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July 2, 2012

ND faces big-man balancing act

When the Notre Dame basketball team gets together this summer for pick-up games, they have more than enough big men to go around…for two teams.

Gone from the roster is Mike Broghammer, whose balky knees finally forced him to put an end to his basketball career. But seven other players on the 2012-13 roster stand at least 6-foot-8 inches, with all of them vying for playing time at the four-five spots.

"One of the things we have to do is get back to playing some high-low with two big guys like we did my first two years with (Ryan) Humphrey, (Harold) Swanagan and (Troy) Murphy," said Irish head coach Mike Brey.

"Jack Cooley and Garrick Sherman (together) is something we have to take a long look at, and I think they'll play very well together."

Sherman, the 6-foot-10 transfer from Michigan State who sat out the 2011-12 season, joins Cooley to form a potentially dynamic one-two punch. Sherman provides length and an outside shooting touch to go with Cooley's game, which is an aggressive, physical brand of basketball that blossomed during his junior season.

"I thought (Cooley) would be ready to deliver for us, that he was going to be a starter, but he exceeded where I thought he would go," said Brey of the 6-foot-9, 248-pounder who claimed the Big East's most improved player award when his numbers (28.7 minutes, 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game) shot up dramatically in 2011-12.

"I was so proud to see the maturity of a guy to be more business-like about his daily preparation. Once he started to have some success, it just fed on itself, and now he's really become a bit of a gym rat, and I never thought I would use gym rat and Jack Cooley in the same sentence.

"Coming off the year he had, his confidence should be at an all-time high. He feels he's one of the better big guys in the league and he should feel that way. The game became important to him seven days a week, not just three days a week, and that's why we saw the production."

Brey considers Sherman a sixth starter. After all, he did start 29 games (averaging 3.2 points and 2.5 rebounds per game) during his two years at Michigan State.

"This is a 23-year-old guy who played over 60 college games and played in a Final Four," said Brey of Sherman.

From there, it gets complicated…and a bit crowded.

Brey will rotate sixth-year senior Scott Martin - the leader of the team after Tim Abromaitis' season-ending injury in late November - between the three (with sophomore Pat Connaughton) and the four spots, although Notre Dame's productivity improved last season when Martin played in the second big man role next to Cooley.

Then there's 6-foot-9 Tom Knight, who enters his senior season with two years of eligibility after logging 8.9 minutes per game (and 2.1 ppg.) as a junior.

"Tom Knight gave us minutes at the end of the season that made us feel like, 'Hey, he's joining the party, he's becoming a player for us,'" Brey said.

Brey also wants to get 6-foot-10 freshman Zach Auguste in the mix. The New Hampton, N.H., product is long and active in the paint. He has to play this season in anticipation of Cooley's departure following the 2012-13 season.

"I'm very impressed with him," said Brey of Auguste. "He's a guy that we've got to get ready. We're going to need him."

Also joining the mix will be freshman Austin Burgett, a 6-foot-9, 220-pounder from Avon, Ind., who would appear to be a prime candidate to preserve a year of eligibility.

Brey has a decision to make with 6-foot-8 Eric Katenda, who didn't begin school until January after suffering a freak eye injury (a severed optic nerve) one year ago this week that cost him his vision in his left eye.

"I really like his progress," said Brey of Katenda. "I've not seen any hint of a handicap of his loss of eyesight in the breakdown drills and the little things we did in the spring.

"But I think he's going to need another year to just play and get used to our system and still adjust to what's happened to him physically, and to get accustomed to our academics. We threw him in at the semester, and he did a heckuva job. But my approach with him -- and he's on the same page -- is we're really going to take our time with this thing."

Add it all up and the Irish have seven players who can play the power forward/center positions, although Martin can swing to the small forward spot, Katenda will be brought along slowly, and Burgett could preserve a year.

Brey likes the possibilities on the defensive end as well as the offensive side.

"What I love is the back of our defense," Brey said. "It starts with Scott Martin, who is a great team defender. Jack Cooley became a great position defender, and Garrick Sherman can do the same thing. Big bodies rotating over, taking charges and being in position…not necessarily blocking shots, but closing down driving lanes with their body position and their rotation.

"We played some zone last year and rotated into a different kind of zone. That helped us. I wonder if we're more of a zone team with all the length and size we have. I think that's something we have to take a look at during the pre-season.

"With as much length as we have this year, our team defense can still be good."


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