For the second time in four years, coach Mike Brey exceeded expectations for the Fighting Irish basketball program when a star player went down with injury; in 2008-09, it was Luke Harangody and last season, it was pre-season first-team All-Big East selection, forward Tim Abromaitis. Even without the gifted senior, Notre Dame managed a 22-win season, good for third in the conference and another trip to the NCAA Tournament. It was announced this week that Abromaitis would not be granted a sixth year of eligibility, but don't sleep on Notre Dame again.
Adding Abromaitis to the starting lineup would have surely shot the Irish up in the pre-season rankings, but nevertheless, Brey returns second-team pick and the Big East's, and perhaps the nation's most improved player, power forward Jack Cooley, along with point guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant; the team is still awaiting word on a sixth year from versatile forward Scott Martin.
Cooley is in the mold of former ND forward, Harangody, a big, burly physical low-post presence. He led the Big East in field-goal percentage at 62.5 percent accuracy, placed fourth in rebounding at 9 per game, including nearly 4 per game on the offensive end, eighth best in the country. And despite his husky build and limited athleticism, Cooley's 1.6 blocks per game were 7th in the Big East.
Sophomore guards Grant and Atkins combined to play nearly 93 percent of the team's available minutes in the backcourt and proved to be more than indispensible to Brey; they each averaged better than 12 points a game, narrowly missing out on the team lead to Cooley's 12.5 per game mark. As distributors, the duo combined for 9.1 assists with Grant sporting the Big East's second-best assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.7-to-1 and Atkins wasn't too shabby himself at 1.8-to-1.
As the team's two best deep perimeter threats, Grant and Atkins will certainly need to shoot better from inside the arc if they want to improve on the Irish's third-place Big East finish; they each shot under 40 percent from the field in their sophomore year. But what they lacked in shot accuracy, the duo made up for with stellar defense utilizing their quickness and length to keep opposing guards from penetrating the Notre Dame defense and off the foul line.
If Scott Martin earns a sixth year, this Notre Dame team will be one of the most experienced in the country, returning four solid starters and two young versatile wings that split time replacing Abromaitis in the rotation. This will prove crucial in a league devastated by graduations and players leaving early for the NBA Draft- Syracuse lost four of its top five players, Marquette graduated the league's Player of the Year and leading scorer, the Hoyas of Georgetown lose three of their top four, Cincinnati lost their inside punch and likely pre-season favorite, Louisville, returns a great crop of talent, but may miss their top perimeter threats more than they realize.