The 2012 Irish squad are sitting at 7-1 right now with its latest victory coming at the hands of the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats. While the Wildcats are young and raw, they are still very talented, but t
he Irish took advantage of the Kentucky youth and inexperience to notch their 7th win of the season and first over a ranked team. If you watched the game though then you realize that it was the Irish who attacked the basket athletically, more specifically, Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins were the stars of show. Not only did the tandem attack the rim aggressively and often, but also found a way to get others involved with a combined 10 assists. There will be those who point out that Kentucky is still trying to find their way on the offensive side of the ball, and they would be correct. That doesn’t change the fact that this his same Wildcat team made a fierce comeback against the #2 Duke Blue Devils and almost pulled out an impressive win.
The lone defeat the Irish have suffered this year came at the hands of St. Joe of the A10 conference. Before you make a joke about that, the A10 is loaded this year and the Hawks are expected to be in the mix to win that conference. In that loss the Irish had plenty of opportunities down low, but missed too many easy layups and put backs, which eventually would cost them game. When tournament selection time comes around, trust me when I say this, the loss to St. Joe will not end up in the category of “bad loss” for the Irish.
For Notre Dame to have continued success throughout the rest of their out of conference schedule and into to conference play there are trends the Irish need to continue, stop, and start. As mentioned before it is imperative that Atkins and Grant continue to be aggressive in attacking the basket and creating their own shot. If the talented backcourt of the Irish can continue this, then that opens up the 3-point shot for Scott Martin Co. and dish-offs to Cooley and Sherman underneath. This also puts the opposing team in an aggressive defensive mode and allows the Irish more trips to the line. The impressive aspect of both of these guards game is that while they are having success aggressively penetrating the lane, they’re having just as much success from the behind the line. The duo is shooting at almost a 45% clip from behind the line, and while very impressive right now, both Atkins and Grant will need to prove that they can do it consistently when the Irish enter into Big East play.
Underneath the basket is where the Irish need to be slightly more physical and consistent. With that said, it’s not that Cooley or Sherman have played bad, but the Big East will provide some physical play underneath. Cooley has improved his game both in the paint and is proving that he can knock down a jumper from 12 feet out. He will hustle with the best of them, and is aggressive going after the ball which is never a bad thing. Garrick Sherman, the Michigan State transfer, is tall but lacks bulk. He can rebound and be aggressive around the rim, and on the defensive side of the ball, Sherman is no stranger to blocking a shot or two. The only concern with Sherman is that against athletic centers he tends to struggle. With the trio of Cooley, Knight, and Sherman the Irish have a talented rotation to man the paint, but if they want to be considered a true strength, they need to show a little more physicality and consistency.
Scott Martin, Cameron Biedscheid, and Patrick Connaughton round off the top 7 players for the Irish, and that is about as deep as Coach Brey likes to go in a game that matters. Martin has hit some clutch shots from outside this year and while he will never be a threat to go in the NBA draft, Martin does understand his role on the team and his strength and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Even when the Irish have blown teams out this year, the final trio of Auguste, Burgett, and Crowley have not seen a lot of playing time, and do not expect that to change anytime soon. Brey has never been a huge fan of going deep on the bench, and that will not change this year. If the Irish play up to their potential they should enter Big East play with a record of 12-1. Notre Dame will welcome the Pirates of Seton Hall into Purcell Pavilion on January 5th to kick off their conference play. In the final 5 games before that the Irish should be favorites in every game, and the only team might pose a small problem would in-state rival Purdue.
It will be very interesting to see how this squad does over the course of the 2012/2013 season. If the backcourt continues to improve and mature, Notre Dame should find themselves consistently in the top 25 all year long and earning another birth to the NCAA tournament at the end of the year. Of course as any Irish basketball fan will tell you, that the tourney is where the real issues start. We will hold off on any judgment so far, and see how Brey and Co. progress throughout the year. If they play as a team and understand their individual roles, it could be a fun year – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.