At the end of his winningest season at Notre Dame to date, Irish coach Mike Brey knew he would lose his top scorer in Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough. But the AP Coach of the Year unexpectedly lost his No. 2 scorer from last season to suspension — for the first four games — and now has to make do without fifth-year forward Tim Abromaitis as the Irish open the regular season against Mississippi Valley State at the Purcell Pavilion on Saturday.
Abromaitis, who averaged 15.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last year, will serve the first of his four-game suspension for violating an NCAA eligibility rule and leave the Irish without four of their top five scorers from last year. With this discrepancy, Brey said he has yet to see how his full team plays as a unit in-game, as fifth-year senior forward Scott Martin missed both of Notre Dame's exhibition games due to an ankle injury.
"We were talking as a staff and someone asked, ‘How do you like your team?' and I replied, ‘I don't think we know them yet,'" the 2010-2011 Big East coach of the year said following a 92-70 exhibition win over Stonehill on Monday.
Although Martin is expected to play in the home opener, Notre Dame will replace four starters from last year's squad, which finished the regular season ranked fifth in the AP poll. But Brey said he expects Martin to take an elevated, more aggressive role this season, regardless of whether Abromaitis is in the lineup.
"Martin needs to be more aggressive even with [Abromaitis] out there this year in the big picture," Brey said. "But also with [Abromaitis] out, [Martin] lets the game come to him and he knows how to play. He can't turn anything down and he anchors you a little bit. He can guard big guys and has really good body position."
Meanwhile, the Irish cruised to victory in both of their preseason contests, scoring 90 or more points against both St. Xavier and Stonehill.
In its most recent exhibition game against Stonehill, Notre Dame shot 57.6 percent from the field and combined for 26 total assists, led by sophomore guard Jerian Grant's nine.
Despite missing out on the starting lineup due to an academic infraction, junior forward Jack Cooley combined for 12 points and nine rebounds, while sophomore guard Alex Dragicevich added 15 points.
"I thought guys got more comfortable [Monday against Stonehill]," Brey said. [There was] a better comfort level from one exhibition to the next. So I've seen some things that we can work on before it really comes at us fast. I feel better coming into this game with guys like [junior guard Joey] Brooks, Grant and Dragicevich. They are more comfortable. I have been happy with [Cooley] too."
Mississippi Valley State also won both of its exhibitions, including a 116-76 victory over Victory University on Nov. 4. Even though Mississippi Valley State lost all-conference guard and top scorer D'Angelo Jackson to graduation, the Delta Devils are projected to finish second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference this season led by all-conference senior center Paul Crosby.
The Irish will try to defend their 19-game home winning streak against the Delta Devils in the regular season opener on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Purcell Pavilion.
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