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Prister: Challenges abound in year full of unknowns (Nov. 11)

Eric Prister | Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Irish entered last season unsure — unsure of who would lead the team in scoring, unsure of who would come off the bench. But most of all, Notre Dame was unsure how it would respond to losing its best player, Luke Harangody, and its on and off the court leader, Tory Jackson.

Enter Ben Hansbrough, who stepped in to fill both roles on his way to Big East Player of the Year honors.

The Irish were unsure of the exact makeup of last year’s squad, but were sure of two things ⎯ they had experience and they had height. All five starters for Notre Dame last season were either seniors or fifth-year seniors, and four of the five were 6-foot-8.

This season has some similarities, but also some glaring differences, and those differences are more than a little worrisome for a team that finished last season No. 2 in the Big East.

Notre Dame no longer has experience. Fifth-year Tim Abromaitis and senior Scott Martin (who, because of injuries, has only played one full season in an Irish uniform himself) are the only two returning starters, and freshman Eric Atkins and junior Jack Cooley are the only other two players who played any significant time for last year’s squad.

Notre Dame not only does not know for sure if Abromaitis or someone else will step up and lead the team in scoring — it does not even know, with the regular season just one day away, who will consistently be the fifth starter. And that is a problem.

Abromaitis needs to play like one of the top-50 players in the country, as he has been named this preseason. He needs to replace the productivity of Hansbrough for the Irish to have a chance to compete in the Big East.

Martin needs to play up to his potential. In Notre Dame’s 83-77 overtime loss to Louisville in last year’s Big East tournament semifinals, he finished with 21 points and eight rebounds. He has the potential to be a legitimate second option for Notre Dame, but certainly has not shown the ability to do it consistently. The first four games this year without Abromaitis are his chance to gain confidence and become the player the Irish need him to be if they are going to be successful.

Cooley needs to give the Irish a combined 20 points and rebounds per game this season, which will be difficult to do since he can only play about 13 minutes per half. He will also need to avoid foul trouble, since he is Notre Dame’s only legitimate inside presence on defense. Cooley has shown sparks of dominance, but those sparks will need to become more consistent this season.

Atkins needs to be the on the court leader for Notre Dame this season, but he also needs to score. Last year, he filled his role as game manager quite well, and that will need to continue. But Notre Dame’s offense is not as dynamic this season, and Atkins will need to penetrate the lane, draw fouls and score points. Again, he has the capability, but he needs to translate that potential into actual results.

Freshman Pat Connaughton needs to be the fifth starter. He is one of the most athletic players on the roster, something Notre Dame will need against a very athletic Big East. He shoots the ball well and, more importantly, wants the ball in his hands.

Sophomore Alex Dragicevich needs to play a significant amount. He may be Notre Dame’s fifth best offensive threat, looks comfortable with the ball in his hands, can shoot from the outside and is not afraid to take the ball to the basket. He may be a defensive liability, but the Irish are going to struggle on defense anyway so they are going to need all the offense they can get.

Sophomore Jerian Grant and junior Joey Brooks need to improve. They both look tentative with the ball in their hands and unconfident when they shoot. Grant is a good passer, but the Irish already have a game manager in Atkins. Brooks is solid on defense, but if he cannot produce offensively, he cannot be an integral part of the team.

All of these things need to happen if Notre Dame is going to compete in the Big East and earn a trip to the NCAA tournament. They are all possible. The question is how likely are they?

Contact Eric Prister at eprister@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.