South Bend, Ind. Although he is entering his 14th season as the basketball coach at Notre Dame, Mike Brey said he almost feels like he’s starting a new job.
Brey must not only adjust to a new conference for the Fighting Irish in transitioning from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference, he has to find a way to replace the rebounding and energy of graduated forward Jack Cooley.
If Brey is worried about the new league and the loss of the All-Big East forward, he didn’t show it Wednesday at the team’s media day.
“I’m always excited this time of year, but I’m even more fired up, for two reasons,” Brey said. “Number one, the group we have returning, and the excitement of the challenge of trying to figure out who we are in the Atlantic Coast Conference.”
Brey admitted he will miss the Big East, especially the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York, but said he is eager for the challenge of seeing how Notre Dame will stack up against perennial ACC powers such as Duke and North Carolina.
Brey said he is not worried that his team will dwell on last season’s early exit in the NCAA tournament, a 76-58 second-round drubbing at the hands of Iowa State.
“It was ugly,” he said. “Guys have short memories as far as moving on to the next thing. Our whole thing has been, can we create a consistent presence in the ACC like we have in the Big East?”
Making that challenge easier could be the return of guards Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton.
“When you start with three perimeter guys like that, that’s a pretty darn good place to start,” Brey said. “Three guys that will now kind of be starting together for the third year. We’ve got guys that have won 20-some games for three years. You add two fifth-year seniors, in (Tom) Knight and (Garrick) Sherman, and you add (sophomore forward) Zach Auguste … it kind of gives you six men who have been through the battles.”
Also added to the mix is hometown freshman point guard Demetrius Jackson of Marian High School.
"We have great veteran guards and I'm really looking up to those guys every day in practice," Jackson explains. "I definitely want to contribute you equally on both sides of the ball and provide a spark wherever it is needed."
And that spark is exactly what Brey is looking for.
"There's a juice there and another gear we haven't had in this program in a long, long time," Brey said of Jackson.
Brey plans to use Grant, Atkins and Jackson on the floor at the same time at times.
Brey said the performance of Connaughton, who can play in both the frontcourt and backcourt, could be critical. He wants the junior to take more perimeter shots than last season, but also help out on the boards and defend against small forwards when needed.
Connaughton said he’s up for the task.
“I think it will really help me, because when more is asked, it’s easier for more to be delivered,” Connaughton said. “It’s something I’ve kind of been looking forward to and something I’ll really take under my own wing.”
Auguste said he’s eager to see the team push up the tempo in the more offense-minded ACC.
“We’re a real athletic team, and we’re going to have a lot of fun,” Auguste said. “People are going to see a new Notre Dame they haven’t seen in a long time.”
Notre Dame will play an exhibition game October 28th at home against Indianapolis. They open the regular season at home against Miami (Ohio) on November 8th.
Other marquee matchups include clashes with three Big Ten teams: Iowa, Indiana and Ohio State.
The Irish will host both Duke and North Carolina in their first season in the ACC.