Reinvention Ready?
Connaughton (left) and Sherman leveled Marquette
Connaughton (left) and Sherman leveled Marquette
Publisher
Posted Mar 18, 2013


Notre Dame played one of its best games of the season Thursday night in New York. Can the Irish bottle the magic of their comeback effort in the first half, and second stanza back-and-forth fight vs. Marquette for the upcoming weekend in Dayton?

If Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg reviews game film from November, December, and early January, he's unlikely to find much.

Film from Notre Dame's 8-4 finish in conference play? The man affectionally known as "The Mayor" during his playing days in Ames and in the NBA might find some snippets, but he'd still likely be led astray by both the combatants and their collective method.

The game film from Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday night last week in Madison Square Garden? Suddenly a #7 seed might seem silly, as his upcoming Friday night opponent, Notre Dame, flashed moments of brilliance across a three-game stretch that included the nation's best opponent.

“Notre Dame is a great program," said Hoiberg of his team's draw. "They always play physical. They play a tough brand of basketball. They shoot the ball well. They have big time wins in a big time conference. It is going to be a great matchup, a tough matchup but we’re looking forward to it.”

Notre Dame ended its season playing better than a Top 28-30 team as their seed suggests. Then again, the Irish, along with the other 67 squads in this year's NCAA Tournament, were judged by the tournament's selection committee on their body of work, and for Mike Brey's ever-evolving group, it wasn't always impressive.

Their most recent efforts though were, especially the final 30 minutes vs. Marquette and to a lesser extent considering the foe, the first 20 and final 10 minutes vs. Rutgers. In fact, if you watch with a discerning eye, Notre Dame's competitive loss (dare I say 'winnable' ?) vs. the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed, Louisville Friday night was as encouraging in nature as it was discouraging as a fan watching the Irish kept at bay throughout.

Louisville's last loss was February 9 in South Bend, a reality that could hold true over the next three weeks and into the NCAA Championship game. Notre Dame's collective effort late that night and in extra sessions early into the evening is part of process that brought Brey, his tell-tale guards, and his newfound balanced and deeper attack to this point: a reset -- a team high on confidence but low on proof that they belong or can advance past the tournament's first weekend.

"It I like the fact that we don't play until Friday. I think we're all still recovering from three late-night shows in New York with a lot of intensity and energy invested. We could use a day or two to just get our legs under us before we crank it up again," said Brey.

"You have to remind them what has got us to this point. We need to watch some film of us in New York because I thought we might have found a different gear on the offensive end of the floor and I thought our body language and confidence was at an all-time high. I'd like to see if we could jump off that a little bit through this week and take it to Dayton."

Pair of Personnel on the Rise

The team's most decorated player, first-team all-Big East big man Jack Cooley, was not at his best in Manhattan. In fact, Cooley has been in a bit of a funk since struggling through a March 2 loss to Marquette with the flu.

He'll need to be at his best this weekend for the Irish to advance.

"I think to earn first-team he has been that relentless rebounder and playing with a passion," said Brey of Cooley at his best. "(He) struggled in NewYork but, man, did he have it the last save minutes against Marquette, with the plays he made, it kinda made us believe.  When he plays with that passion and gets on the backboard like that, the rest of us get pretty confident and we're going to need that Friday."

Cooley's teammates, notably Pat Connaughton and backup big men Tom Knight (Rutgers), Garrick Sherman (Marquette and Louisville) picked up the slack.

"We had very good changes in the Big East Tournament from the actual regular season," said Cooley. "And the way we played against Marquette, I honestly felt like we could beat anyone in the country that night. So, I mean, if we can take the things we took from that night and move forward, I think we are going to do great things in this tournament."

One of those changes was the suddenly red-hot Connaughton. The sophomore swingman drilled a combined 15 of 24 shots from beyond the arc in three games, that performance on the heels of hitting just 9 of his final 46 to conclude the regular season.

"It's great to have Pat hitting like that and step up into that role and realize how good of a player he is and fulfill it," said Cooley. "It makes everyone's job a lot easier.  It makes my job a heck of a lot easier because there can't be as many double teams and we can swing the ball and now that he has that confidence our team can beat anyone."

Connaughton believes a major mental hurdle was crossed in New York.

"I think one of the big advantages this year is that we did win two games in the Big East, and it was games against two very good opponents, and I think going to the NCAA Tournament this year you win two games to survive, you try to go at each game as win or survive, and I think getting used to that is going to help us moving forward into this tournament.

"I think when you look at it last year (a 67-63 loss to Xavier in a game the Irish led by 10 points in the second half), there were guys going through it for the first time, or maybe not for the first time but for the first time as key guys on the team. 

"You look at the game last year, we were winning most of it, at the end we kinda let it go, and that's something we will be ready for this year.  We will be ready to close. We know the toughness the teams play with because it is win or go home and when people's backs are against the wall you have another gear that you have and that's something we have to bring to the table as well."

Also surging late is center Garrick Sherman. The Michigan State transfer was benched mid-season but regained his footing with a standout effort vs. Louisville in a 104-101 quintuple overtime win. He played well again to end the season vs. the Cardinals in defeat, then was dominant at times vs. Marquette and gave the Irish a boost in the first half vs. Louisville in the semi-finals.

"I think he's playing better, I think he knows I feel really good about him, he's worked his way back," said Brey of Sherman's revitalization. "I think the biggest key is his teammates have told him how much we need them, specifically Jerian (Grant) and Eric (Atkins), they're close and I think they have worked on him to make him feel really a big part of things for us."

Sherman converted 12 of 24 shots for a combined 28 points with 15 rebounds off the bench in three tournament games, giving Brey's front line 16, 24, and 24 minutes, respectively.

"Whatever it is, we're just trying to make sure we're on the floor doing our job," said Sherman after his 16-point, 6-rebound, 2-blocked shots effort off the bench vs. Marquette. "We're always ready to go. Everyone has their role, and tonight is one of the nights I had to step up."

Better Bench, Better Backcourt?

The Irish will need their entire eight-man rotation to step up in Dayton Friday, and especially if they survive Iowa State and advance to face #2 seed Ohio State on Sunday.

Essential to the effort is the interchangeable guard tandem of Atkins and Grant.

"We're going to have to score some, because we're not just going to shut them down," said Brey of the high-scoring Cyclones. "I like that our guards have shown they really like to get into a gear and go. As I've said, when our guards are in gear and in a great frame of mind, we can play with anybody. We need them to be good. They weren't good enough, long enough Friday night (vs. Louisville). And that's why we couldn't get out of there. They're going to have to be really good for us to advance."

And they'll need help from the one bench member that can offer aid, or at least steal minutes, for the pair.

"There are 68 teams dreamin' big dreams right now and that's what's awesome about this tournament, our guys are dreaming the big thing," said Brey. "You get a "do over" for guys that aren't playing as well, you want to talk with them about, hey, it's a new season.  I'm going to talk to Cameron (Biedschied) about that, we're going to need him if we're going to advance."

The bench's designated spot-up shooter at present, Biedscheid was just 1 of 9 from long range in New York and finished the regular season missing 13 of his final 15 attempts from beyond the arc.

With the stakes again raised, can the Irish expect Biedscheid and fellow freshman Zach Auguste to rise to the occasion when needed most?

"Cam can handle it," said Cooley of the freshman. "He's a big-time shooter and scorer, and that's funny you mentioned that, because he wasn't feeling too well today and just trying to get his mind right.  I mean, I've been very happy, as I said, of how our freshmen have acted toward this news and not looking forward (to playing Ohio State) at all. That's the biggest problem you have sometimes with young guys is looking forward past the first game."

Favored by a single point over Iowa State and lamented often within their own fan base for just two tournament wins since last appearing in the 2003 Sweet 16, Notre Dame should be single-minded in purpose and passion from their first practice Monday through Friday night's final buzzer.


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PG Eric Atkins (profile)
SG Cameron Biedscheid (profile)
C Mike Brey (profile)
SG Patrick Connaughton (profile)
F Jack Cooley (profile)
SG Jerian Grant (profile)
PF Garrick Sherman (profile)
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