Treating the Burn

IrishEyes tips off its 2010-11 basketball coverage with an early answer to the question head coach Mike Brey encountered often this off-season.

To burn or not to burn?

(That's not actually a question, I just liked the sound of the subhead.)

Notre Dame will employ The Burn this season. Its level of reliance on the patient, clock-eating offense will likely depend upon the squad's ability to matchup with its given foe.

"Let's face it; we get overmatched athletically some times," said senior guard Ben Hansbrough of the rough and tumble Big East competition. "(The Burn) makes each team guard every possession with us. The (opponent) can go down and take a questionable shot, but we're not going to do that. We cherish each possession a little more than our opponents do."

The ancillary effect of the method was lower scoring games and six wins over the final eight contests including a Big East semi-final appearance, one in which the Irish missed the Conference finals when Tory Jackson's last second shot bounced off the front of the rim.

The deliberate approach born from a knee injury suffered by Luke Harangody in conference game No. 12. With the Irish middling at 6-6 in league play, Brey's unlikely offensive transformation resurrected the team's season and momentarily changed the way many casual Irish fans view the team's head man who seemed to have an aversion to defense.

"It's been a great teaching tool. It's had guys understand patience and even better shot selection," Brey said of the offense first utilized in a 69-68 loss to St. John's (with less than two practices to implement the tactic).

Brey's squad not only valued offensive possessions but became more dedicated on the heretofore ignored defensive end. Free-wheeling shooting contests were no longer an option as the Irish lost their security blanket in Harangody, a player who could put up 25 points on an off night.

Notre Dame held its final eight opponents (six consecutive wins) to shooting percentages of 41, 51, 35, 41, 34, 38, 48, and 41 percent. They limited those same teams to percentages beyond the arc of 22, 44, 21, 17, 12, 20, 15, and 23 percent with each of the eight opponents attempting between 10 and 23 shots from long range.

The Irish held a rebounding edge or stalemate in six of the final eight games as well; overwhelmed just once – the 53-51 Big East semi-final loss to West Virginia.

That type of defensive commitment and detail to dirty work hadn't been seen in South Bend since Barry Alvarez left Lou Holtz's sidelines.

The Burn strategy won't be a constant this season. Brey believes his roster is one that can move the ball and score against most foes.

"We have to be able to change gears throughout the season. We've played pretty fast over the first four workouts and we need to (further) look at that because that's a strength of this group.

"They can get up and down the floor; pass and catch early and we can spread the floor out, because we have guys that can make shots (and as a result) we can have great spacing again."

Some things old, something new

Brey pointed out that the program graduated the most successful class (in terms of total wins, wipe that smirk) in school history. Yet by design, the Irish roster has, in the coach's phrasing "stayed old."

"I call them my five old guys; five old guys get down here…" Brey said of seniors Tyrone Nash, Carleton Scott, Tim Abromaitis, Ben Hansbrough and 2009-10 medical redshirt and former transfer, Scott Martin.

Three of the five (Scott, Abromaitis and Martin) are expected to return for a 5th season next fall – that's not merely good fortune.

"We've managed our roster to try (to maintain a veteran group) with redshirts and transfers and bringing guys who might not get a big bite (of playing time) early in their careers, but they're in the system for awhile and then they get a part of it (as upperclassmen). I feel that gives us an opportunity (to compete annually) in a great league."

Sans the 6'3" Hansbrough, each member of the senior quintet stands a legit 6'8".

"We have good size; we're bigger in spots altogether than maybe we've been in awhile," Brey noted. "The last time we were this big we had Matt Carroll, David Graves, Ryan Humphrey, (Troy) Murphy, Harold Swanagan (in 2001), so I think the size will help us, but we're going to have to move our feet and get back defensively.

Expected to lend a hand to the five old guys is sophomore banger Jack Cooley. At the very least he features an old school approach to the game.

"Jack Cooley is an honorary old guy; he's been there, he tasted it last year," Brey said of the Harangody doppelganger who played well in spurts down the stretch, especially in a short-handed, inspired effort by the Irish at Louisville.

The 6'9" 245-pound Cooley became a fan – and ESPN – favorite after his effort in the 91-89 overtime loss at Freedom Hall and has since earned the trust of his head coach.

"What I love about Jack Cooley is he's always the same guy. He's not going to come into my offense and say, ‘Coach, when are we going to throw it into me in the post more?' Brey noted.

"He's smart enough to know: screen, rebound, defend, clean up stuff…I just think he gives us a guy that's been in the battles. Our old guys love playing with him because he gets them open. He screens and gets them open; he gets put-backs. He does all the dirty work."

Expected to augment the old gang and its honorary member is freshman point guard Eric Atkins who Brey noted gained a much-needed 10 pounds in the off-season.

"He certainly has to be a part of things; he's the one true guy that's played that position," Brey said of his highest-rated recruit. "We have a team that handles the ball well as a group and that takes the pressure off one guy as a ball handler.

"This group has been great with assist-to-turnover (ratio). They know how to play. Handling (the ball) as a group will be important to help him," he said of an Irish program guided the previous nine seasons by just three point guards: Chris Thomas, Chris Quinn and Tory Jackson.

Brey knows he'll have an early-season balancing act on his hands with his freshman point.

"I think you have to be more forgiving. I think you have to be positive and be a confidence-giver," Brey said of his standard methodology when coaching a kid expected to lead men. "Our freshman guard/guards this year have a similar situation that Chris Thomas and Tory had in that they'll be on the floor with men. That takes some heat off."

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