Turning the page took a little more time and effort than previous seasons.
Several players still had tears spilling from their eyes when Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey stepped out of a New Orleans Arena locker room that Thursday afternoon last March and stepped into the future.
Notre Dame had been eliminated by Old Dominion in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament, but Brey already had started talking - and thinking - about 2011. How his team might look, who the strongest voices would be and what was needed to make another push into March were topics already on his mind.
Rewind to last week and late Sunday night - actually, early Monday morning - at United Center in Chicago. Notre Dame’s dream of a deep run through the NCAA tournament thoroughly erased by Florida State in a 14-point loss. First on the postgame dais, and then later inside a somber locker room, Brey was asked to frame a season that was, and to look ahead to one that will be.
He couldn’t do it. Too much emotion and energy has been invested in a year that saw Notre Dame step into areas the program seldom has seen. Brey requested more time to decompress. How much? A day? A week? A month?
How about 20 minutes - roughly the amount needed for the team bus to travel the 16.5 miles between the United Center and the Indiana state line. As the border neared, and his head cleared, Brey vowed to start looking toward 2011-12.
What questions might have surfaced along that lonely ride to Exit 77? Here are four:
Can Notre Dame again catch some leadership lightning in a bottle?
For the second consecutive offseason, a seemingly massive leadership void exists as two respected seniors exit.
A year ago, everyone wondered if the Irish could replace Luke Harangody, the second-leading scorer in school history, and point guard Tory Jackson, a four-year starter. Now the Irish must replace Ben Hansbrough, who came from nowhere to led the team in scoring (18.4 ppg.) and earn Big East player of the year honors, and fellow captain Ty Nash, who leaves the leader of a four-year class that won more overall games (96) and Big East games (46) than any in school history.
Brey mentioned late this season that Hansbrough couldn’t wait for Harangody and Jackson to leave so he could take ownership of the group. Such now is the case for returning seniors Tim Abromaitis, Scott Martin and Carleton Scott, who want to make this their team.
It’s in good hands. All three will do it in their own ways, but also have to elevate their games. Scott was one of the most vocal of the four captains this season. He’ll have to be even more next fall. Abromaitis and Martin are more reserved workers who let their games talk for them. When they do speak, it’s often with a dry sense of humor. Nobody will light up and lay into teammates quite like Hansbrough, which may not be all that bad.
Each of the last two leadership committees helped steer Notre Dame to the NCAA tournament, so there’s already pressure present for this core to do it again.
Is it time for some new faces?
Sitting with freshman guard Jerian Grant after the two early-November preseason games, Brey delivered a cold dose of reality - if the regular season opener was that night, Grant might play four minutes.
That fact helped Grant accept the decision to sit out the season, let a stress reaction in his left leg heal and preserve a year of eligibility. The 6-foot-5, 185-pound Grant offers skills something few on the current Irish own - quickness in the open court, a consistent shot, a solid ball-handler and someone who can defend on the perimeter. He could be the team’s best athlete. Grant needed the year to mature, but may be ready to put to use all he’s learned by watching and waiting.
So too might power forward Tom Knight, who has spent half his college career waiting for the logjam of minutes to clear in the front court. Nash leaves behind 28.8 minutes per game. Those might be too much for Jack Cooley, who often gets winded easily. At 6-foot-10, Knight could be a different piece to the puzzle. He’s nimble on the perimeter, yet still thick enough to bang near the basket. He and Cooley could be a nice 1-2 combo that can compensate for the 9.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and, maybe most importantly, the 190 free throws that Nash attempted this season.
Where does Alex Dragicevich fit? Incoming freshman Patrick Connaughton? Veterans Mike Broghammer and Joey Brooks? All will have to prove they can consistently offer something or find themselves out on the outside.
What about an early look at a starting five?
The three returning seniors - Abromaitis, Martin and Scott - go down in ink even before offseason workouts commence. Ditto for guard Eric Atkins, who was solid as a freshman but will have to be even better with a more demanding workload. Not only will he have to continue to protect the ball - he led the Big East in assist/turnover ratio (2.6) - but might have to score it more than his 5.8 ppg. clip this season.