Notre Dame men's basketball: Rebounding a question for Irish

South Bend Tribune

It was a concern as last winter wound down, as everyone decompressed during the spring, as the summer program commenced and as preseason practice started earlier than ever.

It remains a concern as the season opens Friday at home against Miami (Ohio), as three Big Ten teams await in a daunting December and as the No. 21 Notre Dame men's basketball team embarks on its first tour through the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Can the Irish consistently rebound to effectively do what they do?

That question seldom had to be asked or answered the previous six seasons thanks to relentless work of two individuals. The last two seasons, the heavy-lifting rebounding responsibilities were handled by former Irish power forward Jack Cooley. The only league player to finish what would be Notre Dame's final year in the Big East with a double-digit rebounding average (10.1), Cooley cleaned a lot of messes on the defensive end (his 213 rebounds were 74 more than any Irish) and a lot of misses on the other (a team-high 141 offensive rebounds).

Cooley closed a two-year stranglehold as the main low-post presence with 644 rebounds. He helped the Irish finish 2012-13 with a +4.2 rebounding margin. Rebounding often meant wins. When Notre Dame was outrebounded last year — 12 times over 35 games — it went 5-7.

Prior to Cooley's emergence, former Irish All-American Luke Harangody dominated. Jumping into the minutes mix early in his freshman season, Harangody grabbed 1,222 career rebounds, second to Tom Hawkins (1,318) in school history.

With Cooley and Harangody now playing professionally overseas, the question of who handles the rebounding duties this season may not be answered easily.

“You do get into a comfort zone with a guy getting 11 all the time and getting all the tough ones,” said coach Mike Brey. “We're going to be different that way.”

Though someone may emerge, the Irish just don't have someone they can pencil in for an automatic dozen rebounds a night. One game, it might be fifth-year center Garrick Sherman (3.4 rpg., last season), who grabbed a team-high 13 rebounds in Notre Dame's second exhibition victory. Another, it might be swingman Pat Connaughton (4.7) and his 6-foot-10 wingspan doing work.

“It's definitely going to be game-by-game,” said Connaughton, who averaged 8.5 rebounds in the two exhibition games. “Rebounding is a lot of effort. We're just going to have to come with that mentality.

“As long as you have that mentality going for every rebound, we're going to make progress.”

Only Connaughton and Sherman have consistently rebounded this fall. Sherman has been the steadiest of the four power forwards in the rotation. He grabbed nearly double the rebounds as the others through the first 20 practices. Connaughton has an uncanny ability to get amongst the big bodies and dig out the misses that often belonged to Cooley. Nobody gets more tough ones.

Fifth-year senior Tom Knight (3.5 rpg., last season) has had his moments this fall on the backboard, as have sophomores Zach Auguste (2.7) and Austin Burgett (0.6). But it's not been enough to alleviate Brey's concerns.

“We're going to need more to help,” he said. “It will be something we keep coming back to over and over again.”

That includes the Irish perimeter. Instead of leaking out on the wings to start the break, they'll have to dive into the lane and battle for some loose balls. Guard Jerian Grant was solid in the first exhibition game with seven defensive rebounds. Four nights later, he managed only one.

A first team preseason All-ACC selection, Grant has worked to remind himself that he has to be better on the boards every night.

“Losing Jack, we lost a lot of rebounding and not one guy is going to be that 10-rebound, 11-rebound a night guy,” he said. “As long as everybody is rebounding, we can really do it.”

Moving away from Cooley as the main rebounder started to shift in a subtle way late last season. Over the final eight games, including the NCAA tournament loss to Iowa State, Cooley led the Irish outright in rebounding only once when he grabbed 13 in his home finale against St. John's. Five others led or tied for the team lead in rebounding.

The rebounding door remains open for someone to step through and cement his spot in the rotation. Want more minutes? They're there. Just go and get the ball.

“If we can get a guy that kind of makes himself a little bit of that rebounder, man, it's going to be hard to take him out of the game,” Brey said. “What I've been concerned about is still a concern.”

Notre Dame was outrebounded by Division II Indianapolis, 40-36, and limited to four second-chance points in the exhibition opener. The next time out against another Division II team in Tusculum (Tenn.), the Irish finished with a 46-37 advantage with 14 second-chance points.

“It's a process,” Sherman said. “We're going to continue to work on it and focus on it.”

With much ground to cover during preseason, be it different styles of play, rotations, getting better in zone and man defenses or adjusting to the new rules of limiting contact, Brey spent little time leaning the importance of consistently gang rebounding.

That was expected to change on the eve of the opener as rebounding rants could become a daily doing.

“It's coming,” Brey said.

But will the rebounds? Time will tell.

Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton, left, passes the ball away after recovering a loose ball next to Tusculum's Darius Carter during the men's basketball game on Friday, November 1, 2013, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN