Notre Dame Basketball: 10 Expectations for the Fighting Irish This Season
With just over two weeks left until the official start of the 2012-13 college basketball season, it’s time for fans to finalize expectations for their teams. While those expectations may range from defending a national title to simply rebuilding, everyone has things they hope to see between now and March.
One team with high expectations is Notre Dame, as the Irish return all five of last year’s starters to the court. The Irish suffered a disappointing loss in their first game of the NCAA tournament last season, and will hope to improve upon that result in this year’s campaign.
Here are 10 expectations for the 2012-13 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the fulfillment of which will lead to a satisfying season for fans in South Bend.
An Improved Offensive Attack
Notre Dame’s style last year was to slow the pace of games and rely on their defense, which was excellent, allowing opponents an average of less than 60 points per contest.
On the other end of the court, however, the Irish were far from scintillating—the team averaged just 66.5 points per ballgame themselves.
Despite finishing third in the Big East standings last season, the Irish were third-worst in the conference in terms of scoring.
Part of that was certainly due to the early loss of co-captain and potential scoring leader Tim Abromaitis, whose senior season was ended by an ACL tear after he had played just two games.
But unless Notre Dame can step up the offensive production as a team or find a single player that can carry the squad when it needs big numbers, it’s hard to imagine the Irish making a deep tournament run.
With the same five starters expected to take the floor this season, coach Mike Brey needs to figure out a way to put more points on the board.
A Maintained Defensive Juggernaut
As noted, Notre Dame’s defense was excellent last season. Since this year’s team is really only different in that it is more experienced and deeper, expecting even better defensive numbers in 2012-13 seems natural.
Last year’s squad certainly left itself room to improve in several categories, most notably rebounding—Notre Dame ranked ninth in the conference on the defensive boards and dead last on the offensive glass.
This year’s team should take all their numbers from last season, and aim to beat them. Doing that, combined with better offensive production, can only lead to good things for the Fighting Irish.
Production from Freshman Zach Auguste
With all five starters returning for Notre Dame, this season will definitely be more about building off of what the team already has than implementing anything (or anyone) new.
Still, any time a top recruit can come in and begin to contribute during his freshman season, it’s a huge bonus for the present team and a great sign for the future. The best candidate to accomplish that this year is Zach Auguste.
Scouting reports focus on his ability to play above the rim and his constant threat to score off of teammates’ misses.
If Auguste can settle in and begin working toward his potential quickly at Notre Dame, he might be part of the spark that the Irish need to rejuvenate their offense.
The Emergence of a Solid Role Player in Garrick Sherman
The 6’10” transfer posted humble numbers with the Spartans, and certainly isn’t going to blow anybody’s socks off this season. But he’s a big, experienced body who has had a full year to acclimate to the way Notre Dame does things.
Opponents will surely make getting Cooley in foul trouble a priority in their game plans, and there are bound to be situations in which the star big man has to come out of the game for longer periods of time than the Irish would like to see.
When that happens, Sherman needs to be there to play solid defense, hold his own on the boards against the other Big East bruisers and lessen the price of having Cooley on the bench.
Every good team has its unsung heroes, and Sherman should be one of them for Notre Dame this season.
A Breakout Year for Pat Connaughton
Connaughton is an athlete in every sense of the word—not only can the versatile 6’5” sophomore shoot threes, score inside and rebound effectively, but he can also toss consistent 90-plus mph fastballs on the baseball diamond.
The two-sport star contributed immediately for the Irish as a freshman, becoming part of the starting five and expecting to stay there in his second season.
Connaughton averaged a very respectable seven points per game as a freshman, but he should be given the green light to try to markedly increase that number this year.
If he can develop into a versatile, efficient scorer, his breakout season could mean a remedy to Notre Dame’s offensive woes.
Jack Cooley's Grand Finale
There is no doubt as to who needs to be the leader of this Notre Dame team.
Jack Cooley is the fiery, tough, hardworking big man cut from the same mold as former Fighting Irish leader Luke Harangody, and the current team needs Cooley just as much as recent squads relied on his predecessor.
Since the Irish don’t have a bona fide superstar to carry the team in big moments—that really isn’t Notre Dame’s style—Cooley needs to be the man in South Bend. He must be the team’s anchor, inspiration and role model.
He also needs to be a beast, both offensively and defensively, in the post—he should be expected to have his best season yet and put up numbers that put him firmly in the conversation for first team All-Big East.
Cooley is ranked No. 64 in CBSSports.com’s Top 100 Players, but to the Irish, he’s even more important than that. Not only is Cooley the team’s center on the court, but he’s the centerpiece for the team’s morale as well.
At Least One Win Against Louisville
Though the Irish will not be a part of the conference much longer, Notre Dame is one of the lucky members of the Big East that gets to play the Cardinals twice during the 2012-13 season.
Whether they accomplish it at home on February 9 or on the road a month later in the final game of the regular season, the Irish need to beat the Cardinals at least once to prove they are among both the conference’s and the country’s elite.
A Finish Among the Top 3 in Big East Standings
The Fighting Irish ended up with the third-best conference record in the Big East last season at 13-5. USA Today’s preseason national rankings place No.23 Notre Dame third in the conference this year as well, behind No. 2 Louisville and No. 9 Syracuse.
Though they will leave the Big East for the ACC in 2015 at the latest, fans of the Irish should expect Notre Dame to be among the top three teams in the conference once again this season.
They’ve certainly got the talent to do it, but it won’t be an easy task—aside from Louisville and ‘Cuse, Big East competitors Cincinnati, Marquette, Georgetown and Pittsburgh all lurk just outside the nation’s Top 25.
A No. 5 Seed or Better in the NCAA Tournament
The Big East is one of the best conferences in college basketball, and every game on the conference schedule is guaranteed to be a hard-fought, physical battle.
Aside from a big matchup with Kentucky in late November, Notre Dame’s non-conference schedule doesn’t look particularly daunting, either.
The Irish should post very respectable conference and overall records—combine that with a solid showing in the Big East tournament, and there’s no reason to think the team won’t be rewarded with a No. 5 seed or better in the NCAA tournament.
A good seeding will make things a little easier for Notre Dame’s ultimate goal, which of course is to put an end to their recent trend of early exits from the Big Dance.
A Return to the Sweet 16
Regular season record, conference standing, and individual accolades are all nice things. But as any college basketball fan knows, the true judge of a season is what happens when March’s Madness begins.
The Irish have earned their way into the NCAA tournament in five of the last six years, but they haven’t made it to the Sweet 16 since 2003. They haven’t made it farther than that in more than three decades.
With all their returning starters along with some new-found depth to their bench, Notre Dame seems primed for a solid season and another tournament berth.
Once March Madness begins, who knows what to expect, but the Fighting Irish should hope to advance at least as far as the round of 16.
For this team, another early exit truly would be a disappointment.
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