SOUTH BEND - These are dramatically different days for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, a group doing it in a drastically different way compared to other seasons of recent memory.
Nowhere was that more evident than inside the Irish locker room lounge following Wednesday’s 74-41 victory over Sam Houston State, which was consecutive win No. 3 to start 2011-12.
In a black leather chair that once was the permanent post-game place for Big East player of the year Ben Hansbrough sat freshman Pat Connaughton, who discussed his career-high 24 points in his third collegiate game. Next to him on a couch was sophomore Alex Dragicevich, who made his first career start and has logged 67 minutes the first three games (after 62 total last season) with only one turnover.
On one side of the room was junior Tom Knight, who tied his career high with seven points in a career-best 19 minutes. Often one of the last summoned from the bench last season, Knight was the first Irish reserve in Wednesday.
Across from him sat sophomore Jerian Grant, who had just played in his third collegiate game. After sitting out last season to let his mind and body mature, Grant operated as if it was his 93rd with a career-high 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds in a career-high 36 minutes.
And there it was - no seniors there to speak. No co-captains. No starters off last season’s 27-7 team. Young guys all around. No big deal.
“I’m actually really excited,” Grant said. “We’re playing well and we haven’t had our full team yet.”
Once senior co-captain Scott Martin crumpled with a sprained right ankle the first day of practice, it became a daily mix and match of lineups. Workouts and games have resembled the soon-to-be falling snowflakes - no two are the same.
The Irish started three different combinations all last year, but this year’s rotation has been a revolving door. Including the two exhibitions, back before an NCAA four-game suspension kicked in for co-captain Tim Abromaitis, Notre Dame has played five games and fielded four different starting lineups. Stability has been replaced by a certain degree of uncertainty, but the end results have been the same.
The starting group might again be tweaked Friday when Notre Dame closes out a run of four games in seven days at home against Delaware State (9 p.m., no TV). Eric Atkins (flu) could be back. Junior Joey Brooks, who like Atkins was fighting illness earlier this week, was hit in the face late in the first half Wednesday and did not play in the second half. Brooks should be ready, but the way it’s all worked this season, who knows?
It all will change again Monday when Abromaitis returns. Maybe then Notre Dame can start to move forward with one starting lineup and, one rotation, but still maintain their current mindset.
“It’s about being ready,” Dragicevich said. “You’ve got to be ready to play, keep your bodies healthy, get your rest and do your best.”
Every day seems to bring something different, but also something that works. Irish coach Mike Brey preached the first day of practice that it was useless for his guys to worry about minutes and the rotation - everyone was needed.
Coming from a coach who likes to shorten his rotation to usually seven, sometimes eight and rarely nine guys, that statement likely was met by a host of skepticism. Three games in, Brey has made good on the preseason promise.
Three Irish - all underclassmen - are averaging at least 12.0 points per game. Seven of the nine available scholarship players are averaging at least 21 minutes a game. No Irish is among the Big East’s Top 10 for minutes played. Everyone has gotten a good run, and run with their opportunity.
Who are these guys? Brey admitted Wednesday that he still doesn’t know his team. But it’s been a fun ride trying to figure it all out while plugging this guy into this spot, that guy into that one.
“For the guys on the bench last year, there wasn’t much hope,” Knight said. “This year, with short numbers, this is your opportunity and you have to make the most out of it.”
And know that your turn is coming. Quickly. When starting power forward Jack Cooley picked up his second foul Wednesday, fellow power forward Mike Broghammer reached over and smacked Knight on the knee as if to say, ‘Be ready. One of us is going in.’
“It makes it competitive out there,” Brey said. “We’re going to need them throughout the year, so I don’t want anybody jumping off the ship if the role changes a little.
“I want all those guys’ heads good, ’cause you don’t where it’s going to go and they have been good.”