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Monaco: Irish need more than depth (Oct. 30)

By Mike Monaco | Tuesday, October 29, 2013


It’s tough not to be intrigued by Notre Dame’s depth.

It’s tough not to be captivated by the team-first, assist-dishing style of five players orchestrated as one.

After Monday’s 95-69 exhibition beatdown of Indianapolis, Irish coach Mike Brey loved how “everybody is getting involved,” how the team was “sharing the ball,” how the team posted 29 assists on 35 made field goals.

But to take the next step toward being a squad capable of a legitimate NCAA Tournament run, Notre Dame will need more than just a team effort. It will need the exceptional from its individuals.

It happens in moments like the ridiculous 12-point, 29-second stretch from senior guard Jerian Grant, who single-handedly brought out the defibrillator against Louisville last season and resurrected Notre Dame’s chances to down the eventual national champion.

Obviously, that’s an once-in-a-lifetime run of scoring by the senior, but it’s that type of exceptional play by individuals outstepping the bounds of team basketball that will be needed to carry Notre Dame to its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2003.

The Irish have been a successful regular-season and early-postseason unit in recent years, routinely notching 20-plus wins and reaching the semifinals of the Big East Tournament. But the next step is a deep(er) run in the NCAA Tournament, and, in certain spots, something more than efficient, equal-distribution basketball will be a necessity.

Don’t get me wrong. The typical display of terrific ball movement and touch passes that was exhibited Monday is beautiful to watch and also highly successful. Notre Dame knows how to play together, and, on any given night, one of a handful of guys could lead the team in scoring. 

Grant and fellow senior guard Eric Atkins are the undisputed leaders of the team and catalysts of the on-court attack. Grant recorded 194 assists in 35 games (5.54 per game), while Atkins tallied 193 in 35 contests (5.51 per game). There may be no better indication of Notre Dame’s balance and team-centric approach than those numbers. The two best perimeter players – and two of the team’s best three players overall last season – led the squad in assists and had almost identical totals.

Junior guard/forward Pat Connaughton impressed in the Big East Tournament as a knockdown 3-point shooter. Senior center Garrick Sherman propelled the Irish offensively Monday with 21 points, and his soft touch and nimble footwork could be crucial to Notre Dame’s frontline scoring. Graduate student forward Tom Knight logged important and productive minutes after Scott Martin’s injury last season, and Knight’s mid-range game is unmatched on the team. 

Factor in sophomore forwards Zach Auguste and Austin Burgett, the possibility of sophomore forward Cam Biedscheid (if he doesn’t redshirt), freshman sensation Demetrius Jackson and fellow rookies Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem, and Notre Dame is deeper than perhaps it’s ever been in recent memory.

And the team culture that is perfect for this particular team and pervades the Irish program figures to be successful. 

But just how successful?

If Grant and Atkins can, at times, eschew the well-balanced offense and completely take over games in spurts, Notre Dame will be better off. 

If Sherman can, in bunches, heat up and provide bursts of scoring like he did against Louisville when he dropped 17 points in 22 minutes, Notre Dame will be well-positioned to make a leap on the national scale.

If, when the team needs a lift, Connaughton can rain multiple threes per half and ignite the offense momentarily, the Irish will be better for it.

Team ball can carry Notre Dame, but only to a certain point.

It’s tough to make the next step as a program without exceptional moments from the individuals. 

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu

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