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Prister: Future looks bright despite NCAA loss

Eric Prister | Tuesday, March 20, 2012

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Every story has its parts. And for Notre Dame’s basketball program, the story is just beginning.
Friday’s loss to Xavier was a heartbreaking way to end the season and another semifinals loss in the Big East tournament did little to show any marked improvement or progress in the program. But this story is not over.

Every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has an introduction and it has a climax. It has ups and it has downs and it has everything in between. But before the good guys can win the day, earn the prize and get the girl, they must first experience trials and tribulations that put the happy ending in doubt.

Sports don’t always follow this mold and sometimes failure leads right back to failure. For some teams and players, there is no happy ending. But until the story has been played out, no one can know.

And for Notre Dame’s basketball program, the story is far from over.

Because of their nine-game winning streak in the middle of the Big East season, punctuated with wins over Syracuse, Marquette and Connecticut, expectations for the Irish skyrocketed. But remember where Notre Dame was after its loss to Gonzaga, Irish coach Mike Brey said it himself – making the NIT was probably going to be a success.
But then Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant and Jack Cooley decided they weren’t quite ready to write the season off and made a run that no other Notre Dame team playing in the Big East had ever done. They went from a NCAA tournament afterthought to a No. 7 seed in the tournament, a favorite on opening weekend. And when taken in context, a semifinals loss in the Big East tournament and an opening round loss in the NCAA tournament really aren’t that bad.

It was more the way the Irish lost to Xavier that left so many heartbroken. In December, just making the tournament would have been an achievement. But a blown lead in the final minutes, turnovers from the most reliable players on the team, missed 3-point attempts and a lane violation made the loss seem so much worse than it actually was.

But despite the difficult but not-so-difficult season, there is a lot to like about the state of the program. Jack Cooley proved he could be a force in the Big East. He should be even better his senior year, which would mean a potential Big East all-conference first team season. He averaged a double-double against conference opponents this season and he will only improve.

Eric Atkins is a point guard good enough to lead a contender. Atkins shook off two turnovers in the final minutes of the game against Xavier and drew a foul that could have tied the game, if not for the lane violation. Atkins made the first free throw and would have made the second – that’s just the type of player he is.

Pat Connaughton and Alex Dragicevich are role players who have the potential to be consistent starters. Connaughton has three years of eligibility left and Dragicevich has two, so they have plenty of time for improvement.
Transfer Garrick Sherman is relatively unknown, but a six-foot-ten compliment to Cooley can’t be a bad thing. At worst, he can spell Cooley without losing too much and at best, the two together could pose a formidable and sizable threat in the Big East.

Brey’s recruiting has improved recently as well, and the Irish will welcome two players in the Rivals.com top-100 for next season who stand at six-foot-seven and six-foot-ten. The Irish are recruiting size and talent, a lethal combination.

But most important for the future of the Irish basketball program is Jerian Grant. The sophomore guard with three more years of eligibility evolved from a tentative player who looked out of sorts on the offensive side of the ball to Notre Dame’s go-to player down the stretch. When the Irish needed a basket against Xavier, the ball was in Grant’s hands. He missed the shot, but he has the confidence, and Brey has the confidence in him, to take that shot. He is Notre Dame’s future, and the potential for stardom is high.
For some, the loss to Xavier was the end of an era. But for
the Notre Dame basketball program, it was just the beginning.

Contact Eric Prister at eprister@nd.edu