Irish men likely to wear target
Local product Demetrius Jackson remains a top target for Irish coach Mike Brey.
(Irish Sports Report/JAMES BROSHER)
9:00 am, April 23, 2012
It has had the luxury of stepping from seemingly nowhere on different levels to win at least 10 Big East games and get to the NCAA tournament in each of the last three seasons.
That likely will not be the case next season for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.
With a returning core that may include all five starters and possibly Tim Abromaitis, a first team all-Big East preseason pick last fall before he suffered a season-ending knee injury, the Irish likely will be ranked among the nation’s preseason top 25. They also could be one of the favorites (along with Louisville and Syracuse) to chase their first Big East regular-season championship in school history.
Challenges certainly abound, something head coach Mike Brey will often remind his players as preseason camp nears.
“Will we still chase it together every day?” Brey wondered following the April 11 evening’s season-ending awards show. “Nobody chased it better than this group (this season) all the way through. That’s our challenge next year, but we’re going to have a heck of a lot of fun.”
Team most valuable player Scott Martin believes handling additional expectations will not be an issue after how this season ended. Notre Dame couldn’t hold a 10-point second-half lead in a second-round NCAA tournament loss to Xavier. The Irish likely will think more of that meltdown that what others expect.
“We have a little bit of that ‘unfinished business’ kind of feeling in the pit of our stomach,” Martin said. “We kind of let one get away. The good thing is if everyone comes back, we’ll have something to really drive us through the year.
“We won’t lack for motivation, that’s for sure.”
Turning point in Kentucky
It served as a springboard to sustained league success this season, a magical night that will long be remembered as one of the most memorable in the history of the men’s program.
But when it comes to picking out the high points that served as turning points for the 2011-12 Irish men’s basketball season, the upset of previously undefeated and top-ranked Syracuse – the first time in 25 years that a No. 1 team came to South Bend undefeated and left with a loss — might come in second.
An early-January afternoon matchup against Louisville on the banks of the Ohio River on a spring-like day may have meant a little more for an Irish team still in search of itself.
“It kind of got us to believe a little bit that we can make a run at an NCAA bid,” said Brey, whose team did just that while finishing 22-12, 13-5 and third place in the Big East.
Coming off a lackluster effort three days earlier in a lethargic 16-point loss at Cincinnati, Notre Dame entered its next road game likely wondering if it could be good enough to challenge for the league’s elite. Following a 67-65 victory in double overtime against a team that eventually won the league championship and advanced to the Final Four, the Irish wondered no more.
They believed they could be good, and eventually ran off a school-record nine consecutive league victories thanks in part to the win and the work that day at KFC Yum! Center.
Louisville was ranked No. 11 in the country but never could adapt to Notre Dame’s deliberate pace. The Irish trailed by as many as seven points in the first half, but kept battling, kept fighting, kept grinding out possessions long enough to give itself a chance.
As Louisville raced through the NCAA tournament, CBS kept showing an updated graphic that mentioned how the Cardinals were 22-1, then 23-1, then 24-1 when leading at the half. That one loss? To Notre Dame.
“That was a turning point for us,” said Martin. “We were getting better (but) that’s when we finally got over the hump.
“Our confidence started to snowball from there.”
Finally clear of a season where roster numbers were a daily dilemma because of assorted illness and injury, Notre Dame has the chance to be as deep and maybe as talented as it’s ever been in the 12 previous seasons under Brey.
Four starters are guaranteed to return. Martin likely will be back for a sixth season, as might Abromaitis. Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman becomes eligible after sitting out this season. He is expected to tag-team in the low-post with Jack Cooley, the 2011 Big East most improved player and second team all-league selection. Freshman forward Eric Katenda continues to make impressive progress after suffering an injury last summer that cost him vision in his left eye.
Katenda did participate in some five-on-five scrimmage situations in March.
“I have not seen him handicapped by the vision situation,” Brey said.
The Irish also welcome a talented freshman class of forwards Zach Auguste and Austin Burgett and swingman Cameron Biedscheid.
It will be a tricky test for Brey to figure out how all the pieces fit, but the puzzle will look much the same as it has during his tenure – a rotation of seven and sometimes eight, but rarely nine.
“Our system has all been based on really playing together, assist-to-turnover being good,” Brey said. “That’s because the nucleus kind of knows who they are. Guys can work themselves into that (core rotation), but playing nine or 10 guys? That’s not going to be who we are.”
Word from the NCAA regarding the sixth seasons of Abromaitis and Martin was supposed to surface by the middle of March. Nothing happened. Then maybe by the end of March. Still nothing.
“The process is the process,” he said. “I said, you know what, if we get the right answer, I don’t care if they take another month, six weeks.”
It’s reached a point with both players where they’re asked almost every day by everyone, ‘Heard anything yet?’ before they respond with another ‘Nope.’
“It is and it isn’t (frustrating),” Martin said. “You have to go through the whole procedure and make sure everything checks out.”
And what if everything doesn’t and he’s played his final collegiate game?
“We’ll worry about no when they say no,” he said. “I’m very hopeful.”
Waiting on word from the NCAA for possible sixth seasons for Abromaitis and Martin and Dragicevich’s transfer have not altered the Irish recruiting plans.
Notre Dame has commitments from two prep juniors – swingman V.J. Beachem (Fort Wayne) and combo guard Steve Vasturia (Philadelphia) – who will sign their national letters of intent in November.
“We’d like to get one more in the (commitment) in the junior class,” Brey said. “We’ve got a scholarship (offer) out there.”
Brey cannot publicly comment on any unsigned player, but it’s no secret what player has that offer – Mishawaka (Ind.) Marian High School guard Demetrius Jackson. Recruited by Notre Dame since his freshman season in high school, Jackson plans to make his college choice sometime before the start of his senior season with the Knights.
Notre Dame’s coaching staff likely will start looking at high school sophomores for its next recruiting cycle when the spring evaluation period commences.