#WTWW (What to Watch Wednesday) is a weekly BIGEAST.org feature designed to look at an up-and-coming storyline from around the BIG EAST.
By Mark A. Hodgkin
Twitter - @Mark_Hodgkin
It was a testament to the program that head coach Mike Brey has built in South Bend that the lone vote in the BIG EAST Preseason Coaches’ Poll not for preseason favorite Louisville was cast for his Notre Dame Fighting Irish (coaches are forbidden from voting for their own team in the poll). The Irish finished third in the poll as coaches were intent on not underrating the team after two straight surprising seasons.
The Irish also returned all five starters from last year’s NCAA squad including the league’s Most Improved Player, senior forward Jack Cooley.
That core of experienced players has led the Irish to a 14-1 (2-0 in the BIG EAST) record to open the season including 12 straight wins. The 14-1 start is the best in Brey’s 13 years and the current winning streak is good for the school’s longest since 2006-07.
Brey has always been adept at changing styles of play to fit his roster. His use of the “burn” offense to draw opponents into slow, low scoring games was well documented – and successful. But with this year’s team, there seems little reason to implement a similar strategy.
This year’s team is built on offensive efficiency. The Irish rank fourth nationally in field goal percentage, 12th in three-point accuracy, first in assists and second in assist-to-turnover ratio. Paired with strong team defense and rebounding (both ranked in the top 40 nationally), Notre Dame has a strong formula for winning games.
Monday night, the Irish defeated No. 21 Cincinnati on the road to move its record to 2-0 in conference play. In that game all five starters scored in double-digits. The duo of Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins scored a combined 29 points in the win and are starting to enter the mix as one of the best backcourts in the country.
“I think I have the best backcourt in the country, quite frankly, and they played that way,” Brey told the Sporting News after the win. “I’m so confident in them, how they play off each other. They’re shooting the ball now at a much better clip, and they’ve become stronger defenders. I don’t say it to blow smoke. I’ve watched a lot of backcourts play this season. I think they’re right there.”
Point guard Atkins currently ranks eighth in the nation with 7.4 assists per game and sixth with a 4.12 assist-to-turnover ratio. Grant is second on the team with 12.7 points per game. Senior Scott Martin and sophomore Pat Cannoughton also start in Brey’s four-guard lineup.
The Irish plays Saturday when Connecticut visits Purcell Pavillion for a 2:00 p.m. game on the BIG EAST Network.