But with three of the five key pistons since removed from that machine, and a series of career-threatening injuries entering the mix to promising reserves, 12th-year head coach Mike Brey subsequently faces his biggest challenge to date: another NCAA Tournament bid.
"I have to keep reminding myself about patience, especially early," Brey said of a team whose identity remains a mystery. "I think we have a lot of really good candidates because only one of them is a freshman (Pat Connaughton); the other ones have been in our program, and usually when we ask those guys to step forward…they've been pretty successful."
The expected loss of Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough cannot be overstated – on or off the court. Point center and three-year contributor Tyrone Nash is also gone; Notre Dame's offense operated best with Nash heavily involved in its half-court sets, at least since scoring leader Luke Harangody suffered a season-altering injury in February 2010.
The unexpected departure of 5th-year senior Carleton Scott to the NBA Draft (Scott was not drafted and is currently playing in Spain) left an additional void – one no roster player might be able to fill.
"Never have we counted on so many of them to earn a NCAA tournament bid," said Brey of his unproven, largely untested returnees. "I wouldn't say we're younger, I would say we're newer. But I love the fact that (Jerian) Grant, (Alex) Dragicevich, (Tom) Knight, certainly (Joey) Brooks, (Mike) Broghammer, they've all been around and felt it for the last couple years. And they've been around some good stuff. So I'm counting on that for some osmosis to help."
Hope RemainsWhile Broghammer's contributions are in question due to a series of knee injuries and treatment that began early last season, the possibility of the 6'10" 245-pound junior bruiser's absence was likely in the back of Brey's mind throughout the off-season.
Conversely, the tragic injury suffered by incoming freshman forward Eric Katenda, served as the latest and most serious unexpected blow to the 2011-12 Irish program. Katenda's career is in jeopardy due to a severed optic nerve suffered in a pick-up basketball game in July.
Katenda is expected to enroll in January; his scholarship safe, his future as a Notre Dame basketball player in question.
"I think we just need to evaluate him and see what can he do athletically," Brey admitted. "I have a very open mind; I've heard stories of people that have lost vision in an eye being able to compete. I think we have a student-athlete here now in another sport who has very limited vision in one eye. So I think we can use the spring semester to evaluate him, not in any game minutes, but in practice to see where he's at and kind of digest where he wants to go from there."
Katenda has not given up on his dream of joining the Irish on the court.
"He's unbelievably upbeat. For a guy that could have a reason to feel sorry for himself; I've never heard that from him. You don't get the return of vision from a severed optical nerve. It's gone," Brey lamented. "One of the things we did do, we connected, by way of Luke Harangody, (with) Jon Scheyer who played at Duke. I did not know this, but in an NBA workout after his senior year he had an injury, and he only has 20 percent vision in his left eye. He read (about Katenda) and reached out to me."
Scheyer plays professionally in Israel with 20 percent vision. The difference, Brey reiterated, is that Katenda has no vision in one eye.
"Once he gets out here, I want our people to look at him. He received very good care in Washington, D.C. with a host family and the (Washington) Wizards' team doctor. But let's get him out here with our people and really evaluate him and see where we're at."
Short-handed from the jumpNotre Dame's traditionally weak non-conference schedule took a sharp turn toward the impressive last season, the Irish defeating Georgia, California, a top 10 Wisconsin team, NCAA qualifier Indiana State, and perennial NCAA upstart Gonzaga prior to the Big East season, while losing to eventual Final Four foe, Kentucky.
This season's slate is challenging as well, with solid programs Missouri, Maryland, Indiana, Gonzaga, and either California or Georgia on tap in November/December.
Though the Irish have the luxury of beginning with four winnable games (Mississippi Valley State, Detroit, Sam Houston State, and Delaware State) prior to a matchup in Missouri on November 21, at least one of those contests could prove tenuous (Detroit?) as Notre Dame will be without the services of 5th-year senior and John Wooden Award candidate Tim Abromaitis. Abromaitis must sit the first four games due to a rule that precludes a non-freshman redshirt (Abromaitis "red-shirted" his sophomore season of 2008 but played in two non-league, exhibition games) to participate at any time.
"Right now, the first four games we've got eight (players)," Brey said of active players Scott Martin, Eric Atkins, Jack Cooley, Alex Dragicevich, Jerian Grant, Tom Knight, Joey Brooks, and freshman Pat Connaughton. "After that we've got nine (with Abromaitis). I don't know if there was ever a team where I could tell on the first day of practice, ‘All right let's start with this fellas: everybody's playing.'
"I don't know if many coaches can say that. I certainly have never been in a situation like that. There are always a couple guys who are just not going to be in the mix. But all nine of those guys, we're going to need them throughout this season."
Broghammer could be a 10th. Next season, Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman, a 6'10" 251-pound center, will join the mix, with Katenda's potential addition now a welcomed, unexpected bonus.
Until then, the 2011-12 Irish will often play small ball with green competitors still learning the ropes; a far cry from the sizeable, experienced, battle-test squad that took the Joyce Center Court last November.
"There are just so many unknowns from (players) four through nine," Brey admitted. "That could be changing throughout the year, and I would hope that it gives a group really a clear head to go and get better as a team. You can deposit the baggage of, ‘Am I going to play?' and "How much am I going to play?' We need all of you. We're instilling confidence in some of those younger guys."
Some of those younger guys include a pair of sophomores: Dragicevich, a 6'7" swingman who played sparingly last season, and Grant, a 6'4" guard who was withheld from action.
"I'm very impressed with where Alex (Dragicevich) and Jerian (Grant) have been as far as understanding how to play in our system," Brey offered. "I think playing against and watching those veteran guys in our system last year really helped them. We're going to need them certainly.
To Brey, the goal remains clear.
"Can we get a little bit better every week? Can we bounce back from taking punches? We're going to take some punches. And can we be in a position to win an NCAA tournament bid?" he mused. "I feel we can fight our way into that territory again. And if you're into that territory, you're on the board to get an NCAA tournament bid and you take it from there."
Homer (the author, not Simpson) noted that, "The journey is the thing."
For Notre Dame Basketball 2012, it could be a rocky one as the Irish attempt to secure a foothold in the nation's most competitive conference.