Don’t look now, but March is sneaking up on us, and fast. After Bayou Irish did an excellent job on Monday getting us familiar with the Irish Baseball team that is off to a red-hot start, I figured now was a great time to assess the current state of Notre Dame basketball.
Notre Dame is 22-6 overall and 10-5 in Big East play. That leaves the Irish ranked #21 overall and has us currently tied for 4th place in the conference (tied with Syracuse — trailing Georgetown, Marquette and Louisville, with games still remaining against the last two). In the latest Joe Lunardi Bracketology on ESPN, the Irish are projected as a 6-seed, which seems just about right. If Brey can get this team to go on a little win streak to close out the Big East and have some success in the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, we probably can rise as high as 4-seed — if we lose some steam we could probably end up as more of an 8-seed — but either way, we know roughly where we stand.
— Josh Flynt (@NDSportsBlogger) February 26, 2013
But what I want to look at, however, is how we should perform in March. It’s the big elephant in the room with Mike Brey — he has been absolutely excellent leading a resurgence of Notre Dame basketball (don’t forget, the Irish only made the NCAA Tournament once in the ten years prior to Brey) yet his teams’ postseason performances haven’t matched up with their regular season successes. But I think that’s about to change — this year is the year that Notre Dame breaks through and wins a few when it matters most. Here are some reasons why:
Depth - Ever since Scott Martin’s knee tendinitis began flaring up and sidelined the captain indefinitely, the Great Mock Turtleneck has been forced to go deeper on his bench (coincidentally, Brey hasn’t worn the mock turtleneck the past few games at home either). Atkins, Grant, Connaughton, Biedschied, Cooley, Knight, Sherman, Auguste are all playing legitimate minutes — that’s eight guys — which should alleviate some of the fatigue that occurs down the stretch each yet. This is going to be huge for Notre Dame, especially considering the amount of overtimes they have had to play in recent weeks. Also, while Martin has yet to return to the floor, it is expected he will do so fairly soon (he has been warming up with the team as of late, just not playing), which will allow Brey to use a nine-man rotation, something that would have been absolutely unthinkable at the start of the year.
Versatility - Going along with the depth, the Irish now have enough players to play several different styles. If the Irish want to play small ball and run the floor, you could see an Atkins-Grant-Biedschied-Martin-Cooley lineup out there. But if they want to utilize the new-found interior size, Brey could put out Atkins-Grant-Martin-Knight-Cooley as well. It’s a flexibility that he hasn’t had in past years, but one that has been paying off as of late. The Irish now have legitimate defense and shot-blocking abilities with Zach Auguste and Tom Knight (over 1.5 blks/gm since moving into the starting lineup) to go with the most efficient offense in the country (number one in assist/turnover ratio).
Consistency - This team is the most consistent team Brey has had since before the Luke Harangody era. Consistent, you shout? But this team could beat #11 Louisville and then go get smacked by Providence — how are they consistent?
Look, there’s no doubt that even the most consistent teams have ups and downs. But what is markedly different about the 2012-13 Irish and the versions of recent years is that there isn’t a huge difference in how they play on the road vs how they play at home. In recent years the Irish has had home win streaks of 45 and 34 games — people just didn’t come into Purcell Pavilion and leave victorious. That being said, we would get completely trashed on the road — it was as if a different team took the floor. This year in Big East play, we have suffered 2 home losses (UConn and Georgetown) and 3 losses on the road (St. John’s, Syracuse, Providence) — we have lost our “unbeatable at home” mentality but become better away from South Bend — a trade-off that may be disappointing for the students temporarily but should pay huge dividends come tournament time.
Take our two games vs DePaul for instance. We played them on the road, led all game, but allowed them to take us to overtime where we had to squeak out a win. Three weeks later and the same exact game takes place in front of a scarce crowd in Purcell — Irish lead all game but DePaul fights back in, forces overtime where the Irish pull away. This team just gives the same effort each and every night, which is a testament to how we have been tougher leaving home — which is good, because the tournament isn’t played at Notre Dame.
Experience - Last year’s Notre Dame team had a hell of a year — Tim Abromaitis went down with a torn ACL and the team still managed to finish in the top four of the Big East. Yet that overachievement in March led to disappointment in April — why? There wasn’t even experience.
Don’t get me wrong, Scott Martin was a 5th-year senior and essentially an extra coach on the floor, which is great. But Atkins was only a true sophomore, Jerian Grant was finishing up his first year of game action, as was Pat Connaughton, and even Jack Cooley was just finishing up his first year as a big time player. The team was unquestionably good, but they weren’t exactly seasoned.
This year is completely different. This is Eric Atkins 3rd year of starting basketball, and Jerian Grant has two years under his belt (plus a redshirt year). Jack Cooley has now been through the ringer and is a Big East Player of the Year candidate. Scott Martin is on his 6th run through college basketball. Garrick Sherman and Tom Knight are both in their 4th year of college — in short, this is where talent meets experience. The team plays with discipline and knows how to conduct business — panicking and choking a late lead in the tournament (a la Xavier) just won’t happen.
Where from here? The most important thing moving forward is that the Irish continue to get better in the final three games and into the Big East Tournament. Because Brey has been fitting together a lot of moving parts, the team has been forming a new identity over the course of several months, and truthfully they are still working to perfect it. Scott Martin will have to re-assimilate himself into this team, but we already know what we are getting from him so it shouldn’t be too big of a challenge.
The Irish are currently tied for 4th in the Big East with 3 games left. They have all but assured themselves a single-bye in the conference tournament, and have a great chance at once again obtaining the coveted double-bye.
Keep an eye on this team, and start tuning in if you haven’t been — this is the Mike Brey team that finally advances deep in March.