Entering this season, Notre Dame was one of the favorites to win the Big East. They had all of their starters returning and were hoping to build off of their improbable run through the Big East a year ago.
The Irish came out of the gate hot. They won 14 of their first 15 games, including wins over BYU, Purdue and then No. 8 Kentucky.
After the strong start, Notre Dame struggled as they hit the meat of their Big East schedule. They were in a 4-4 stretch and had struggled offensively even in their wins.
For 39 minutes on Saturday against Louisville, it looked like much of the same and the Irish would continue to stay in their funk. They had scored 48 points in those 39 minutes it what was a sloppy game all around.
That all changed with an incredible last-minute performance by Jerian Grant where he scored 12 points in under one minute.
What followed was the game of the year and one of the most memorable games in Big East history. In the overtimes, there was big shot after big shot and the Irish finally emerged victorious after a five overtime marathon.
This is the type of game that could propel the Irish down the stretch of this season. One year ago, they beat then No. 1 Syracuse and went on to win eight games in a row. The Irish could see themselves making a similar run this year.
In the overtime thriller against Louisville, Notre Dame’s key contributors throughout the season did not play well. Instead, bench players like Garrick Sherman and Cam Biedscheid stepped up and led the Irish to an improbable victory.
Will the Irish make it to the Sweet 16?
These types of bench contributions will be key for the Irish as they head into the home stretch of the Big East schedule and in postseason tournaments.
Throughout Mike Brey’s tenure, his teams have been exceptional in the regular season, but have struggled in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments.
During his time, Brey has never been to the Big East championship game and the furthest any of his teams have advanced in the tournament was the Sweet 16 in 2003.
Even when Brey had arguably his best team in 2011, they did not find a lot of postseason success. Entering the tournament, the Irish were a top-five team and a No. 2 seed, but were unable to get past the second round.
The reason for these late season falters has been because of fatigue. Throughout his time at Notre Dame, it has been Brey’s custom to use a rotation of seven players during the season. This has caused his main players to accumulate a lot of minutes and there play has struggled in the late stages of this season.
This season, he was forced to change his strategy.
Senior captain Scott Martin was sidelined after Notre Dame’s loss to Georgetown and this forced Brey to reach into his bench and try new rotations. Because of this new game plan, players like Cam Biedscheid, Zach Auguste and Tom Knight have seen more playing time and have taken full advantage of the opportunity.
Eric Atkins and Grant are still playing major minutes, but the emergence of Knight and Auguste has given Brey more flexibility in the frontcourt and allowed Cooley to get some help battling other big men of the Big East.
With this new-found depth, expect the Irish to get stronger down the stretch. With Cooley, Auguste, Knight and Sherman all playing well, the Irish boast one of the most formidable front lines in the Big East.
Last year, Notre Dame lost a heartbreaking game to Xavier in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Leading up to the season, Eric Atkins cited that game as his main source of motivation for this year. This team will not be satisfied until they avenge that loss and they only way to do that is to have success in the tournament.
The Irish have the firepower to make a deep run in March. Eric Atkins is one of the best point guards in the country. As witnessed Saturday, Jerian Grant always has the potential go off at any moment. Cam Biescheid and Pat Connaughton are great shooters and Notre Dame’s tenacious frontcourt led by Jack Cooley will not back down from any team in the country. .
Mike Brey has been a great coach for a long time. Notre Dame is not an easy place to win at basketball. It is a football first school and the basketball team is oftentimes an afterthought. Despite this, he has been able to instill a winning culture in South Bend and has been able to compete in the toughest conference the country without getting highly touted recruits.
The only thing missing from Brey’s résumé is a deep run in the tournament. However, with a few breaks and with the talent in place this year, that could change this March.