Power Forward/Center Tom KnightThe 6'10" senior's two-game run of relief for injured forward Scott Martin includes a 13 of 19 shooting effort (27 points) coupled with 11 boards and three blocks to augment center Jack Cooley's usual stellar contributions. Knight brings a consistent, high-release corner and elbow jump shot to the offense, a major mid-range weapon for a team that thrives on drive-and-dish penetration from both of its guards, and relies upon ball movement to score in half-court sets.
"We want him shooting mid-range stuff if they're good shots," said Brey. "That's one thing he's done and proven he can do. But that we have another shot-maker really helps."
The pairing of Knight with Cooley gives Brey a tandem that can bang with any in the Big East.
"We're playing two big guys and those big guys have to screen and play away," said Brey. "The tone that two of them set -- Jack has a sidekick now -- makes the rest of our team more physical."
Center Jack CooleyContinues to assault the backboard, averaging a league-best 11 rebounds per game including 4.4 in conference games from the offensive glass (also first in the Big East). Cooley collected 30 combined caroms in back-to-back wins over South Florida and Villanova and has 50 boards over his last four outings.
Best among the half-hundred was most recent, and among the toughest in recent Irish memory: a leaping, two-handed haul of a potential game-tying three-point shot by Villanova guard Dalton Hilliard with 15 seconds remaining in Wednesday's home win.
"Oh yeah. I loved that one," said Cooley of his effort in heavy traffic. "That's how we deserved to win, we battled the whole game and that last possession deserved to be a battle."
"What more can you say about Cooley," said Brey following the Villanova contest. "I have never seen a guy so relentless…I don't know how he has the energy to do it, but he continually does it. How he set the tone for us physically in the middle is just amazing."
Combo Guard Jerian GrantThe junior (redshirt-sophomore) has become Brey's most consistent playmaker in the half-court, consistently breaking down his man off the dribble to draw the defense and find open shooters outside the arc or cutting for easy scores. Though he's technically the team's off guard with Eric Atkins running the point, Grant has dished out 18 assists in the last two games and 31 over his last four contests while committing just 10 turnovers.
Grant leads the Irish in assists per game in Big East play (6.1) and is second to Cooley (14.5 points per game) averaging 12.7 per contest. He's recently broken out of a slump from behind the arc, knocking down 7 of his last 13 from long range, many following his unique stand-still tactic in which Grant pauses to allow a defender to crouch low, then springs upward as a shooter seemingly out of rhythm.
"I want to go past my defender first but when he gets up on me, his hands are down," said Grant of his lull-to-sleep tactic. "So I just wait and am able to pick my spots."
Of Grant's four three-point buckets against Villanova Wednesday, three came in one-on-one situations.
Point Guard Eric AtkinsThe junior ranks third in the Big East with 6.3 assists per game while contributing a career-best 12.9 points per contest on nearly 49 percent shooting from the field and better than 42 percent from beyond the arc, a full five percentage points better than his sophomore season.
Scuffling of late with just 23 points on 9 of 23 shooting over his last three outings, Atkins has maintained steady play from the point during that span, committing just four turnovers in his last 113 games minutes. He remains eighth nationally and second in the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.2) while shooting 50 percent from the field in league play.
The junior captain has played off the ball a bit more of late but remains streaky from deep, Atkins is a combined 10 of 14 from three-point range in four league contests but just 1 for 9 in four others. That's nonetheless good for third-best among conference shooters to date.
Swingman Pat ConnaughtonEndured his worst outing of the season in Wednesday's win over Villanova, missing all five field goal attempts (four from beyond the arc) an finishing without a point in 20 minutes. Connaughton had hit for 41 points on 14 of 22 shooting in the three games preceding.
At his best when moving and cutting rather than simply roaming the arc in search of open looks, Connaughton has relied a bit too much on the spot-up jumper of late, with 18 of his last 27 shot attempts occurring from long range, and no free throw attempts in four of his last six outings.
"I think it is just a matter of playing both parts of the game," he said of staying in rhythm offensively. "You don't necessarily have to stay in rhythm for the three-point shot, but then all of a sudden they are playing the shooter and you have to drive."
A true sophomore, Connaughton has this season taken on the task of guarding the opponent's best perimeter shooter/scorer.
Swingman Cam BiedscheidMissed 13 of his previous 14 three-point attempts and at one point, 11 straight prior to his breakout effort Wednesday vs. Villanova. Biedscheid knocked down 5 of 7 from long range and scored 15 of his team-high 18 points in the second half to key Notre Dame's best win since early January in Cincinnati.
The recipient of numerous skip passes from penetrating teammates that drew the Wildcats defense, Biedscheid found the range early and according to his most accomplished teammate, that meanth lights out for the visiting Wildcats.
"You almost feel bad (for the defense) when he starts hitting. Its really frustrating for us starters in practice when we try to get three stops in a row," said Cooley of his teammate's offensive prowess. "We'll play great defense and he'll just bang one in on you. That's what he does."
Biedscheid credited his teammates with helping him through his recent slump but also took a measured approach. "One bad game doesn't make you a bad player and one good game doesn't make you a great player," he said.
A spot-up shooter at present, Biedscheid has the best overall scoring skills on the roster. Automatic from the free throw line (87 percent), the true freshman will look to implement shot fakes and his pull-up jump shot into a more varied offensive arsenal as defenses begin to extend and pay more attention to him beyond the arc.
Forward/Center Zach Auguste and Garrick ShermanOne up, one down. That's the respective and present status of Notre Dame's freshman big Auguste and its senior transfer Sherman (Sherman is eligible through 2014).
Sherman has played sparingly of late and poorly when inserted. His issue appears 90 percent mental, with a healthy dose of charmin-softness in the paint the chief culprit.
Auguste saw the most action-packed six minutes in recent memory, fouling three times, ripping down two rebounds, scratching and clawing for a reverse layup in traffic, and finishing a 1-on-2 break on a throw-ahead -- all during the team's decisive second-half run Wednesday night vs. Villanova.
"We're more physical. We fouled tonight. We knocked guys down. I don't care - we've got enough guys, if you foul out I've got another guy to throw in there," said Brey of his new rotation.
"The physicality we play with on offense and defense is really helping us. When you have two big guys in there all the time it helps your physicality. Everything is kind of attacking, and I think our guys are really feeling good about that. If we make a mistake and it's something attacking and playing really hard, we'll live with it."
At present, Auguste is a sub 10-minute contributor, and likely far less on the road. If his evolution is allowed to continue, mistakes along the way, Auguste can bring a weak-side shot-blocking presence, added rebounder, and multi-talented offensive player to the rotation for six to as many as 15 minutes per game.