Definition Unknown

IrishEyes continues its basketball preview series with a review of Notre Dame's interchangeable parts.

The veteran Irish entered the season with two known quantities: seniors Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson. Jackson would run the show; Harangody would occupy the defensive glass and look to score from everywhere.

Fellow senior transfer Ben Hansbrough was the obvious off-guard choice while Tyrone Nash had ascended to another big man spot after two seasons of graduation at the position. Tim Abromaitis would be the X-factor, but his standing as the team's best shooter was already set in-house.

Now the four-year starters Jackson and Harangody are gone. Over the last two seasons, complimentary big man Rob Kurz and sharpshooting off guard Kyle McAlarney also moved on as did perimeter player Ryan Ayers and longtime contributor Zach Hillesland.

The 2010-11 Irish would appear to be a team searching for defined roles among their top 6 or 7 players.

Then again...

"My theme is a lot of interchangeable parts," said head coach Mike Brey, now in his 11th season at the helm in South Bend. "We can be four around (several different post options).

"(Tyrone) Nash is the best with the ball of those bigger guys. He's really good with the ball, putting it on the floor."

The interchangeable bigger guys Brey speaks of are Nash (6'8" 232) and classmates Carleton Scott (6'8" 218) and Tim Abromaitis (6'8" 235). Joining that trio is the versatile Scott Martin (6'8" 219 ).

"We have some interchangeable parts and that's tricky to defend," Brey added. "Hard to scout."

Pre-season magazines have the Irish picked as low as No. 11 (don't bet on it) and as high as No. 6 (would be a nice effort) heading into the season. If not for a six-game stretch of success played late last season sans Harangody, Brey's group would be viewed universally as a rebuilding lot.

"No question, I think that gives us momentum and some confidence," he said of the team's drastic improvement when Harangody was felled by a knee injury. "I said (to the seniors) ‘You know, you guys did it for six games; now can you do it for six months?'

"It gives that nucleus a little bit of an identity heading forward that they've had some success together."

From the shadows

The Irish will forge an identity with the aforementioned five players in conjunction with sophomore Jack Cooley (6'9" 245) and freshman point guard Eric Atkins (6'2" 173). Brey will mix and match with the quartet of 6'8" threats until he sees how the rest of the roster adapts.

"You could say we're playing four 4-men," Brey said in reference to the power forward position. "Scott, Abromaitis and Martin have to be on the floor a bunch together for us to do what we want to do. We have to figure out how to do that and they have to get used to playing with each other.

"It helps that we have some length and bulk and size because we're not the quickest," he understated. "I think this group should be able to protect the paint and rebound back there; I think this group should be able to do that because there are some big bodies, whether we're in zone or man (defensively)."

Also lost to with Harangody's graduation was the program's second-leading career rebounder. Replacing his 10 boards (on a bad day) will be a tall order. Nash seems capable of 7-8 caroms; Scott dominated the paint at Georgetown, then grabbed 27 boards over a two-game stretch in wins vs. UConn and Marquette. But the lithe forward played tentative and soft when Harangody returned, rarely venturing toward the paint. That shouldn't – and can't – happen this winter.

"My guess would be yes," Brey said when asked if the Irish would be a rebound-by-committee unit. "I don't know if you say there's one guy out there that's going to get 12 rebounds a game. We're big, we have size," he added while noting Martin is also a strong rebounder (IrishEyes will have more on Martin early this week).

"You've seen (Hansbrough), that's a strength of his. Certainly we have some young big guys – that's what we need them concentrating on: Cooley, (Mike) Broghammer, (Tom) Knight.

"To start off with, to earn your spot (the trio has to rebound)."

Cooley's fellow soph's Brohammer (6'9" 248) and Knight (6'10" 253) have Big East ready bodies if not overall games. Knight redshirted last season while Broghammer earned spot duty late in Harangody's absence.

While the pair are question marks entering Year 2, at least one member of the Irish doesn't feel the same way about the aggressive Cooley.

"Wait till you see him play, I promise you. He's a bruiser and he's got a lot to prove," said Hansbrough of the big man from Glenbrook South.

"I'm not sure we've had a more physical, tough, big, strong, get-the-garbage player than Jack Cooley. Now he might not get you 10 points, but he might get you 10 rebounds, and break some hips setting screens," Hansbrough added.

(Note: In an interview set for the November issue of Irish Eyes Magazine Tim Abromaitis also noted Cooley as the team's most improved player entering the season.)

Which way should they go?

While Cooley remains a work-in-progress, so too does the team's ability to mesh as a cohesive unit.

"We have guys that can put it in the hole and we have guys you have to get out and guard so our spacing will be good," Brey offered. "We play a little differently than maybe everybody in the league…we can spread you out.

"Who can score it enough inside for us so they can't maul our guys on the perimeter?" he pondered. "I think Ty Nash has got to be able to do that consistently. We can get Scott Martin in there; Abromaitis in there, Carleton Scott in there. We played 5-out without a post (no center) at times last year so we could drive it and kick."

Key to the drive and kick game will be Hansbrough – at his best when determined in penetration – and the newcomer Atkins.

"We need to evaluate that in the midst of games and who finishes games," Brey began, "But I am impressed in what Eric has done in four workouts. He gained 10 pounds; he's got a feel for it. He's smart enough to understand how to distribute to guys, and he has weapons to work with.

"He's got good speed," Brey continued of the freshman from Maryland, "He can really push the ball so playing fast is going to be an advantage for us at certain times."

The Burn; drive-and-kick; run-and-shoot, a commitment to rebounding; the renewal of impressive late-season defensive intensity…the Irish will need to find the appropriate balance to forge their 2011 identity. At their best its a unit that should finish among the top third of the Conference and make another deep run in the Big East Tournament (don't get me started on the "other" Tournament…its November).

But without attention to detail, a quality collection of interchangeable parts could sputter vs. its most challenging slate to date.

Later this week: A look at Notre Dame's 2010-2011 schedule. Top Stories