Probable Irish StartersDue to illness and suspension, seven of nine eligible Irish players have earned at least one start through four games this season. Leading the newbie charge has been sophomore (redshirt-freshman) guard Jerian Grant. Withheld from action last season, Grant has scored 17 points in back-to-back outings, knocking down 9 of his first 13 career three-point offerings while doling out a team-high 21 assists (vs. just five turnovers).
Expected to rejoin Grant in the backcourt is point guard Eric Atkins, felled the last two outings by a case of tonsillitis. Atkins scored a career-high 27 points in the opener, a 13-point win over athletic Mississippi Valley State, and added 13 in a tough win over Detroit. The sophomore has connected on 17 of 20 free throws already this season. Atkins' presence is essential for the undermanned Irish to have a shot tonight in Kansas City.
Co-Captain Scott Martin broke out of a three-game slump to score 23 in the team's last outing, a 23 points blowout of Delaware State. Martin has hit on 9 of 24 three-point offerings through four games after missing the exhibition season with an ankle injury.
6'9" center Jack Cooley is the team's presence inside, the junior grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds on Friday, his second double-digit rebounding game of the season. Cooley has 18 offensive boards in four contests.
Joining the starting lineup for the first time this season will be 5th-year senior and pre-season All Big East first team selection Tim Abromaitis, who served a four-game suspension for exhibition games played in 2008 (self-reported by Notre Dame). Abromaitis has hit for more than 20 points 20 career contests entering his third season as a starter. He had played in 69 straight games prior to serving his suspension.
Bench BrigadeIn past seasons, this section wrote itself: insert two names, insignificant first half minutes, and presto!
In 2011-12, head coach Mike Brey will likely rely heavily on two, three, and at time all five of his subs. Leading the way is freshman swingman Pat Connaughton who at 6'5" ranks second on the squad in defensive rebounds, three-pointers made, and first in the number of times a pair of hands have extended above the rim. Connaughton's athletic skill is unique to the last two decades at the program (at least for a player not named Ryan Humphrey), and will be a necessary ingredient over the next month as the Irish take on five solid non-conference foes.
Another pair of swingmen, Joey Brooks and Alex Dragicevich bring varied skill sets: Brooks is an aggressive defender who'll be counted upon to guard the opponent's best perimeter player (guards, small forwards, and power forwards alike). Dragicevich is a backup point, shooting guard, and small forward – one expected to bring defensive length to the top of the zone defensively while knocking down shots from the perimeter on the other side of half court.
A pair of 6'9" 245-pound plus sophomores will relieve their junior classmate Cooley: Tom Knight offers a soft touch from the baseline while Mike Broghammer brings aggression and bone-rattling screens to the table. Neither is slated to play heavy minutes in a single contest but both might have from time-to-time to as Cooley remains prone to foul trouble and is at his best with 22-28 minutes of playing time.
The other side of the coinMissouri finished 23-11 last season including 8-8 in Big 12 conference play. Tonight's contest is the first between the teams since the 1995 season. The Tigers hold a 6-2 edge over the Irish to date including an NCAA second round win over then seventh-ranked Notre Dame in 1980 (a game that included nine future NBA draft picks).
Currently ranked No. 21 in the USA Today/Coach's poll, Missouri has scored 83, 81, and 83 points vs. a trio of lesser foes. New head coach Frank Haith (formerly of Miami, Fla) has kept the Jefferson City scoring binge alive – the Tigers ranked 10th nationally in scoring last season – by using a four-guard lineup with one forward as its interior presence. Missouri has knocked down 29 of 60 shots from beyond the arc in its first three outings.
6'8" forward Ricardo Rattliffe leads the Tigers in rebounding (7 per game) while averaging nearly 12 points through three contests. Sharpshooter Marcus Denmon paces Missouri with 18.7 points per game due largely for an 8-16 effort from down town, and 11-12 from the charity stripe. 6'6" senior swingman Kim English has averaged double digits in both of the last two seasons; he's connected on an impressive 13 of 21 three-point shots this season en route to 17 ppg over the opening trio of contests.
Both the Irish and Tigers will be forced to employ team rebounding efforts this season, though Notre Dame can boast a much bigger lineup than the undersized, speedy Tigers.
PredictionNormally a 4-0 start that includes a poor team (Delaware State) a poor, but athletic and oft-tested team (Mississippi Valley State), a truly terrible opponent (Sam Houston State) and a solid, if slightly oversold "NCAA contender" (Detroit) doesn't move my pre-conference prediction meter.
But Notre Dame's current group plays hard, in unison, and thanks to the otherwise unfortunate absence of Abromaitis, confidently through the ranks.
If Eric Atkins is in good health after week's illness (tonsillitis), and if Brey can stick to an eight-man rotation with all 10 competitors (or at least nine, with one of Knight/Broghammer providing minutes) for two more nights, the Irish can take home the CBE Title, start 6-0, and put to rest the myriad doubters that exist locally. Including me.
But if five starters play 30 minutes and the subs again serve as bench ballast as in year's past, Missouri will win going away.
As a colleague asked me outside the Stadium gates Saturday afternoon: "Is it possible we were all wrong about Notre Dame?"
By "all" he means local media that understands the already depleted roster's potential dire straits. Doubt reigned early – I'm willing to consider the benefit of it at present, but the latest information suggests Atkins isn't close to 100 percent, and he's the key vs. any team with a pulse, especially one as quick as the Tigers.