Irish Starters and Key ReservesSenior forward Scott Martin could use a breakout effort tonight, the second-year contributor ranks fourth in scoring (11.7) and second in rebounding (5.3) after missing the exhibition season with an ankle injury. Martin has shot just 37/30/72 (FG/3PT/FT) in seven games this season and has just five assists vs. six turnovers on the year. Still, his 6'8" presence is essential for 30 minutes on the defensive glass, at the back of Notre Dame's zone defense, and as a help-side defender near the paint.
Leading the early season charge when healthy has been sophomore point guard Eric Atkins, scoring a team high 15.4 points over five contests (missed two due to tonsillitis). Atkins played poorly vs. Missouri's lightning-quick guards in a blowout defeat, though he was on the heels of his illness at game time. Tonight's matchup will serve as a better barometer for the sophomore, his second outing in a hostile environment and first true road game as the team leader. Atkins has 21 assists and 16 turnovers – the latter number will be misleading throughout the season as he's the team's only reliable full-court ball-handler.
Aiding Atkins' backcourt effort is classmate Jerian Grant, who ranks third on the team in scoring (13.4 per game) and first in clutch shot hits over the opening month. The first-year contributor has played well in each contest with the exception of the team-wide Missouri debacle (six points in 27 inconsequential minutes), an outing from which he bounced back immediately, scoring 20 points the following evening in a close loss to Georgia.
Grant has knocked down 13 of his first 23 career three-point attempts and more important, shown the ability to get to the free throw line on a consistent basis. He could be the key player in a future BURN offense sure to be utilized in Big East play.
Center Jack Cooley will play a key role tonight against three Gonzaga big men that will otherwise stress the Irish frontcourt. Cooley had a hot start but has regressed over the last three games, managing just 6 points and 9 rebounds in 50 minutes vs. Missouri, Georgia, and Bryant College (he was ill Sunday for the latter matchup). Should he find foul trouble tonight, Notre Dame's front court will have no chance to contend with 7'0" Zags center Robert Sacre, a polished inside and mid-range scorer.
Junior swingman Joey Brooks should remain in the starting lineup after tying his career high with 13 points on Sunday and registering the first three blocked shots of his career. Brooks is the team's most versatile defender and his 6'6" 230-pound frame is essential to combat the Bulldog's physical superiority tonight.
Sixth-man Pat Connaughton will likewise play a key role, not to mention starter's minutes. Despite a curious 0-rebound outing vs. Georgia, the fearless frosh is already the team's best defensive rebounder outside of Cooley and his ability to elevate, both on his jump shot and in the lane, will key many scoring forays for the first year competitor as the season progresses.
Backup guard Alex Dragicevich will struggle with quicker teams such as the Bulldogs, but his length and purported shooting ability will be needed vs. the Gonzaga/Maryland/IU trio over the next three weeks and in Big East play. The sophomore scored a career-high 13 points over the weekend vs. Bryant after failing to score in the two-game set vs. Missouri and Georgia.
Backing up Cooley at center are classmates Tom Knight and Mike Broghammer – the latter will provide energy, fouls, solid screens, and defensive boards; the former a soft baseline touch and it is to be hoped defensive positioning, four hard fouls, and board work in relief.
With the loss of co-captain Tim Abromaitis (ACL injury), Notre Dame will forge through the 2011-12 season with just nine scholarship bodies.
Gonzaga Starters and Key ReservesHead coach Mark Few's Bulldogs feature a three-guard lineup built around a pair of veteran, imposing big men, both of whom enjoyed success vs. the Irish in 2010 before fouling out of the contest. (The Irish forced four ‘Zags to the bench with five fouls last December in a four-point, Purcell Pavilion victory.)
Robert Sacre – 7'0" 260-pound center has shot 31 free throws over the last two games, hitting 27 en route to a team-high 17 points per game...Sacre scored 16 points in 36 minutes (8-13 shooting) vs. the Irish last season…Leads the team with nine boards per outing (cleared just six thanks to foul trouble vs. ND last December)…Will be a difficult matchup for Irish center Jack Cooley and his pair of classmates in reserve (Tom Knight and Mike Broghammer).
Kevin Pangos – Second on the squad in scoring, the 6'1" 180-pound freshman knocked down 9 of 13 three-point shots in a mid-November win over Washington State…Has shot 50/59/81 percent (FG/3PT/FT) en route to 15.8 points per game and 3.0 rebounds and assists, the latter placing him tied for first on the team through four contests.
Elias Harris – 6'7" 240-pound power forward has contributed seven boards per game over the last two seasons and is again at that total early in 2011…Consistent scorer has averaged 14.9, 12.6, and now 12.0 ppg this season…Provides a second presence on the boards that will challenge the undersized Irish tonight…Finished with a team-high 19 points vs. the Irish in last December's meeting though he fouled out in just 24 minutes of action.
Mike Hart – 6'6" 200-pound junior guard has helped on the glass early, collecting between 4 and 9 boards in three of the team's first four contests…Has played 21-29 minutes in three of four games, including a career-high 29 in the opener vs. Eastern Washington…Should matchup with both Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton during tonight's contest.
Marquise Carter – Senior (transfer) guard has averaged 9.5 ppg through four outings this season…Scored five points in 15 minutes off the bench vs. Notre Dame last year…The 6'4" 178-pounder has hit just 1 of his first 7 three-point offerings this season after knocking down 38.6 percent last year. A hot Carter would end Notre Dame's chances at an upset tonight.
Key Reserves: Three Zags have played a key role in the team's early-season eight-man rotation:
Gary Bell – Freshman guard has hit for double digits (14 points) in two of the team's first four games…Solidly built at 6'1" 200 pounds, Bell hit four of eight from long range vs. Hawaii; 17 of his 29 total shots have occurred beyond the arc…
Sam Dower – Scored 15 points and ripped down six boards in 24 minutes off the bench in the team's last outing, a 20-point win over Western Michigan…The 6'9" 248-pound sophomore center has seen his playing time increase with each contest and will provide valuable minutes in relief of Sacre and Harris…Played sparingly as a freshman in last year's contest, hitting his only field goal attempt in seven minutes.
David Stockton – 5'11" 152-pound sophomore guard has scored 16 points in a combined 49 minutes off the bench over the last two games, missing just one shot (5-6 including 3-3 from long range)…Produced just one turnover vs. seven assists over the last two outings.
PredictionThe Irish need one out-of-conference win to augment what should go down as a solid home victory over potentially strong mid-major Detroit earlier this month. Tonight's game would qualify and rank as a major upset for those following the recent machinations in South Bend – though no more seismic and suprising on the national scale than the win Brey's crew registered at No. 2 Pittsburgh last winter.
Still, that 2010-11 Irish team ranked among the nation's 10 best for the bulk of the season – this group is struggling to find its identity, not to mention ways to score and to stop foes from doing the same.
Notre Dame benefited from 24 more free throws than the visiting Zags when the teams met last December (both connected on 11 of 20 three-point shots). The Irish will need at least that many treys to stay in this contest (a major free throw edge is highly unlikely in any game outside South Bend this season), and hope that the Sacre/Cooley matchup doesn't play out as it should on paper.
The Vegas line shows the hosts as 11.5-point favorites as of press time. That number suggests Notre Dame might still be credited for its recent basketball successes, because the Irish and true road games don't mix.
Notre Dame can stay close if it gets off to a lightning fast start (paging Scott Martin) and then runs THE BURN in expert fashion for the first time this season. If not, Gonzaga has way too much offense, both inside and out.
Look for a much more focused team than the petrified group that took the court against Missouri last week, but a pair of 5:00 scoring spells will again doom the Irish upset effort.