College Basketball Countdown: No. 19 Notre Dame preview

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Is Mike Brey's team ready to be a Big East favorite?

<p> College Basketball Countdown: No. 19 Notre Dame preview</p>
Visit the online store for Notre Dame and other editions of the 2012-13 Athlon Sports College Basketball annual.

The first practices of college basketball season begin in mid-October, and Athlon Sports 2012-13 preview annuals are starting to arrive on newsstands all over the country.

To prepare for the start of college basketball season, we will preview one team each weekday, counting down to the first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15, or for some teams on Oct. 12.

We continue our countdown with a preview of No. 19 Notre Dame.

The more pressure on the 2012-13 Notre Dame team the better as far as coach Mike Brey is concerned.

“I like that expectations are high now,” says Brey after signing a 10-year extension upon the completion of his 12th year with the Irish. “We’re coming from different territory. It’s good for the whole program to have that heat on us to deliver.”

Winners of 49 games the last two seasons (including 27–9 in the Big East) with second- and third-place finishes in the conference, the Irish return nearly every significant contributor from the 2011-12 season. Notre Dame is a legitimate contender for the Big East regular-season and tournament titles.

“When I first got here, we hadn’t been in the (NCAA) Tournament in 10 years,” Brey says. “We’ve gone from trying to survive to thriving.”

FRONTCOURT
Notre Dame’s two top big men — 6-9, 244-pound senior Jack Cooley and 6-8, 219-pound sixth-year senior Scott Martin — return, and 6-10, 240-pound Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman is eligible for the 2012-13 season.

After averaging just 10.3 minutes, 3.7 points and 3.1 rebounds per game as a sophomore, Cooley became one of the most effective big men in the Big East as a junior. He nearly tripled his playing time while averaging 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds to win the conference’s Most Improved award.

“I thought he was ready to deliver for us, that he was going to be a starter,” says Brey. “But he exceeded where I thought he would go. Once he started to have some success, it just fed on itself.”

After scoring just 39 points in the first eight games of the 2011-12 season, Cooley averaged 15.6 per game over the final 24 with 12 double-doubles.

Martin’s contributions are more subtle. He struggled throughout much of the first half of the season while adjusting to playing without frontcourt partner Tim Abromaitis, who went down with a season-ending knee injury in late November. Martin would go on to average a modest 9.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. But his leadership and defense helped spark a nine-game winning streak during Big East play.

“The back end of our defense was great last year, and it started with Scott Martin,” Brey says.

Sherman gives the Irish even more length as well as a mid-range jump shot. “I look at Garrick Sherman as a sixth (returning) starter,” Brey says.

Zach Auguste, a talented 6-10, 220-pound freshman, will be needed for heavy minutes in 2013-14, so Brey wants to get him acclimated this season.

When Pat Connaughton entered the starting lineup last year at small forward, Notre Dame began to thrive. He averaged 7.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. He’ll share the position with Martin when Brey wants to go bigger up front, and also help out in the backcourt occasionally. Another option is senior Tom Knight, who played some big minutes down the stretch.

Related: Assessing Notre Dame's upcoming move to the ACC

BACKCOURT
Brey believes Notre Dame has never had a starting backcourt as athletically gifted as juniors Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant.

“I feel great about them, and they’re only going to get better,” says Brey of his starting backcourt, which averaged a combined 24.4 points and 9.1 assists per game. “We have one of the best backcourts not only in the Big East, but in the country.”

If Brey wants a little more size, he can shift the 6-5 Connaughton to the backcourt. He also has athleticism to add to the mix in 6-7 freshman Cameron Biedscheid, a combination shooting guard/point forward with penetration skills and the ability to score in bunches.

“The guy that will rotate through there the most is Biedscheid,” Brey says. “We’ve got to get him on the court. He’s a really talented kid.”

FINAL ANALYSIS
Most teams will have difficulty matching up against Notre Dame’s size and depth in the frontcourt. Few will find relief against the backcourt. Brey sees a great opportunity in 2012-13.

“We know we can be a player for the Big East championship this year,” Brey says.

He has plenty of options at his disposal, including on the defensive end.

“With as much length as we have this year, our team defense can still be good,” Brey says. “We have big bodies that can rotate over, take charges and be position defenders.”

Add it all up and Brey can’t help but talk about the possibilities in 2012-13. “We’re talking about a Big East championship and getting back to the Final Four,” Brey says. “Those are really things this program can legitimately talk about.”

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