Despite what we might often convince you here at HLS, it is basketball season right now. And Notre Dame basketball is in the midst of some pretty crazy stuff currently.
The Irish are 16-4 overall (just dropped out of the rankings this week) and 4-3 in the Big East, which is good for fifth place in the conference. It is apparent that this team has an extremely high ceiling, yet is also capable of getting beat any given night if the guys don’t show up.
Right now, the team is making some serious adjustments. The biggest changes have been forced upon the team, because 6th-year senior and co-captain Scott Martin is out with injury, and potentially has played his last game for the Irish. While Martin has only averaged 8 points and 6 rebounds a game this year, he brings a lot more than it might seem to the team. Coach Brey has always referred to Martin as an extra coach on the floor (maybe he’s just trying to get the ultra-rare seventh year?), and his ability guard from the 2-4 spots provided the Irish with some real lineup flexibility. But now that is gone, and this is where you find out what the team is made of.
On Saturday we got our first glimpse of the new-look Irish without Martin. We already knew that Atkins, Grant, Connaughton, and Cooley were locks to be starters, but who would take the 5th spot? Cameron Biedscheid’s skill set is the most similar offensively to Martin’s, but Brey opted to go with a veteran presence (shocker) and gave senior forward Tom Knight the nod.
Tom Knight received great praise from Mike Brey all offseason after putting in great work, but many fans were left wondering why as he was averaging less than eight minutes a game before Saturday’s matchup with South Florida. Garrick Sherman had been Jack Cooley’s backup for the first 15 games or so and Knight was typically left on the bench. However, since the start of Big East play Knight has passed Sherman and begun to carve out his own niche. Against the Bulls, we saw what all Brey’s praise was really about as he scored 17 points on 8-10 shooting, and chipped in 7 rebounds as well, all in his first career start.
While it was fantastic to see Tom go out and display that kind of game, the reality is that he’s still not going to cut into Jack Cooley’s minutes, because Cooley is an absolute workhorse. So essentially Mike Brey is going to go with a “twin towers” two big man lineup for almost entire games now, rotating pairs of Cooley, Knight and Sherman.
Offensively, this shouldn’t be a difficult adjustment for the Irish. Despite working with a fairly small lineup before, Notre Dame does not look to get out and run. Eric Atkins and Jerian run the show (excellently I might add — Notre Dame is 3rd in the country in assists per game) almost exclusively in half-court sets, so running two bigs will not slow the Irish down. In fact, having an extra screener on the court at all times may allow the guards to penetrate into the lane more frequently and open up the offense even further.
Defensively it will be interesting to see how the Irish adjust, because many of our Big East opponents play small-ball and do like to run the floor. The Irish will need to slow the pace, because the last thing you want to do with two big men is get into a track meet. The Villanova Wildcats come into Purcell Pavilion tonight (6:00 ET on ESPN2) and will provide a test of how the Irish defend smaller, quicker teams.
While Villanova is 13-7 overall on the season and has lost to teams such as Columbia and LaSalle, they are still an opponent that the Irish can’t afford to overlook. The Wildcats are coming off of back-to-back wins versus then #5 Louisville and #3 Syracuse, so they clearly play to the level of their competition.
Notre Dame needs to protect home court on Wednesday, and the hunch here is that they do exactly that. But even more important than any individual win is that this team needs to continue to build on its apparent new identity — the Irish are getting big and physical.
GrantlandX Prediction: Notre Dame 75, Villanova 69