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March 15, 2013

ND serves up big-man du jour

NEW YORK - Jack Cooley is in a bit of a funk.

Ever since the flu bug bit him at the end of February, Notre Dame’s first-team all-Big East selection has had difficulty getting his shots around the basket to fall.

No worries. Irish head coach Mike Brey has used dual big men since the loss of Scott Martin, and the results have been one or more stepping forward to provide Notre Dame with the spark it needs inside.

“It’s a great luxury to have all four of those guys,” said Brey - referencing Cooley, Tom Knight, Garrick Sherman and Zach Auguste - following Thursday night’s Big East quarterfinals victory over Marquette.

For most of the season, it’s been Cooley, who has recorded 19 double-doubles and 32 in his career. Thursday night, it was Sherman, who had 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting and six rebounds in Notre Dame’s come-from-behind 73-65 victory.

Yet in the first half, Knight scored eight points and grabbed three rebounds. Twenty-four hours before that against Rutgers, Knight scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds - tying Cooley for the team-lead.

In the game before that - the regular-season finale at Louisville - Sherman scored 14 points. One week earlier, Auguste scored a career-high 15 points to go with five rebounds at Marquette as Cooley battled illness. Cooley scored 12 points and snagged 13 rebounds in Notre Dame’s home finale against St. John’s.

It’s a regular big-man du jour.

“Garrick Sherman was fabulous,” said Brey late Thursday night. “I think we’ve found another weapon here in March.”

Cooley struggled against the Golden Eagles in the first half, but grabbed all six of his rebounds in the second half.

“I’m really proud of Jack Cooley because it wasn’t a real good night,” Brey said. “But he kept trying and he kept plugging, and he made some big, big plays for us. Tom Knight…Zach. Maybe it wasn’t as much a night for Zach, but tomorrow night could be.”

For Sherman, it’s been hit-and-miss every step of the way in his first year of competition after transferring from Michigan State. After averaging 12.2 points and 5.1 rebounds during a six-game pre-conference stretch, Sherman’s confidence waned. Brey didn’t play him in four out of six conference games after Sherman struggled with turnover issues.

But when the Irish played five overtimes at home against Louisville, Brey had no choice but to turn to Sherman and Auguste. They’ve been coming off the bench simultaneously since then, and the big-man quartet has been effective.

Sherman had 17 points and six rebounds in the five-overtime victory over Louisville. He also tossed in 11 points at Providence when little was working well for the Irish.

“Whoever is flowing that night, we try to make sure they’re on the court,” Sherman said. “I just came out (against Marquette) with a completely different mentality. I really wanted this game. We really owed them. We lost to them the last time we played. We didn’t play really well up there and we have to redeem ourselves.”

So fluid is Notre Dame’s big-man rotation that Brey has the luxury of evaluating the hot hand/cold hand up front on virtually a possession-by-possession basis.
“Everybody at times tonight was the fourth big man in my mind,” Brey smiled. “But then throughout the night, they became the first big man again.”

Sherman knows he and his frontline mates will have their hands full with Louisville’s 6-foot-11 Gorgui Dieng.

“Just being good with the ball,” said Sherman of the keys for success against Dieng, who has 247 career blocked shots and twice that many altered shots.

“Shot fakes. We’ve got to create space somehow because he’s so long and he’s so athletic. He does a lot of things well for them. It will be another challenge, but nothing we haven’t overcome before.”

Sherman’s confidence, which has ebbed and flowed so freely this year, seems to be at high tide heading into the Louisville game.

“I just feel good,” said Sherman, who is a combined 14-of-19 from the field with 10 rebounds in two games against Louisville. “It’s that time of the year to step up. This is what I transferred here for, to play in these big games and to win these big games.

“One of our huge advantages in March is we never get rattled. We’re not going to panic. We’re going to keep our heads in it.”

And the way the Irish big men are playing, four heads are better than one.

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