It is rare when fans can look at a basketball season and be both thoroughly thrilled and utterly disappointed, all at the same time. However, after the surprising tenacity and performance of the 2011-2012 Notre Dame men's basketball squad that resulted in a seven seed in the NCAA tournament, many fans believed that they were spending house money when the Irish faced off against Xavier in the second round.
However, the allure of the Big Dance and the fabled optimism that surrounds each team's chances at shocking the basketball world may have eliminated the joy of a surprise regular season and replaced it with the hope that for the first time since 2003, the Irish had the talent to lure Sweet 16 out of her elusive corner.
It was not to be, however, as Notre Dame's weaknesses were thoroughly exposed in the second half of their Xavier matchup. These weaknesses resulted in the Irish loosing a double-digit lead in the second half that sent the Irish home early, wondering what could have been.
All of these disappointments are now ancient history, as this year's squad possesses more talent, depth and athleticism then any of their recent predecessors. As a result, an abundance of optimism is once again flowing through South Bend—an optimism that leads to my seven bold, yet attainable predictions for the 2012-2013 season.
Five post season starters return to the Irish roster
After losing Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending knee injury, many believed that Notre Dame would be fighting it out with the bottom dwellers for a first-round bye in the Big East tournament. It should be no surprise, however, that reining AP Coach of the Year, Mike Brey, had different plans.
Shocking many experts, Notre Dame finished the season with a 13-5 conference record, which included a stunning upset of Syracuse at South Bend and a three seed in the Big East tournament.
However, for many teams who have experienced a successful season, they must account for the loss of several starters and lost production by incorporating several fresh faces into the mix. For the Irish, there is no such worry. Five starters from the end of last season return, including their two leading scorers, Jack Cooley and Jerian Grant, who combined to score nearly 25 points per game last season.
Although the Irish will be tested by perennial Syracuse and Pittsburgh, which are entering their final seasons in Big East basketball play, there is no team in the Big East that returns as many quality players as Notre Dame. What this all equates to on paper is that Notre Dame is, hands down, the team most likely to capture the Big East regular season title.
It is no secret that the Irish can recruit the scoring power forward. However, until this year, the Irish have struggled to land the power forward that can score and play above the rim. This is no longer an issue for the Irish with the landing of North Hampton prep star, Zach Auguste.
Needing a replacement for Abromaitis' 15 points and seven rebounds per game, the Irish can expect Auguste to make up for this loss of production right away.
However, it is not just Auguste who will be able to contribute during his freshman season, as the Irish were able to land two other talented recruits that will give the Irish further depth off the bench, a missing component from last year's team.
Missouri Gatorade player of the year, Cameron Biedscheid gives the Irish another scoring option. Having averaged nearly 32 points per game in his senior season, Biedscheid is expected to immediately contribute on the offensive side of the ball. Although he may be most known for his scoring ability, his nearly 10 rebounds per game will also help the Irish make gains on controlling the glass, an issue that it mightily struggled with last season.
Rounding out the class is Austin Burgett, a 6'8" Indiana native who gives the Irish one more scoring and rebounding option in the front court. Burgett was the first recruit to sign with Notre Dame and gives the them further depth inside the paint.
Although several other Big East teams are considered to have landed more highly touted recruits, such as Providence's signing of Kris Dunn, who is expected to be out until November with a shoulder injury and Ricardo Ledo, who is battling eligibility issues with the NCAA, the combination of veteran leadership and young athletic talent makes Notre Dame's freshmen class the most prepared to eat up the stat sheet this year.
The natural point guard will be more valuable this year then ever before
With all of the scoring talent occupying the Irish roster, someone has to get the team the ball and there is no better player to do this then junior Eric Atkins.
Having led the Big East last year with a 2.56 assist-to-turnover ratio, Atkins' natural point guard instincts will be extra valuable this year as he attempts to put Notre Dame's shooters in prime scoring positions.
Four players return from last year's roster who hit 30 or more three-pointers. Given that Notre Dame relied on around 20 points per contest coming from behind the arc, Atkins' ability to make the right reads is the most essential ingredient to the Irish's success this year.
Coach Brey might not have to work quite so hard this year to match last year's success
It is safe to assume that Coach Brey had to work quite a bit overtime last year in order to earn his Jim Phelan Coach of the Year award. In fact, it can easily be argued that no coach performed better last year with his level of talent, than Brey.
Although on paper, Brey's roster may appear to make his job a cakewalk this year, do not bet that Brey will be leaving his office early on too many occasions.
Brey's work ethic, dedication to player development and ability to get the most out of each player can only lead to more success. With Brey's dedication to the Irish program, which was solidified in his signing of a 10-year extension, Brey appears to be a lock to capture his fourth Big East Coach of the Year award.
Early Big East tournament exits are not uncommon for No. 1 seeds. In fact, in the last three seasons, the No. 1 seed in the tournament has not even made it to the Big East finals, let alone captured the title.
The road will be treacherous for Notre Dame. However, in looking at previous Big East champions—Louisville, Connecticut and West Virginia—there is one thing that all three of these schools have in common with the Irish: solid veteran leadership at the point guard position and a solid core of returners who have been there before.
Don't expect the likes of Cooley, Grant, Atkins and Martin to crack under the pressure this year. Although many other rosters may have highly regarded talent, it will be the solid veteran core that will propel the Irish over the top when it matters most.
It is only natural that the Irish will capture a third seed in the NCAA tournament if its regular season resume includes a Big East championship and a trip to the Big East tournament finals.
However, as the recent past has indicated, a third seed does not necessarily equate to tournament success and certainly does not give the Irish a free ticket to the Sweet 16. Just two years ago, the Irish earned the No. 2 seed, the highest that it has been seeded since 1979. However, despite many projecting the Irish to make a deep run in the tournament, the Irish were easily handled in the second round by a talented Florida State squad.
Make travel plans now Irish fans!
For many Irish fans, the 2003 trip to the Sweet 16 is nothing but a vague memory. In looking at this year's roster, as compared to the 2003 roster, which consisted of Chris Thomas, Chris Quinn, Torrian Jones and many others, it is easy to see why it has potential.
Now, the only remaining issue is execution, the biggest question mark on any coach's chalkboard. However, when it comes down to the Xs and Os being transformed into actual victories, this Mike Brey team possesses the highest level of potential of any of the talented squads that Brey has led out onto the Joyce Center floor.
This all leads to Irish fans finally being rewarded with a tournament run, which only cold shooting and questionable lane violations can stop .