Notre Dame remains wide open with its 2015 recruiting and also with its current player rotation.
SOUTH BEND – Following the Dec. 7 home game against Delaware, Irish assistant Martin Ingelsby jumped in his car for the 100-mile drive to Chicago. There, he sat among the likes of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino of Louisville to watch a high school tournament that featured big man Stephen Zimmerman of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, considered one of the top-five prospects in the Class of 2015.
The 7-foot, 215-pound Zimmerman is on Notre Dame’s short list of early prospects to watch. Notre Dame is one of as many as 22 schools on Zimmerman’s early wish list.
After signing two frontline players in the Class of 2014 – Bonzie Colson Jr. (New Bedford, Mass.) and Martin Geben (Hagerstown, Md.) – Brey is open to any and all positions for his next recruiting cycle.
The Irish are involved early with a little of everything – big men, guards and wings.
Coach Mike Brey wouldn’t mind still adding to the Class of 2014 in the spring. He’ll look at any late-rising seniors but would prefer a transfer, a big-man transfer.
“If we could take a big transfer sitting out like Sherman, that would be a good way,” Brey said. “I’ll take a Ryan Humphrey if there’s any of them out there.”
A former McDonald’s All-American, Humphrey played two seasons at Oklahoma before transferring to Notre Dame, where he planned to play for former Irish coach Matt Doherty. When Doherty left town after one season for North Carolina, Brey arrived from Delaware and coached Humphrey for two years.
Humphrey was a first team all-Big East pick his senior season. He’s the last Irish player selected in the first round of the NBA draft. He was taken No. 19 by Utah in 2002.
Lineup Comes Into Focus
Rarely has Notre Dame journeyed this deep into its non-conference schedule – ACC play is less than a month away – with so many uncertainties up and down and around the lineup.
As league play nears, a rotation roulette continues for Brey, who historically settles on a set group of seven, sometimes eight and rarely nine in November.
Three years ago when Notre Dame raced to a 27-7 record and No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a starting lineup that featured five seniors was in place the first day of practice. Save for an injury here or there, the Irish fielded only three lineups all winter.
With so many moving parts this season, the Irish had three different lineups in the first six games. Not only did the starting faces change, so did the reserves’ roles, something that could continue.
Set lineups? Maybe not this season.
“I don’t think I’m going to be in that mode this year,” Brey said. “The more I’ve thought about our team, this could be a revolving door.”
That door started to spin not long after the season-opener. Brey believed the best way to work was with two power forwards – fifth-year guys Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman – in the starting lineup. But then Knight, at 6-10, forgot his main job responsibility – rebound. Through the season’s first four games, he was averaging 1.8 rebounds, including three halves where he played heavy minutes and didn’t grab a single rebound.
Pairing Knight and Sherman also cluttered the lane to where neither was really effective. Too crowded to be comfortable.
While Knight was struggling, sophomore Austin Burgett was soaring. A seldom-used reserve last season who declined to sit out and preserve a year of eligibility, Burgett worked his way to the front of the line just by being active or, in Brey’s words, “bouncy” around the rim. With Burgett in the mix, Brey had his coveted “stretch four man” in the mode of former Irish stretch fours Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin.
In addition to his bounce, Burgett would set screens to free the perimeter of Eric Atkins, Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant. He could hit an occasional shot. He would rebound. And when the Nov. 24 game against Army arrived, Burgett made the first start of his career.
It was one to forget.
Unable to carry over that athletic effort, Burgett scored two points with five rebounds. Prone to pick up fouls almost by the minute, he was whistled for four infractions.
Back to the rotation drawing board.
A week between games against Army and Cornell allowed Brey to tinker more and move toward a look that may be best in the long run. Out went Burgett, in stepped McDonald’s High School All-American and former local schoolboy standout Demetrius Jackson. The Mishawaka native made his first career start against Cornell.
Jackson remained in the starting lineup the next four games heading into the mid-December clash against Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
With Jackson, the Irish better space the floor, get out in transition and score. They were quicker and more active defensively. They ran through a stretch of five games of scoring at least 80 points, including a 98-93 shootout loss to No. 23 Iowa in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Though the lineup still has its shortcomings (rebounding), it’s one that could be around in the games and weeks to come.
Then again …
“I’m still searching,” Brey said. “We’re still kind of searching who’s where, who’s what.”
That search took Brey back to where it all started. After logging a DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision) in the Dec. 3 game at Iowa, and then remaining on the bench early in the Dec. 7 game against Delaware, Knight resurfaced as the first big off the bench and offered six points and six rebounds in the Dec. 9 win over Bryant.
In doing so, he pushed Burgett and fellow sophomore Zach Auguste, who has struggled to secure minutes because he’s struggled to secure consistent efforts in practice, back down in the rotation.
Down, yes, but not out. Not this year.
“We need to instill some confidence in those guys moving forward,” Brey said.
If nothing else, Knight can be an example for the young guys to keep working and not pout about his yo-yo minutes.
“His attitude has been great,” Brey said. “If anybody gets it, it’s Tom Knight. Tom Knight has been through the roller coaster here.”
One area where Brey isn’t searching is the starting power forward spot, which Sherman has wrestled away by being the most consistent bigman on the roster since preseason camp. Brey talked all fall of wanting Sherman to follow in the footsteps of several former Irish (Jack Cooley, Ben Hansbrough, Ty Nash) and have his last season be his best season.
Sherman started slowly and showed little movement in that direction until the season’s biggest game to date – against Iowa – in a hostile atmosphere. Feeling comfortable after having played twice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena during his two seasons at Michigan State, Sherman delivered a career-high 29 points with nine rebounds.
Afterward, he was heavily praised by Brey. The head coach may still be searching for the right combination, but moving forward, Sherman could be considered one of his main guys, a role he’s never worked in during his two seasons in South Bend.
Sherman responded with big games against Delaware (19 points, six rebounds) and Bryant (14 points, a career-high 13 rebounds), a contest that marked his first career collegiate double-double.
Being a main guy felt good.
“Having Coach endorse me as one of the main guys, that’s always a big deal,” Sherman said. “I feel comfortable in the role of being a main guy. I’m not shying away from it at all.
“I embrace it.”
As for who else becomes a main guy, at this point, more so than any other season, it’s anybody’s guess. Even Brey’s.
“Is this a season where our lineup changes more than ever before game to game or week to week or segment to segment?” Brey wondered. “I’m open to that. We have a lot of different ways to do this thing. Just gotta keep everybody engaged because you just don’t know who it’s going to be night to night. ”