Notre Dame Basketball: 5 Musts for the Irish To Make the 2011-12 NCAA Tournament
The 2010-11 edition of the Notre Dame basketball team finished the regular season ranked fifth nationally, and had more wins than any Irish team in the modern era with 27.
But head coach Mike Brey will need to replace some serious production after the departure of Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough and solid power forward Tyrone Nash.
Brey also had to deal with the head-scratching decision of Carleton Scott to enter the NBA draft, even though he was not picked to go in the high rounds by experts and did in fact end up undrafted.
Even so, Brey still has some big-time minutes to pass out to some young players. He's going to have to find some green emeralds in the rough if the Irish plan on returning to the Big Dance.
Here are five musts for the Irish if they want to claw their way to the upper echelon of the ultra-competitive Big East and find themselves back in the field of 68.
Tim Abromaitis Must Play Like a Star
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Abro has been a very good player for Brey the last two seasons, but this year we could see his star shoot into the stratosphere.
He is already 10th on the all-time Notre Dame list with 160 three-pointers buried. Last year Abromaitis averaged 15.4 points per game and 6.1 rebounds, but with his status now as the Irish's go-to guy, these numbers should go way up.
The one downside is that Abromaitis will have to sit out the first four games of the year after Brey misinterpreted an NCAA redshirt rule. In spite of this amazing gaffe, Notre Dame should survive these contests.
Actually they've already defeated Mississippi Valley State 80-67. If they can get past Detroit on Monday night, they'll have a couple of free lunches coming up against Sam Houston State and Delaware State.
Abromaitis is the son of former UConn and New Jersey Nets star James Abromaitis. After the Irish downed the eventual national champions twice last season many UConn supporters were asking themselves: "How in the hell did we let this kid get away?"
Irish Must Utilize the Burn Offense
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When Luke Harangody went down with an injury late in the 2009-10 season, most pundits threw a shovel full of dirt onto the Irish's coffin. Coming off a home loss to Saint John's and a double overtime heart-breaker against Louisville, which dropped the Irish to 17-10 overall and 6-8 in the Big East, all seemed lost.
Not so fast.
That's when Brey implemented his "burn" offense. A confounding modern version of the old four corners stall, in which slower teams would hold the ball to protect a lead or to not have to run and gun with faster opponents.
Even with a shot clock in play, Notre Dame still held the ball. Yet somehow the Irish usually seemed to get off a good, or at least a halfway decent, shot before said clock expired. Plus with their marvelous passing skills the Irish leveled the field. The undermanned squad could now live with more athletic teams.
The result was that the Fighting Irish reeled off six straight wins against top-notch competition. Pitt, Georgetown on the road, UConn, at Marquette, Seton Hall and Pitt in a rematch at Madison Square Garden.
The run propelled the Irish from a team looking through the bakery window all the way to a six-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Since this stretch Brey seems to have adopted a strategy wherein the Irish will be glad to run the floor with inferior opponents, but are not beyond putting the game in a slow cooker when necessary, as they did during last season's epic 56-51 upset of second-ranked Pittsburgh on the road.
When you see the two teams play in person, it is almost impossible to imagine that Notre Dame has beaten Pitt three straight games, given the Panthers' size, quickness and awe-inspiring NBA talent.
But due to Notre Dame's frustrating and debilitating "burn" offense, that's exactly what happened.
The Young Players Must Step Up
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Brey has confidence in his point guard Eric Atkins, but with Hansbrough gone the Irish are going to need a complement to the sleek sophomore in the backcourt.
Last year off-guard Jerian Grant had to sit out the entire campaign with an injury. His emergence is vital if the Irish want to dance again in March. Grant showed some encouraging signs while tallying 11 points in 33 minutes in the opener against Mississippi Valley State.
Alex Dragicevich plays more like a forward than a guard. He was 6-for-6 from the floor in the exhibition finale against Stonehill, but shot just 2-of-7 against Valley. Still, Dragicevich does seem like a good candidate for extended minutes.
Freshman Patrick Connaughton looks comfortable on the floor, yet wasn't able to find the hole in 15 minutes against Valley. It does, however, seem likely that Brey will stick with the kid, especially while Abromaitis is serving his suspension.
Jack Cooley is a bruising big man with nimble feet who has been compared to Luke Harangody. However he has not shown the stamina to hump the rock for 40 minutes.
It's important that either Dixfield, Maine product Tom Knight or oft-injured Junior Mike Broghammer are able to pick up the slack. Broghammer looked great while pouring in eight points in the opener, but there is always concern as to whether his surgically repaired knees will hold up for an entire season.
Junior Joey Brooks will finally get his shot. He's a suffocating defender and an enthusiastic and tough rebounder, but must find a way to polish his offensive game.
Notre Dame's Home Dominance Must Continue
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Notre Dame boasted a 45-game home winning streak which lasted for three calendar years between 2006 and 2009. This is particularly impressive when you factor in that the Irish were unbeaten on their home hardwood for two consecutive Big East ledgers, something no other Big East team has ever accomplished.
Since then in a couple of "off" seasons the Irish went 15-3 and 17-3 as the host, before another clean sweep of the home slate last year.
The Irish are an astonishing 84-6 in their last 90 games at the former Joyce Center, which was renamed Purcell Pavilion after a major remodeling project in 2009. Notre Dame is the only squad in the nation to go undefeated at home three out of the last five years.
Notre Dame must continue this type of South Bend success—even if Purcell Pavilion isn't the pit that it once was and sparse crowds for no-name, non-conference games are seemingly the norm.
Winning all, or even almost all, of their home games means that the Irish would have to capture only a precious few road wins. Even a .500 record away from the golden dome would probably send the Irish to the dance, since going on the road in the Big East is a tall task even for the top teams.
The Irish Must Post 10 Wins in Big East Play
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Some teams can sneak in the NCAA tournament with a 9-9 conference mark, but the Irish do not want to find themselves at the tender mercies of the NCAA selection committee.
Nor do they want have to carve their way through the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden while on a slippery bubble. This would seem a tough task anyway, since Notre Dame has never won more than two games in their conference's postseason playoff, nor have they ever reached the final.
The NCAA may be a little biased against the Big East since they selected a record 10 teams from the conference last year—especially since most didn't fare very well, except of course for eventual national champion UConn.
I wouldn't say that this is a down year for the Big East, but there couldn't possibly be as many titans in the conference as there were last year. This may be one of the last huge years for the superconference before defectors begin to pack their bags.
Brey is 119-83 all time in Big East contests. He is one of only six coaches to post 100 wins in the conference.
The other five are all legends: Rollie Massimino of Villanova at 123...Lou Carnesecca with 139 wins for Saint John's...John Thompson's 239 victories at Georgetown...Jim Calhoun of UConn with 284...and of course the all-time leader, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse with 360.
It's much more important to reach 10 conference wins than it is to reach the 20-win plateau, as the selection committee realizes that the competition in the Big East is fierce.
If Brey can just hold serve and have the season that his record tells us he will, then the Irish should be back in the tournament for the third straight postseason and for the eighth time in the Brey era.