The Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball program has been a model of consistency under long time head coach Mike Brey. The Irish are making a big move this season, leaving the crumbling Big East for the basketball focused ACC.
The ACC is making a big expansion over the next two years. This season will season will see not only Notre Dame, but Syracuse and Pittsburgh as well. Louisville will make the transition in 2014 too. With those four teams, to go along with perennial powerhouses Duke and North Carolina, its hard to argue that the ACC won’t be the most difficult conference in the country.
The Irish will enter the season ranked 21st in the nation and compete in a conference with four other teams in the Top 25. They’ll also have to face IU in the Crossroads Classic which is ranked in the Coaches Poll and just outside the AP Top 25 as well as No. 11 Ohio State just a week later.
The Irish slugged through the Big East last season and a tough non-conference schedule that included an upset win over Kentucky. Notre Dame finished with a 25-10 (10-7) record and were bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Iowa State.
Every year under Brey, the Irish have had a prolific offense but an iffy defense.
Joining the Irish this season will be the 17th ranked recruiting class in the country. Even with the solid class, its unlikely that any of the four players will crack the starting five. Four-star Demetrius Jackson will eventually take over the point guard duties, but for now he’ll be one of the first guys off the bench.
Notre Dame has a very talented and experienced back court returning this season. Most of the attention is heaped on Jerian Grant who averaged an absurd 36 minutes per game last season. Grant has been an extremely steady presence the past two years, and while most of his stats stayed the same his shooting percentage has improved.
Eric Atkins is another steady presence who has seen his stats steadily rise while at Notre Dame. Atkins has fully embraced the leadership role and knows that this is his team now. Having a talented point guard behind him in Jackson is only going to force Atkins to play better.
Pat Connaughton will still fill the role of utility starter for the Irish. He is still the best defender on the perimeter and has been working on defending bigger players at Brey’s request. He’ll still fill the role of three-point specialist who gets forgotten by defenses that are too keyed in on Atkins and Grant.
All three guards have spent the majority of their careers as starters. With Jackson on the roster, Brey will be able to put him in at point without any loss in production.
Brey will have his options along the frontcourt. Cameron Biedscheid will likely start once again at power forward. He’ll be the lone underclassman among the starters. He was serviceable his freshman year, and a jump in his abilities would be huge for the Irish. He is a perfect fit for the ACC which seems to love finesse big men.
Brey has a decision at center. He can go with Tom Knight, who started by January last season, or Garrick Sherman, who joined the team last season after transferring from Michigan State. Both are over 6-foot-10, chip in at least five points per game, and shoot a high percentage. Notre Dame’s offense runs through its guards, but these two are not just place holders. Either one (or both if Biedscheid doesn’t develop) could start and it wouldn’t have a dramatic impact. Bringing one off the bench without a drop in production is a luxury for Brey.
Notre Dame is likely to be a top five team in the ACC (out of 15 now). That likely puts them in the Top 25 in the nation, and almost a lock for the NCAA Tournament. The Irish have been to the dance in six of the past seven season, including four straight bids. Brey’s teams seem the generally make the tourney, only to under perform. Even when they’re given a high seed they don’t get very far with it (see: 2011). The Irish should at least ditch the camo and lime green uniforms (see above) and save their fans an optometrist visit.
This looks like another standard season for the Irish. Win 10-12 games in conference play, earn a middle seed in the Tourney, and leave in the first or second round. There are dozens of programs that would kill for a season like that, but at some point it gets tedious for the fans. Make no mistake, this is a very talented team that is deep and could make a run in March and April. But the Irish have had talented teams before.
I predict them to finish in the top five in the ACC and get a solid NCAA berth. With a favorable bracket, the Irish could wind up in the Final Four.
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