Orange and Panthers, Notre Dame has no set timetable on when they would make the move. "I think we're going to be in this league this year and next year," head coach Mike Brey remarked at Big East media day, while also revealing his feelings on the latest realignment domino to fall. "I had mixed emotions, and this is from a guy who grew up in ACC country and coached in the ACC. It's like taking a new job without leaving."
For the near future, Notre Dame is still in the Big East, and Brey returns everyone from last year's roster with the exception of swingman Alex Dragicevich, who transferred to Boston College. The Fighting Irish will again be led in the backcourt by juniors Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, who played beyond their youth last season. "I think because they didn't play well in the postseason, they're coming in with a chip on their shoulder," Brey said of his backcourt. Scott Martin returns on the wing after being granted a sixth year of eligibility, and will join sophomore Pat Connaughton and incoming freshman Cameron Biedscheid; a talented swingman from St. Louis already being hailed by Brey for his potential, as swingmen for the Irish and bridges to the more experienced front line. "We might have the oldest frontcourt in the country," said Brey. "Scott just got his AARP card."
Senior Jack Cooley, who could easily be mistaken for former Notre Dame great Luke Harangody, returns to South Bend for his final go-round after a junior campaign that saw the 6-9 power forward average over twelve points and nearly nine rebounds per game in a season where he shot 63 percent from the field. In addition to Cooley, Brey welcomes Massachusetts native Zach Auguste; a 6-10 freshman, into the frontcourt, as well as former Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman. The 6-10 Sherman, who played in the 2010 Final Four as a freshman with Tom Izzo's Spartans, will have two seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out last season when arriving from East Lansing. "He's already added leadership and is teaching Zach," Brey said. "He's such a great addition."
Notre Dame starts their season on November 10th when Evansville makes their way into the Joyce Center, and Monmouth follows suit two days later. From there, the Fighting Irish will invade the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, first taking on Saint Joseph's on November 16th before awaiting either Brigham Young or Florida State the following day. Home games against George Washington, Saint Francis University and Chicago State are next once Notre Dame returns from Brooklyn, with Kentucky coming into the Joyce Center on November 29th to headline the SEC/Big East Challenge. Brown comes into South Bend next on December 8th, with the Irish getting a week off before their neutral site matchup with Purdue on December 15th in Indianapolis. IPFW, Kennesaw State and Niagara are the final nonconference opponents for Notre Dame, who opens Big East play at home on January 5th against Seton Hall.
The first true road game for the Irish takes place in Cincinnati on January 7th, with UConn heading into South Bend on the 12th, three days before Notre Dame hits the road again to face St. John's at Madison Square Garden. From there, home games with Rutgers (January 19th) and Georgetown (January 21st) ensue, with a road trip to USF on January 26th preceding a home meeting with Villanova four days later. Notre Dame opens February with a trip to Chicago on the 2nd to square off against DePaul, with their final Big East trip to the Carrier Dome taking place two nights later.
The Fighting Irish return to South Bend to host Louisville (February 9th) and DePaul (February 13th) before traveling to Providence on the 16th and then to the Petersen Center for the final time in Big East play to face Pittsburgh two days later. Notre Dame alternates between home and road battles for their final four contests, starting at the Joyce Center on February 24th against Cincinnati, then facing Marquette on March 2nd in Milwaukee before hosting St. John's three days later, with a trip to the Yum! Center to meet Rick Pitino and Louisville on March 9th.