Combo Guard Jerian GrantThe team's most important player, Grant twice had 10 assists in a league game this season; three times scored 21 points; six times attempted at least nine free throws, and once hit eight of nine shots from long range over a two-game span. He's an outstanding, but unpolished and inconsistent offensive player with the ball in his hands.
At his best when… The team exits the locker room after intermission. A notoriously slow starter this season, Grant helps the Irish most when he finds his way to the free throw line. Grant shot nine or more free throws six times in the team's last 12 games. The Irish were 5-1 in that stretch, losing only to Marquette. He's the most creative scorer -- check that, he's the only creative scorer -- available. Notre Dame cannot win two games this weekend if Grant turns it over often or fails to find a consistent rhythm as a scorer.
When he struggles: So do the Irish. Grant is sometimes the best player on the floor; sometimes the must frustrating and frustrated. The good news for Notre Dame is it takes just one big shot to reengage Grant, no matter how the previous minutes have transpired. Grant has hit just 13 of his last 48 field goal attempts over a four-game span, though each of the last four foes (Louisville twice, Marquette, and Rutgers) take great pride on the defensive end.
Tell-tale stat: Grant has attempted 75 shots in Notre Dame's last six games as it became clear through whom the offense would run, especially in the final 20 minutes.
Swingman Pat ConnaughtonThe 6'5" sophomore enters his second NCAA Tournament on the heels of the best three-game stretch of his Irish career. Connaughoton was named to the Big East All-Tournament Team due largely to a 15 of 24 shooting effort from beyond the arc scoring 21 vs. Rutgers, 18 vs. Marquette, and nine in a semi-finals loss to Louisville.
At his best when… He's hitting the defensive glass and running the baseline offensively away from the ball. Connaughton's perimeter game opens when he's engaged as a basketball player rather than merely a spot-up shooter. The team's best leaper, Connaughton is capable of 6-9 boards. With Iowa State likely to launch 20-plus shots from beyond the arc, Notre Dame's swingman and guards will be needed to augment the interior efforts of a quartet of Irish big men on the glass.
When he struggles: Connaughton's uneven regular season included a 7 for 41 three-point shooting slump and a four-games span in which he attempted just two free throws. In short: standing and watching plagued the Irish sophomore during the regular season, though he seemed to realize that and work better without the ball in the Big East Tournament.
Tell-tale stat: Notre Dame was 6-1 in league play when Connaughton attempted at least eight field goals including a 2-0 mark in the conference tournament.
Point Guard Eric AtkinsIn one of the least predictable developments of the college basketball season, the junior captain led the Big East in three-point field goal percentage, thanks both to wise shot selection and the presence of Jerian Grant, a second point guard and effective penetrator.
At his best… In the open floor and in transition. Atkins should shine Friday night vs. an Iowa State team far better on the offensive end of the floor. Though he's not a burner, Atkins has tremendous body control on the break, rarely failing to convert in one-on-one or advantage situations, regardless of the athleticism of a defender or trailing defender. Atkins is a tremendous old school shot manufacturer in the lane (running hooks, scoop shots, etc.) and in shot clock situations.
When he struggles: When he's harassed off the dribble in half-court sets. Atkins doesn't have a reliable mid-range game and his three-point shot is only effective in catch-and-shoot scenarios. Should the Irish advance past the Cyclones, Atkins will struggle mightily to shake free of Ohio State on-ball defender supreme Aaron Craft.
Tell-tale stat: Played 37 or more minutes in 17 of 21 league games including the conference tournament. Of those 17, Atkins played the full 40 or more minutes eight times, with the Irish finishing 5-3 in those contests (winning five of the last six).
Center Jack CooleyEarned first-team All-Big East honors and finished fourth in the nation with 19 double-doubles this season, though just one in the final eight games. He had previously registered a double-double in eight of 10 outings.
At his best when… He does the dirty work. Cooley is an outstanding defensive rebounder and underrated offensive glass-cleaner. When the senior is controlling the boards, the rest of his game follows suit. Cooley's aggression on the glass usually leads to an Irish team in the bonus, and with the big man visiting the charity stripe. He attempted (and hit) eight free throws in the Big East semi-finals, that after shooting a combined six in the previous six contests. Cooley was the team's most regular visitor to the charity stripe but in seven regular season league defeats, Cooley shot 2, 0, 4, 5, 2, 0, and 1 free throw, respectively.
When he struggles: It usually starts on the defensive end. Cooley played most of the last two seasons as a solid low-block defender. He began to struggle intermittently during conference play, bottoming out in road games vs. St. John's, Providence, and especially vs. Marquette when battling illness.
Tell-tale stats: Has attempted fewer than eight field goals in six of the team's final seven games and scored in double figures just twice in that span. More important, Cooley collected single-digit rebounds seven of his last eight after a nine-game stretch of ripping down at least 10 boards; 102 overall.
Power Forward Tom KnightReplaced captain Scott Martin in the lineup in late January and the Irish thereafter won 10 of their 15 games leading into Friday's contest with the Cyclones. Pulled down at least seven rebounds in eight of those 15 contests, scoring in double figures five times and blocking 23 total shots in his 15 starts.
At his best when… He benefits from teammate's penetration to receive and drain open mid-range jump shots, both from the corners and elbows. Knight is also an adept shot-blocker and plays the penetrating guard on high pick-and-rolls as well as any big man on the roster. Knight played the best game of his career in an opening game win over Rutgers in the Big East Tournament, finishing with 18 points, nine rebounds and a career-best seven free throw attempts (6-7).
When he struggles: Its generally vs. a quality defense that scouts and negates his strengths. Knight was a combined 2 for 11 in three games vs. Louisville; 6 for 14 in a pair vs. Marquette, and just 1 of 8 vs. Syracuse's zone.
Tell-tale stat: Irish were 9-0 over a 15-game span when Knight logged at least 25 minutes.
The BenchHead coach Mike Brey will employ a three-man bench rotation, with backup center Garrick Sherman surging and backup swingman Cameron Biedscheid struggling heading into tournament play.
Center Garrick Sherman The late-emerging X-factor on Mike Brey's twice reinvented squad, Sherman played his best basketball late, 89 minutes over the last four games and connecting on 19 of 33 shots, mostly on paint touches.
Sherman is at his best when he's given an early post look with space. Sherman can finish with either hand from five feet out and displays excellent footwork when he gets a defender on his back.
When he struggles, its usually on the defensive glass or helping late (with a soft foul) at the rim. Sherman's defensive performance varies greatly from game to game.
Power Forward Zach Auguste: A 6'10" 230-pound athlete, the true freshman emerged in Notre Dame's five overtime win over Louisville but played his best ball in an early March loss at Marquette, scoring 15 points on 7 of 10 shooting with five boards, two blocks, and three steals in a comeback effort.
Auguste is at his best as a trailer in transition -- on both ends of the floor. When the game is hectic, he thrives, but he's a full nine months away from any comfort level in the half court offense. If Auguste can hit the offensive glass, secure the 50/50 balls on defensive rebounds, create a few turnovers with his long arms on ball screens, and negate with help at the rim, the Irish will be tough to beat.
Swingman Cameron Biedscheid: Mired in a horrific shooting slump, a problem for the Irish backcourt as Biedscheid is a designated spot-up shooter at this point in his college career. The true freshman has missed 13 of his last 14 shots and 26 of his last 32 since a two-game stretch vs. Louisville and DePaul in mid-February where he seemed to gain confidence.
Biedscheid proved capable in a home win over Villanova, knocking down 5 of 7 shots from long range but overall converted just 16 of 61 three-points shots in 21 Big East contests.
A high-volume shooter and gifted one-on-one player in high school, Biedscheid is a pair of converted jump shots away from turning around his fortunes, as an uptick in confidence would do wonders for the highly competitive player. It had better happen vs. Iowa State, because if the Irish survive the Cyclones without Biedscheid finding the range, he'll have liikly have little success against the defense of Sunday's foe, Ohio State.
Still a bit weak defensively at 6'7" and under 190 pounds, Biedscheid's tournament minutes will depend on the success of his first few shots in a given contest.
Small forward Austin Burgett is unlikely to play competitive minutes but the 6'9" shooter showed well when pressed into action at Louisville to conclude the regular season. He can move the ball offensively in half-court sets and showed steel nerves in the loss to the Cardinals, knocking down a pair of free throws fresh off the bench.