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February 21, 2013

Flushing out the physicality

For the last eight games - in the absence of injured sixth-year graduate student Scott Martin, who is nursing his knee back to health - Mike Brey has penciled in a starting lineup featuring 6-foot-9, 246-pound Jack Cooley and 6-foot-10, 258-pound Tom Knight.

It was Brey's response to losing the 6-foot-8, 218-pound Martin, who ranks second on the squad in rebounding behind Cooley.

For the last three games since the five-overtime victory over Louisville when all hands on deck were called into action, Brey has gone to 6-foot-10, 246-pound Garrick Sherman and 6-foot-10, 230-pound Zach Auguste in tandem when it's time to give Cooley and Knight a blow.

That's a lot of beef on the court for the Irish.

The Irish haven't always taken advantage of that size, and after the 71-54 pounding at the hands of Providence Saturday in which Notre Dame was out-rebounded, 43-32, Brey had seen enough.

"I threw the challenge at our guys," said Brey following Notre Dame's 51-42 come-from-behind victory at Pittsburgh Monday where the Irish out-rebounded the Panthers, 40-25. "I said, 'In this stretch, since we lost Scott Martin, we're now 6-2. The two games we lost, Syracuse and Providence, we weren't physical enough on the front line. In the six games that we have won, we've been very physical.'

"I challenged them to get back to that. Tonight (against Pittsburgh), everybody rebounded. (Jerian Grant) got five, Eric (Atkins) got four, Pat (Connaughton) got some big rebounds. You have to scratch it out that way, so you felt eventually that as long as they're not getting second shots, you're going to be able to make a run at this thing."

Interestingly, Notre Dame has been out-rebounded in eight of its 14 Big East games, although most have been by narrow margins. In fact, during the streak in which the Irish dropped three out of four to fall to 3-3, they were out-rebounded in five straight games, including 34-28 by Connecticut and 35-24 by Georgetown.

Knight grabbed eight rebounds against the Panthers, which was the second time in three games he had reached the eight-rebound figure. Connaughton latched on to six defensive rebounds against Pittsburgh when the Irish needed every one of them to help offset the 1-of-18 start from the field. Grant, who averages just 2.5 rebounds per game, certainly is capable of grabbing five a game, as he did against the Panthers.

Of course, it wasn't until Martin's injury that the Irish began playing four players 6-foot-9 and above on a regular basis. Notre Dame dueled to a 54-54 tie on the backboards against Louisville, hammered DePaul in the rebounding column at home, 44-25, and then bounced back from an 11-rebound deficit to Providence with a resounding domination of Pittsburgh on the backboards.

"The way we rebounded (against Pittsburgh) was phenomenal," said Cooley, who is averaging 11.0 rebounds per game. "If we can keep that up for the rest of the season - especially against (a team like) Pittsburgh - to out-rebound them that badly is huge. It just shows how tough our team is.

"Everyone just came in with the mentality of getting boards. It's so great to see instead of just one outlier. It's great to see everyone so close together. It makes my life a heckuva lot easier."

Notre Dame's size and physicality need to be their calling cards the rest of the way. Of their remaining four regular-season games, the Irish face the No. 1 (Cincinnati), No. 3 (Louisville), No. 6 (St. John's) and No. 10 (Marquette) rebounding teams in the Big East. (The Irish are seventh at 36.3 rebounds per game.) Cincinnati ranks first in rebounding margin while Louisville (No. 4) and Marquette (No. 7) aren't far behind.

For Brey, it still starts with Cooley. His string of nine straight games with double-figure rebounding totals came to an end Monday night when he grabbed nine against the Panthers. Brey is cracking with whip with his thoroughbred while still demanding of others to contribute more.

"I challenged Jack before the (Pittsburgh) game," Brey said. "I said, 'We've been playing four big guys. Put me in a position where these other three big guys are trying to figure out who's going to be the big guy to play with you most of the night. That's when you're at your best, and you do it when you defend and rebound.'

"He did that. That's who he is, and when he's that, we've got a shot against anybody."

But while it starts with Cooley, Brey knows he needs all of his big men contributing on the boards, using their fouls, and making Notre Dame's size known to the opposition.

"I've got to do a better job moving forward," Brey said. "If we're lacking in that area, it has to be addressed. It has to be a real emphasis in our practices.

"Now, I don't want to get anybody hurt. But in practice, I've got to be on that more because when we go with that mindset, especially playing two bigs, we've got to throw ourselves around. We've got other bigs to use."

And more rebounds to grab.

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