Inside the game: Abro, Cooley and Atkins

IrishEyes looks at Notre Dame's two-man bench brigade as well as the unofficial return of Big East all-star, Tim Abromaitis.

Not a shooter, a basketball player

Tim Abromaitis is an unselfish basketball player on a team full of them. And when he struggles, passivity and deference are generally the main culprits.

But there are two versions of Abromaitis: there's Abromaitis the shooter who, not coincidentally, can be handled by any dedicated swingman defender in the Big East; and then there's Abro: the basketball player – who conversely stresses any defense thrown at him with a series of flashes, backdoor cuts and constant off the ball movement that frees him – and his teammates – for open looks.

The latter starred on the Joyce Center floor in an overtime win vs. peer opponent Louisville (the current standings' first 10 teams, save for Cincinnati, are relative peers in the 2011 Big East Conference).

"Abro was Abro," head coach Mike Brey noted post-game.

Exactly. Engaged defensively from the opening whistle, the senior forward embraced his most challenging assignment of the season – guarding 6'1" Cardinals off-guard Preston Knowles.

Though more of a shooter than a scorer (176 of his 297 shots this season have come from beyond the arc), Knowles was certainly capable of taking Abro off the dribble in one-on-one situations, but the improved defender was committed to sound, fundamental position defense: he kept a low base, kept a hand up at all times, and rarely gave Knowles room to operate around screens.

The result was a 5-17 shooting effort by the visitor's leading scorer and a 23-point, 8-rebound, two assists, steal, block, 9-9 free throw shooting night by Abromaitis. The latter statistic is the most telling: Abromaitis has attempted more than six free throws in just three of Notre Dame's approximate 16 games vs. peer competition this year (vs. 11 such occasions last season).

The Irish are 3-0 in those contests (wins over Georgia, Connecticut, and Louisville). Conversely, Abromaitis has attempted a grand total of five free throws over Notre Dame's four losses this winter.

Last night was Abro's best overall game in nearly a calendar year (you can go back to a February 24 win over No. 12 Pittsburgh for something similar). His aggressiveness – before, after, or when positioning and seeking a shot – was the difference between a W and L vs. the Cardinals, and likely will determine Notre Dame's fate in at least 2-3 more games this regular season.

The Big Lift

In the final 7:24 of Wednesday's first half, sophomore Jack Cooley put to test his head coach's longstanding theory that "bench points are the most overrated stat in basketball."

Five shots, five buckets, three the direct result of contested offensive rebounds, and most important – the official "plugging in" of a previously dormant Purcell Pavilion crowd.

Cooley is a crowd favorite for three reasons:

  1. They assume he's an uncoordinated project (not true) that makes the most of his limited ability (also not true, Cooley can catch, see the floor, move his feet, finish, and effectively use his size on the basketball court).
  2. He hustles on both ends of the floor – and bodies generally hit the floor around him.
  3. It's fun to yell: "Cooooooooooooo-leeeeeeeeeeee"

No. 2 is key, because Jack Cooley can hold his own in Big East play for as many as 10 minutes per half. More minutes and he'd likely accrue a few unnecessary fouls; the Irish would likely be victimized by defensive switches that wouldn't have bothered their interchangeable quartet of 6'8" starters, and well, not every game is played in South Bend.

Cooley has played his best ball at home, earning between 9 and 18 minutes of court time in wins over Gonzaga, UConn, St. John's, and Louisville. But 9 fouls in 48 total minutes over five road tilts has curtailed his effectiveness outside of the friendly confines.

Conversely, save for two quick fouls vs. the undersized, athletic mismatches presented by Marquette, and Cooley has committed just seven fouls over a 67-minute span in Big East home games.

Mike Brey should find more court time for Cooley in bulk of the team's remaining games and upcoming tournaments, but the sophomore needs to be smarter away from home and avoid the quick whistle, especially on touch fouls that seems to plague him outside of South Bend.

Error-free

Prior to Wednesday's trip to South Bend, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino was asked to pinpoint the difference between this year's Irish and the group that traveled to Freedom Hall for a double-overtime, college basketball classic last season.

"They have great experience, they're better defensively than they've been. They can hurt you in so many ways with their motion offense," he said before later adding, "They have four guys that are 6'8" and are interchangeable (so) they can switch a great deal, and they're getting great backup point guard play."

That backup point guard of whom Pitino speaks has logged 100 minutes over the last five games – all off the bench, all Irish wins. Total turnovers by said freshman point guard Eric Atkins in those 100 minutes.

Two.

Included in that stretch are two road games, one at then No. 2 Pittsburgh and also DePaul. Total road turnovers in that stretch of 43 games minutes? One (at DePaul).

Atkins is a year away from his best basketball. He's not yet able to contain the league's quickest offensive guards, nor is he a player that will consistently score in half-court sets. But he's connected on four of his last six three-point attempts (after a 5-17 conference start) and converted 13 of his last 19 overall field goal attempts into buckets including a beautiful second-half theft in a Louisville passing lane, and a resulting 60-foot sprint that included a smooth, full-speed finish in traffic Wednesday night.

(I doubt any of the team's previous four main ball-handlers, from Chris Quinn to Kyle McAlarney to Tory Jackson and even including Ben Hansbrough, would have been capable of such a seamless sprint-and-finish.)

Atkins is a year away from running the show, but he's perhaps the best fit as a true sixth-man (and backup point guard) that the program has seen since the aforementioned Quinn held the same role as a 2003 freshman – en route to Notre Dame's last berth in the Sweet 16.


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