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Young guards earn playing time

Matthew DeFranks | Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Entering this season, sophomore guard Alex Dragicevich and freshman guard Pat Connaughton were unproven and unknown. They combined for zero starts, 20 points and 62 minutes of playing time.

Now, the youthful duo has combined for around 14 points and 45 minutes — per game — in helping provide much-needed depth for a thin Notre Dame squad hampered by the loss of graduate student Tim Abromaitis.

“It makes the team totally different [if five or six players are producing],” sophomore guard Eric Atkins said. “If one of them can provide us with some big time minutes and big time stats, it really boosts everyone’s confidence. To see one of them hit a couple of threes, it just really keeps everything flowing well.”

The pair of inexperienced guards has largely fought for playing time all season long, with Dragicevich earning the starts early and Connaughton garnering the starts lately.

“We need both of their punches,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “At times, we’ve had Alex here for the most part and Pat on the road. A couple games, we had them sharing pretty well — one scored eight, one scored seven. That’s important for us.”

While each player averages a modest seven points per game, they have both had standout performances this year.

Dragicevich’s signature performance came in Notre Dame’s 72-59 win over then-No. 22 Pittsburgh. The Northbrook, Ill., native poured in a career-high 22 points, including four 3-pointers.

Since that game, however, Dragicevich has dipped into double figures just once. He had 12 points in the regular season finale against Providence.

“Their production definitely helps us, and gives us another dimension,” senior guard Scott Martin said. “It’s a little bit more of an inside-out presence. We focused so much on getting the ball to Jack last game, and [Dragicevich] hit a couple of big ones to stretch it out for us. So I think they just make us that much tougher to guard.”

Dragicevich has shot well from behind the arc this season, knocking down 34 percent of his 3-pointers. Brey said he credits Irish assistant coach Martin Ingelsby with Dragicevich’s improvement from a year ago, when he averaged just 1.4 points per game.

Brey also said the coaching staff must use a different approach with Dragicevich.

“I’m tired of telling him [not to overthink plays],” Brey said. “I don’t want to meet with him too much because then he starts analyzing everything we talk about.”

Connaughton, meanwhile, has stepped into his role seamlessly, playing a big role in Notre Dame’s upset of then-No. 1 Syracuse. His two 3-pointers early in the first half set the tone for the Irish and energized the capacity crowd at Purcell Pavilion.

The Arlington, Mass., native also propelled the Irish to victories against Marquette and Villanova. Against the Golden Eagles, he recorded his first double-double with 23 points and 11 rebounds.

In the overtime road win over the Wildcats, Connaughton knocked down seven 3-pointers while also snatching nine rebounds. Since that game, however, he has scored just 13 total points in four games.

Brey said a goal of his heading into the Big East tournament was to get both Connaughton and Dragicevich going.

“I think Alex’s frame of mind is good,” Brey said. “What I need to do is get Pat prepared. This is his first postseason. He’s logged a lot of minutes and there’s been a lot of responsibility, and I almost want to get him re-energized this week.”

After the 75-69 win over Providence, Brey said he toyed with the idea of shuffling Dragicevich into the starting lineup in place of Connaughton.

“I think we’ll stay with what we have,” Brey said. “My gut tells me, after thinking it through over the weekend, that we stay the course and get Pat going and bring Alex off the bench.”

Connaughton, Dragicevich and the rest of the Irish will look to capture the school’s first Big East title this weekend in New York’s Madison Square Garden.


Contact Matthew DeFranks at [email protected]