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October 12, 2012
All the components are in place.
The ability to overcome adversity? Check. The talent to string together Big East victories? Check. Versatility? Check. Size? Experience? Battle-tested? Uh huh.
After second- and third-place finishes in the competitive Big East the last two seasons, and with the entire squad back that contributed to a nine-game winning streak that dug them out of a November-December crater-like hole, Mike Brey is hopeful that the 2012-13 season is the one that truly propels the Irish among the nation’s elite.
But he’s not going to get ahead of himself. More importantly, he’s not going to allow his players/team to get ahead of themselves.
“We talked about it when we came back from the Xavier loss in the NCAA tournament: chasing a regular-season championship in the Big East,” said Brey, who begins his 13th season at Notre Dame with the enthusiasm of a newcomer, which could very well be the program’s last in the Big East before jumping into the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“Since we’ve been pretty darn close to that -- we’ve been in the mix before -- it’s a realistic thing that we talked about through the spring and summer, and that’s kind of where we ended it, (at the) regular season.”
Brey’s critics, who point to his skimpy post-season r?m?won’t be happy with “just a Big East crown,” and neither, quite frankly, will Brey and his veteran team. But the first goal is to maintain a steady pace, not get ahead of themselves, and wrap themselves in the long and winding course that is college basketball.
“You want to keep guys loose and playing to win, and not playing not to lose,” said Brey, whose last two teams have combined for a 49-19 overall record, including an impressive 27-9 mark in the Big East. “That comes from me and my demeanor with them and our captains, too. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re not going undefeated.
“The other phrase I used with them is ‘enjoy the journey.’ (Friday) starts a five-month journey. It’s a long season and we’re going to have fun with it when we can, and then business-like?But you’ve got to be going for it and playing loose, even though expectations are (high).”
Expectations can’t help but be high. Veteran Tim Abromaitis is gone after being denied a sixth year of eligibility, and swingman Alex Dragicevich has transferred to Boston College. That’s it for the departures. The Irish have 88.7 percent of the points, 93.3 percent of the rebounds, and 90.7 percent of the assists returning to the fold, led by headliners Jack Cooley, Scott Martin, Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant.
In that quartet, the Irish have 46.4 points, 20.7 rebounds and 11.6 assists per game returning from a core group that will be among the most veteran in the country. Pat Connaughton, an 18-game starter as a freshman, 6-foot-10 Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman, 6-foot-10 senior Tom Knight, and two exciting freshmen - 6-foot-7 guard Cameron Biedscheid and 6-foot-10 Zach Auguste - round out the main projected contributors on a squad that should be a top 25 fixture from start to finish.
The Irish have 88.7 percent of the points, 93.3 percent of the rebounds, and 90.7 percent of the assists returning to the fold, led by headliners Jack Cooley, Scott Martin, Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant.
“Over 12 years, we’ve been pretty darn consistent at playing together and chasing it together, and a lot of that has been the really strong leadership,” Brey said. “But last year, we were so scared we were going to be really bad after November and early December that we really did chase it together.
“So what are our expectations in our room? I think that’s going to be very much a key for me to keep talking about that and for our leadership to keep talking about that, starting with trying to chase down a regular-season title. That’s a good initial thing for us, period. Let’s start with that.”
While Atkins and Grant grew together during the 2011-12 regular season, they played young, according to Brey, in the post-season. That motivates the athletic backcourt to take their games to the next level.
The “voices” up front will come from Martin - a sixth-year senior - and Cooley, who blossomed into a 2nd-team all-Big East selection and the league’s most improved player.
“I really, really want to get a Big East championship,” Martin said. “We were second and third the last couple years, and being that close, it gives you something to shoot for. It’s kind of like the close but no cigar idea. You’re right there, you can see it, but you can’t quite get to it. From a personal standpoint and a team standpoint, that’s the goal.”
Cooley’s individual goals were met in 2011-12 when he emerged to average 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game to become the most consistent, well-rounded big man in the Big East. Now, it’s about playing the role of the wise veteran.
“I have to be a captain now and look out for everyone, make sure the team is in the best shape possible, and that everyone is doing what they need to do to get better,” Cooley said.
“I think I always had the potential. There were just so many leaders before me, and my presence really wasn’t needed in a leadership role at that time. It’s a lot easier to speak from the role I’m in now than where I was at the beginning of last year.”
For Brey, who has the security of a new 10-year contract in his back pocket, it’s all about the journey.
“Chase it together again?work to deliver?I’ve kept that up on the board,” Brey said. “Some guys have been talked about individually. A few deposits have been put in the bank. Can we still do that? That’s something I will have to stay after them about.
“But again, with the senior leadership I have, I feel very good that that message will be supported when I’m not around.”
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