By Jon Rothstein
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Notre Dame has become the perennial overachiever in college basketball.
Year after year, the Irish are picked low in preseason polls and somehow manage to regularly exceed expectations.
It’s a pattern that’s allowed Mike Brey to be named Big East Coach of the Year in three of the past six seasons and one that also yielded him a contract extension in June that will keep him in South Bend through 2022.
Notre Dame may be bound for the ACC but they’ve still got plenty of damage to do in the Big East — especially this season.
The Irish return five starters from last year’s group that won 22 games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. This team won’t sneak up on anyone — they’re in bold print.
“It’s been a while since we’ve started the season with these type of expectations,” Brey said. “We’re always picked in the eight-nine range in the Big East preseason poll and then work our way up from there. This is a new kind of challenge.”
Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant return in the back court and give Notre Dame as good of a perimeter duo as they’re is in the Big East. Both averaged just over 12 points a game last season and combined to average slightly better than nine assists each time they took the floor.
“They’re as good as any back court we’ve had in the history of this program,” Brey said of Atkins and Grant. “The good thing is we have them for a few more years since Eric’s a junior and Jerian’s only in his second year. They’re only going to continue to grow.”
Sharpshooter Pat Connaughton figures to lock down the perimeter sniper role on the wing and veteran glue guy Scott Martin is back for yet another season to form a solid baseline nucleus with Jack Cooley. Cooley really blossomed last season with expanded minutes and tallied an astounding 11 double-doubles in Big East play.
Continuing with his trend of adding experienced players through different mediums, Brey believes former Michigan State big man Garrick Sherman will also add a different element to his team.
“He’s our sixth starter,” Brey said of the 6-10 Sherman, who sat out last season after transferring. “He’s 23 years old and he’s a man. He’s played over 65 games already in college basketball and he’s real easy to play with.”
Brey has always been an advocate of experience. He told me last fall the year he goes into the Carrier Dome to play Syracuse with four freshmen is the last he’ll coach. That’s why it’s so interesting that two true first-year players, Cameron Biedscheid and Zach Auguste look like they’ll both be integral pieces in the Irish’s rotation.
“They’re a big part of our plans” Brey said of Biedscheid and Auguste. “Cameron is a great fit for the way we play. He can handle it and really shoot the ball. His biggest learning curve will be learning to play with other great players. Zach on the other hand is someone who has to play for us. He’s our fourth big guy and he’s different than any other big we have. He gives us more athleticism and can really play above the rim. He has to be involved.”
Louisville may be the preseason favorite in the Big East and Syracuse and Cincinnati both figure to be at the top of the league standings — but don’t discount Brey and Notre Dame. While they’ve made a nice living flying under the radar, this group has all the requisites to be the best team Brey has had in quite sometime.
“We’re entering new territory,” Brey said in regards to the early hype surrounding his team. “The thing I want us to talk about as a team is winning the Big East Regular Season Title. We’ve never done it before but it’s within the grasp of this group. We’ve got a chance.”
What’s your prediction for Brey’s squad? Sound off in the comments below!