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Men’s Basketball: Tip-off

Mike Monaco | Friday, November 9, 2012

“We’re playing with real bullets now.”

With those words, Irish coach Mike Brey signaled the start of the regular season, which begins when the No. 22 Irish square off with Evansville in the opening round of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic on Saturday.

Notre Dame is coming off a pair of exhibition victories that were anything but similar. The Irish rolled to a 111-52 demolition of Division II Quincy on Oct. 29 before grinding out a 70-56 win over Cardinal Stritch of the NAIA on Nov. 2.

“We had to battle to beat Cardinal Stritch,” Brey said. “Who are we to look past anybody? If we can win, that’s a quality win. Whoever wins Saturday, it’s a quality win for the other one because I think Evansville is going to get into the Missouri Valley [Conference] and do a lot of damage.”

Brey said battling Cardinal Stritch for 40 minutes has prepared the Irish to get that first quality win.

“What I liked about the other night was at halftime, I told them, ‘We’re in one and we have got to figure this thing out,’ and we had game pressure on us,” Brey said. “I’m really glad we had that kind of experience before Saturday and obviously we had to play our key guys to get away from Cardinal Stritch the other night.”

Fresh off its best season in the Missouri Valley Conference, Evansville returns three starters and nearly 70 percent of its scoring.

In their season opener a year ago, the Purple Aces defeated Butler 80-77 in overtime, who was coming off a trip to the 2011 NCAA championship game. Brey said the Irish are aware of Evansville’s past early-season success and are expecting an “unbelievable challenge” from a veteran, perimeter-oriented team.

“We’re not good enough to be looking past anybody, a team that won 16 games last year that is trending up,” Brey said. “They can shoot the ball. They make shots from out there. They know how they play. … It’s a heck of a challenge for us. It’s a good, tough first game.”

Evansville senior guard Colt Ryan averaged 20.5 points per game last year and was named to the all-conference first team. 

“They’ve got a kid who can really score the ball,” Brey said of the 6-foot-5 guard. “He can score it. He can put up 25 [points] easy. When you have really good veteran guards, you’ve got a chance every night.”

Brey will look to two of his own experienced guards – juniors Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant – to propel the Irish attack. Atkins, Grant, senior forward Jack Cooley, graduate student forward Scott Martin and sophomore forward/guard Pat Connaughton will again make up the starting five. Senior center Garrick Sherman and freshman forward Cameron Biedscheid round out the top seven. While Brey said he feels good about those seven players, he is still deciding how to allocate remaining minutes.

“Where we go after [the first seven] is still to be determined,” Brey said. “If somebody goes down in that seven, [freshman forward] Zach Auguste has been impressive coming back [from an ankle injury] the last couple days. We have [senior forward] Tom Knight, who at the end of last season gave us good minutes off the bench. Those are the two guys that come to mind after those seven that kind of established themselves.”

Even within the core of seven players, Brey said he feels he has a lot of versatility with substitutions and playing styles.

“When you deal with just those seven, you’ve got a lot of interchangeable parts there,” Brey said. “Here is what we’ve done with the program … we can put Garrick Sherman in for Eric Atkins. We can sub a center for a point guard. … We’re deep because there are a lot of different combinations. We’re deep at seven.”

The Irish battle Evansville on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion.

Contact Mike Monaco at [email protected]