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June 24, 2013

A matter of style

They say the old Big East was more of a pound-it-inside league.

They say the ACC is more of a wide-open, let-it-fly league.

Mix the two styles of play together and you have Mike Brey and his Fighting Irish heading into their 14th season together, only this time in a new league with a combination of styles.

“I’m glad we’re going to the ACC a year earlier than I first thought because I like the veteran group with the seniors that I’ll have taking us into a new league,” Brey said. “We’ve got to try to establish an identity again.

“We had such a consistent and respected identity in the Big East that you’d like to get off to a very good start. We want an NCAA bid in our first year in this new league.”

On the surface, the Irish would appear to be well-equipped for their move to the ACC. Brey came to Notre Dame more than a dozen years ago featuring an aggressive offensive approach that promoted aggressiveness and the freedom to let it fly from long range.

As Brey’s tenure at Notre Dame reached double-digit years and the Irish had some injuries to key players down the stretch, he reverted to more of a grind-it-out approach to take advantage of the physical big men on the roster.

The modern-day “burn” was born, which has been instrumental in Notre Dame’s four straight trips to the NCAA tournament and a noteworthy 38-16 mark in Big East play the last three seasons combined. But Brey wants to continue nurturing Notre Dame’s ability to play up-tempo.

“People have said we play a little more like the ACC teams and that’s been an advantage for us in the Big East,” Brey said. “We’re skilled. That second big guy is able to face the bucket.

“In the ACC, when you ask guys who have coached in both leagues like (Florida State’s) Leonard Hamilton, he says the biggest difference is the second big - the Scott Martin, the Rob Kurz - or a four-man who spreads you out and can make a shot. It’s a tricky match-up sometimes.”

The Irish appear to have the best of both worlds. Consistent inside force/all-Big East first-team Jack Cooley is gone. But Notre Dame returns big men Tom Knight, Garrick Sherman and Zach Auguste to pound the backboards.

In the backcourt, Notre Dame features its deepest and most explosive corps in its history. Veterans Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant - who today begin competing for a spot on the U.S. roster for the World University Games in Kazan, Russia - lead the charge, which has added some lightning in freshman guard Demetrius Jackson to go with promising sophomore Cam Biedscheid and heady freshman shooting guard Steve Vasturia. Exciting freshman swingman V.J. Beachem gives the Irish another option on the perimeter.

In addition to the offensive advantages, the Irish may be able to gain a step defensively.

“One of the things I’d like to see is with a Grant-Atkins-Jackson perimeter, can we pressure the ball a little more?” Brey said. “Can we pick up three-quarter court and contest instead of just playing position defense all the time?

“I like Jackson two-fold. Certainly he can play for both Atkins and Grant. But we can have the three of them together on the perimeter, and I like that look. We’re going to keep looking at that and playing that way through the pre-season because I don’t think Notre Dame has ever had a perimeter with that kind of a gear.”

Brey and coaches across the country have the luxury of taking a peek at next year’s mix as early as this summer as a relaxation of the off-season rules allows for two hours of full instruction per week to go along with the six hours of strength and conditioning. Playing those three guards together creates some interesting possibilities heading into the ACC.

“Eric and Jerian love it, and Demetrius is so coachable,” Brey said. “He’s very mature about, ‘Okay, what do you need me to do with this group?’ I really like that.”

Brey is concerned that without Cooley, the Irish lose the aggressiveness and the near-automatic rebound on the offensive and defensive ends. Yet Notre Dame remains big up front with Knight, Sherman and Auguste, a trio of 6-foot-10 frontline players.

At the very least, those three big men rotating between two spots (with Austin Burgett and Eric Katenda trying to factor in) gives the Irish some big screeners to free up the Irish shooters. Junior Pat Connaughton gives the Irish versatility up front with the ability to shoot from distance while crashing the boards with his great leaping ability.

“The one thing we hang our hat on is our efficiency on the offensive end,” Brey said. “We don’t turn it over, we’re going to get a good shot, and we’re going to control tempo.

“The Big East was more brute force. In the Big East, if they had a wide open 15-footer, they’d still try to come at you and drive it down your throat, even if you were playing off him. In the ACC, when there’s a 15-footer, guys are going to take (the shot) a little more often. That’s kind of how we played.

“We’ve always had the ability to play like that. I’m interested to see what gives.”


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