Today's third-annual Crossroads Classic game ranks as a must-win for the Irish after Mike Brey's squad suffered what could prove a crippling second home loss to its non-conference ledger, a 73-69 defeat at the hands of North Dakota State earlier this week.
Below is a closer look at the expected "Irish Nine," each of whom should see at least spot action vs. the Hoosiers at Banker's Life Fieldhouse today in Indianapolis.
As he goes, so go the Irish? Grant's ability create points, both for himself and his teammates, will prove crucial today, next week vs. Ohio State, and deep into ACC play…Has connected on an impressive 52.6 percent of his shots through 10 games though he did not make a basket in Wednesday's home loss to North Dakota State…Leads the team by a wide margin with 6.1 assists per contest including 28 over the last four games…
Knocking down 3s at a 40 percent clip and might be a bit too economical in his offerings, shooting just 42 in 10 games for a team struggling to score…To his credit, Grant has attempted 24 foul shots over the last two outings (20-24) and has turned the ball over just four times despite that aggressive approach.
Swingman Pat Connaughton
Missed 10 three-point offerings in Wednesday's loss to the Bisons but without Connaugton, the Irish would struggle mightily at both ends of the floor…Ranks as the team's second-best rebounder, help side defender, and most versatile man-to-man cover option among Brey's troops…Has hit nearly 44 percent of his three-point shots despite Wednesday's aforementioned 5 for 15 performance…His 89 points over the last five games is on pace with Grant's total of 90 to lead the squad…At 6'5" Connaughton has jumped center for the Irish in each of the team's last five games (winning four of the opening taps) and has collected double-digit rebounds in three of the last five outings.
Pending foul trouble, it's unlikely Connaughton will leave the court today vs. the Hoosiers.
Played his best in the team's 98-93 loss at Iowa earlier this month but has since scuffled, hitting 6 of 18 from the field and shooting only five free throws, all in Wednesday's loss to NDSU…Hasn't flourished off the ball in Notre Dame's revamped three-guard lineup, seemingly deferring too often to Grant and on occasion to freshman Demetrius Jackson. The future co-existence and development of the talented guard trio will prove crucial if the Irish are to receive an NCAA Tournament bid…
Atkins possesses the ability to score in transition and to "will" points in the half-court offense in late clock situations. More of a creator than a scorer (or shooter), Atkins' field goal percentage has dipped to 40 percent through 10 games and 37.8 percent from beyond the arc. It's paramount the program's only three-time team captain pick up his game over the next two outings vs. superior foes.
"He had a tough week," said Brey of Atkins. "Eric could never find a really good rhythm."
Look for Atkins to come out aggressively vs. the athletic Hoosiers.
Does his offense justify his defense? It has to, because the Irish can't win without his low-post ability, both as a scorer and facilitator of movement offensively…Extremely coordinated and blessed with good footwork at 6'11" few college centers can constantly take away Sherman's deft low-post game as he's able to convert with both hands within five feet of the hoop…Brey and Irish fans alike would prefer a far more physical approach by Sherman who often has his shot blocked instead of finishing with authority within dunking range…Has improved as a rebounder of late and leads the team with 7.7 per contest...
Speaking of physical: Sherman has been and will continue to be overmatched defensively by both athletic and/or strong low-post scorers, though North Dakota State's Marshall Bjorklund (26 points on 11 of 14 shooting) is likely the most polished scorer on the low block the Irish will face this winter.
Combo Guard Demetrius Jackson
Could prove to be the team's best player by the end of his sophomore season but the 2013-14 Irish need more from Jackson in the weeks ahead…For the sake of comparison, Jackson's approach is reminiscent of Chris Quinn as a freshman in that he defers too much to those around him. Forays to the hole to draw fouls would do wonders for Notre Dame's identity offensively as his ability to drive and kick would then open the court for shooters Connaughton, Grant, and freshman Steve Vasturia…
Has hit 52 percent from the field, 50 percent from beyond the arc, and 72 percent from the free throw line to begin his collegiate career…Has not yet attempted more than seven shots in a game...A quality on-ball defender, Jackson has done little wrong to date except he appears capable of much more -- and it might be time to tap that potential…
"He's really been embraced by Eric, Jerian, and Pat," said Brey. "I got on him about turning down really good open shots. I said, 'When you're open and we move it a little bit, we want you to take that shot.' Starting has helped him. We have to keep nurturing that because he's going to be a key guy for us. I hope he stays confident as a shooter. Right now he's the least of my worries as a shooter."
After hitting three consecutive from long range vs. the Bisons, Jackson launched the proverbial, "heat-check" shot. It rimmed out and he did not score from the field again.
"I think more and more of his stuff, just creating and doing things, we're going to see as the season goes on," said Brey. "He's going to have to score for us."
Center/Power Forward Tom Knight
Reclaimed his role in the rotation after failing to appear in a 98-93 loss at Iowa on December 3…Just 6 of 17 from the field over the three games since that "DNP-CD" (coach's decision), but has contributed 19 boards in 50 minutes to aid an offense in need of rebounding punch…At 6'10" 258 pounds, Knight has attempted just 11 free throws this season (hitting 9 of 11) and has not scored more than 7 points since the season opener against Miami-Ohio…
Consistent weak side defense, position post defense, the occasional mid-range shot vs. man, the baseline J as a recipient of kick-out passes from Irish guards, 15 minutes per game, and much more physical play near the rim is all the Irish should ask of the 5th-year senior.
Which leads us to...
Has not played in either of the team's last two games including Wednesday night when no Irish post defender could remotely contain Bjorklund…Played just two minutes last Saturday in a close win over Delaware, that after earning 13 at Iowa though he corralled just one rebound in defeat…A solid athlete at 6'10" 242 pounds, August has just two blocked shots this season…Has converted on 21 of 42 field goal attempts and has a fluid, high-release on his mid-range jump shot…Can finish at the rim…To be kinds, it appears the sophomore isn't the team's most consistent practice player...
Said Brey of Auguste, "I think we have to work him back in. He hasn't practiced as well and that's where maybe my confidence hasn't been high in him. One of my main focal points is getting him going and I talked to him...we need his energy and we need his bounce.
"He had a tough stretch leading into the Delaware game. And then he had a tough stretch in the Delaware game. We have to keep them all engaged, even when they don't play. He's going to be a key guy for us."
If he's not, Notre Dame won't contend vs. the Hoosiers, Buckeyes, or middle and upper tier of the ACC.
Forward Austin Burgett and Guard Steve Vasturia
Burgett has not hit a field goal -- attempting just three -- since scoring three points in 15 minutes at Iowa…Has just four rebounds over the last five games (59 minutes)…Gaining valuable experience for next season when Sherman and Knight move on but the Irish offense doesn't seem to gain much from his presence as a second big man…Has the ability to knock down the open shot but after hitting 6 of his first 8, Burgett is just 6 of 17 since…Ripped down 10 boards vs. Santa Clara on November 22 in 22 minutes of action…Fouled out in consecutive games vs. Indiana State and Santa Clara and has not been as aggressive since…Has nine points over the last six games.
Said Brey of Vasturia, "In a tough night, Steve Vasturia is a guy that we have to keep nurturing. I told him, 'Hey, you gave us really good minutes,'" (against North Dakota State). He's been someone who has been really good in practice and he is a shot-maker and he has good size."
The 6'6" 207-pound Vasturia had not played in three straight games before earning eight minutes vs. the Bisons, drilling one of two from long range including a momentum three that cut the lead to one, 45-44, near the 16-minute mark.
Burgett's minutes could be lessened today (in favor of Auguste) vs. the high-flying Hoosiers. Look for Vasturia to get a look midway through the first half.