Personnel Previews

Our end-season review and tournament preview of every competitor available to head coach Mike Brey for Notre Dame's final run in the Big East Conference Tournament.

Semi-finalists in each of the Big East's last three conference tournaments, Notre Dame today begins its final journey in league play, still in search of a destination its never realized: Saturday night.

"We've never gotten to Saturday night," Brey said this week, and often over the last three seasons. "I'd love to see us get to Saturday night before we head to Tobacco Road."

To do so, Brey's crew must win three games in three nights, beginning with tonight's 9 p.m. (ET) matchup with Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights defeated DePaul Tuesday night, 76-57. The winner of tonight's contest faces No. 3 seed Marquette Thursday night, with one from that game feeding into No. 2 seed Louisville's mini-bracket, also containing St. Johns, Villanova, and Pittsburgh.

Below is a look back at the 30-game Irish season as well as a preview of what will be needed from Notre Dame's available nine players if the squad is to finally advance to the championship round in this, the final true Big East Conference Tournament.

Center Jack Cooley

Earned first-team All Big East honors from the league's coaches, that on the heels of his Most Improved Player award from 2012…Cooley was among the nation's most consistent rebounders on both ends of the floor while generally contributing 15-16 points vs. the Big East's middle and lower tier teams; about 10-12 vs. the top dogs…

His overall game suffered late, as Cooley finished the stretch run with 0 (due to illness), 12, and 7 points in his final three outings, two of which resulted in defeat…Just one double-digit rebounding effort in his final five, a dominant 13-board performance in a Senior Day second-half blowout of St. John's…

Cooley's best stretch occurred midway through the conference season, posting 49 points and a whopping 46 rebounds over a three-game span vs. South Florida, Villanova, and DePaul, three contested Irish wins…

Upcoming Matchups: Hit for 19 and 10 on 7 of 11 shooting vs. Rutgers in mid January…Felled by the flu, Cooley played just 11 minutes vs. potential quarter-finals opponent Marquette, a blowout loss two weeks ago. Cooley was unable to score or defend Golden Eagles center Chris Otule, who played the game of his life in the Senior Day win. A rematch with Cooley in good health would likely offer a far different effort…Cooley produced eight points and eight boards (five offensive) in 24 minutes of a blowout win over the Golden Eagles last season at the Purcell Pavilion, though vs. a then shorter Marquette front line.

Cooley struggled vs. Louisville center and league peer, Gorgui Deng in both matchups this season and now in three straight dating back to a Big East semi-finals loss to the Cardinals last March. Deng has produced 54 points, hitting 21 of 28 shots vs. Cooley and the Irish in their last three meetings; Cooley just a combined 29 points on 12 of 24 shooting in the matchups.

Notre Dame cannot beat either potential foes Marquette (Thursday) or Louisville (Friday) without a major contribution from Cooley on both ends.

Power Forward Tom Knight

Insertion into the starting lineup in place of injured 6th-year senior Scott Martin helped buoy the Irish to an 8-4 finish after a 3-3 league start…The team's tallest player with its longest wingspan, Knight's offensive game consists of high-release mid-range jumpers, often from the corners after penetration by guards, but recently from the elbow and free throw line as well…An adept two-handed finisher at the rim, Knight works well in tandem with Cooley, the pair offering high post feeds when the offense is clicking…

Knight's coordination and ability to hit the open 10-footer is an added weapon in the high screen-and-roll offense, his defensive length has proved valuable defending the same tactic by opposing guards…The Irish are at their best when Knight defends the weak side, hits the defensive glass, and hits a jumper or two to loosen up interior defense dedicated to stopping Cooley…His 18 blocked shots in 12 starts leads the team in that span…Knight has had produced six quality shooting efforts in 12 starts: 8 for 10 vs. South Florida, 5 for 9 vs. Villanova, 5 for 7 vs. Providence, 3 for 5 vs. Pittsburgh, 6 for 7 vs. Cincinnati, and 3 for 4 vs. St. John's.

Upcoming Matchups: Knight played well (and shot well) in six of his 12 starts, but the team's mid-January matchp with Rutgers pre-dated his insertion into the lineup. The senior hit for six points (2-3 shooting) in nine minutes off the bench in that, a 3-point Irish win…Knight was 3 for 7 fro the field vs. Marquette (a loss), Notre Dame's opponent should it advance past Wednesday night. In two games vs. Louisville, Knight was a combined 2 of 7 from the field, scoring seven points in 44 minutes vs. a head coach that scouted his talented well.

Swingman Pat Connaughton

The team's best combination athlete/shooter entering conference play, Connaughton's jumper took a turn south near Game Eight of Big East action and has yet to find its course…Hit 2 of 5 from long range in Saturday's loss to Louisville, that after missing 34 of his last 41 offerings from long range over his previous 10 outings…Connaughton regularly draws the team's toughest perimeter defensive assignment and proved valuable defending bigger players in a pinch, though the latter isn't necessary with the squad's new four big-man rotation…

Has found new life on the boards with the consistent presence of two 6'10" teammates on the floor, using his leaping ability to clear the weak side defensive glass as Cooley, Knight, et al occupy floor space…Irish will be tough to beat if Connaughton can be counted on for 40 percent shooting on about seven to nine attempts over 30 minutes -- they're otherwise vulnerable without his perimeter contributions…At his best with consistent movement in the half-court, especially toward the goal as the beneficiary of guard penetration.

Upcoming Matchups: Connaughton hit 6 of 8 shots (4 of 6 from deep) for a league season-high 17 points with five boards in a mid-January win over Rutgers…Was held scoreless at Marquette two weeks ago, missing each of his four shots in 31 minutes…Fared well statistically vs. Louisville in both matchups, including a legendary 16-point, 7 assist, 14-rebound performance in February's five-overtime thriller.

Connaughton scored 13 on 10 shots with 7 boards in last Saturday's rematch loss, but he also accounted for seven Cardinals points as the result of turnovers off of in-bounds passes -- from under the Irish basket, to boot -- inexcusable, and perhaps a first in basketball history.

Combo Guard Jerian Grant

A second-team all-Big East selection, Grant has nonetheless developed the habit of keeping both teams in the game…Hasn't shot well of late, missing 49 of his last 72 field goal attempts over the last six contests, a stretch that saw the Irish finish 3-3 and sixth in the league's standings…Turnovers have spiked as well with 19 in those six outings though 42 assists help offset the errors…Became the chief facilitator of half-court offense for the Irish during league play and the only consistent contributor from the foul line, earning at least nine free throw attempts in five of Notre Dame's last 10 outings…

A streaky shooter from long range, Grant hit five of six three-point shots vs. St. John's in the home finale, then missed six of seven at Louisville and previously misfired on all six of his attempts at home vs. Cincinnati (Grant had back-to-back outings hitting 7 of 13; 6 of 12; and 8 of 13 in league play as well)…Rarely sits for more than two minutes in a contest…Notre Dame cannot beat a quality team going forward without a plus-effort from its junior guard.

Upcoming Matchups: Scored nine points with 10 assists vs. Rutgers earlier this season, though attempted just eight shots…Hit 6 of 11 vs. Marquette but missed six of 12 free throws in a loss to the Golden Eagles two weeks ago…Missed a combined 17 of 19 shots vs. Louisville in two games over a 76-minute span -- then again, Grant played 77 total minutes vs. the Cardinals this season, scoring 12 points on four shots in under 50 seconds as part of the first outing, perhaps the greatest minute by a Notre Dame player in program history.

Point Guard Eric Atkins

Led the league in minutes played, appearing in 741 of a potential 775 game minutes through 18 games including a league-high seven overtimes. Also improbably led the Big East in three-point field goal percentage, sideways spin-action on the ball notwithstanding…To his credit, Atkins dedicated his summer to better accuracy off the catch and the team's two-time captain knocked down 44.9 percent of his 69 three-point shots…

At his best in the open court, Atkins is underrated as a finisher on the break. His half-court game has evolved into spot-up jump shots off the ball, penetration and kick-outs/skip passes to shooters, and a unique ability to manufacture buckets in close with an array of awkward, driveway-style shots with either hand. The junior struggles to penetrate and finish vs. quality defensive guards/teams…

Upcoming Matchups: Scored 14 points adding four rebounds and four assists in 40 minutes vs. Rutgers this season. Effort was marred by five turnovers and big games from Scarlet Knights guards Eli Carter and Myles Mack (Carter is out for the season with a fractured fibula)...Was a combined 8 for 27 (3 of 12 from beyond the arc) in the season split with Louisville, scoring 23 total points with 6 turnovers and eight assists. Atkins outplayed Cardinals guard Peyton Siva in the first matchup; that was not the case in the latter, nor was it last March when Louisville hammered Notre Dame in the Big East semi's (Siva had a combined 26 points, 14 assists, and 12 rebounds in the two wins)…

Atkins scored 16 on 14 shots (including 3 of 9 from long range) with six assists and five boards in an early March loss at Marquette…Look for the junior to fare well vs. the Golden Eagles in a potential rematch, with Louisville a much tougher individual battle should the Irish survive Rutgers and upset Marquette, first.

Note: Part II (Click here) examines Notre Dame's four-man bench heading into tournament action.


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