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Men’s Basketball: Summer practice leads to big gains for Irish

Matthew DeFranks | Friday, August 17, 2012

Despite new heightened expectations and a spiffy new court, the 2012-13 Irish will be all about continuity after an offseason that saw graduate student guard Scott Martin return for a sixth year and coach Mike Brey receive a 10-year contract extension.

Notre Dame will bring back all five starters – including senior forward and Big East Most Improved Player Jack Cooley – from last year’s squad that bowed out to Xavier in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“Some coaches say ‘Good news, we have all five starters back but we only won seven games last year.’ We have all five starters back from a team that won 22 games,” Brey said.

Junior guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant will anchor the backcourt after combining to average more than 24 points and six assists per game. Sophomore forward Pat Connaughton will come back after a late-season surge that saw him start the final 15 games last year.

Due to a change in NCAA rules that now allow coaches two hours a week with the team, the Irish were able to practice seven times this summer. The recruiting period was also cut from 20 days to 12 days, which prevented burnout among the staff. Brey said the two changes made for a much-improved summer.

“It was energizing for me,” Brey said. “When you get back from the road, you get to work with your team. I was able to teach this summer, which is what they hired me to do.”

The added time gave Brey and the coaching staff more opportunities to work with the heralded class of freshman – ranked 21st in the country by Rivals.com – comprised of Austin Burgett and four-star recruits Cameron Biedscheid and Zach Auguste.

Brey said the freshmen added between eight and 11 pounds of good weight over the summer while preparing for the upcoming season.

“All three of them picked it up quick,” Brey said. “I was very impressed with all three of them.”

In addition to the three freshmen, Notre Dame will also add senior center Garrick Sherman and freshman forward Eric Katenda. Sherman sat out last season after transferring from Michigan State, and Katenda practiced minimally with the team after losing vision his left eye during a pickup game accident.

With the addition of five new bodies to the fray, Brey said he doesn’t have a set rotation number in mind.

“Garrick Sherman, to me, is like a sixth starter with watching him in practice and the experience he brings from his days at Michigan State,” Brey said. “[The five starters and Sherman] are going to play a lot of minutes. Then it’s a matter of [senior forward] Tom Knight, the freshmen, [senior guard] Joey Brooks. Who is going to speak up for some more minutes?”

While the entire regular season schedule has not yet been released, a few marquee non-conference games stick out for the Irish, highlighted by defending national champion Kentucky’s trip to Purcell Pavilion on Nov. 29.

Notre Dame will compete in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the new home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets in mid-November, featuring St. Joseph’s (Penn.), Brigham Young and Florida State. In December, the team will play Indiana in the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis.

Notre Dame will also play every Big East team, including home-and-home sets with Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville and St. John’s.

While heavy preseason expectations and rankings have been placed on the Irish, Brey said he has set a goal of his own.

“I told our group after the Xavier loss ‘I want us to think about a Big East regular season championship,'” Brey said. “We’ve been very close. We’ve been right there. It would be as big an achievement as anything in our basketball history.”

The Irish will open their season in November.