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Now the real fun starts for Zags

Gonzaga is entering the marquee portion of its attractive nonconference men’s basketball schedule.

First up: Notre Dame, a 27-win team last season – one of those ‘W’s’ came against Gonzaga – that is dealing with the loss of standout forward Tim Abromaitis to a torn ACL last week. The Fighting Irish (5-2) open GU’s arduous stretch of games that includes Illinois, Michigan State, Arizona, Butler and Xavier before the arrival of 2012.

Tip-off is at 8:20 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

“That’s why everybody comes here, to play in those big games,” junior forward Elias Harris said.

Notre Dame lost a scholar, team captain, Wooden Award candidate and fifth-year senior in Abromaitis. Until Friday, he’d never missed a practice. He scored 21 points in Notre Dame’s 83-79 win over visiting Gonzaga last year. In its first game post-Abromaitis, Notre Dame routed Bryant 84-59 Sunday.

“That’s a developing story, who steps in for Tim,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “Scott (Martin) is our lone fifth-year guy now and he has to be there every night. (Jerian) Grant, (Alex) Dragicevich, (Joey) Brooks and (Pat) Connaughton are all guys we need.

“We feel with Grant and (Eric) Atkins, we’re developing a backcourt that can make plays.”

Atkins came off the bench to score 12 points in last year’s win over Gonzaga. Grant and Atkins combine to average roughly 29 points and nine assists per game. The Irish are expected to start one freshman (Connaughton), two sophomores (Grant and Atkins), one junior (Jack Cooley) and one senior (Martin).

“There will be no tougher Big East atmosphere than (the McCarthey Athletic Center),” Brey said. “I’ve never been in it, but I’ve seen it on TV and people have told me about it. Us being younger, being poised in that atmosphere and poised when Gonzaga has a run, can we answer and not be frazzled?”

Illustrating his team’s youth, Brey later said, “We practiced huddling Saturday. Those little things for a young team are big.”

Robert Sacre and Harris combined for 35 points against Notre Dame last season. Asked if backcourt newcomers Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. give Gonzaga a different look this season, Brey said, “My first focus goes to Sacre. He was beating us up bad in the first half. We slowed him down a little bit in the second half. If he wasn’t scoring it he was taking such a focus other guys were scoring. I’m still trying to get a feel for their guards, just like I’m sure (Gonzaga coach) Mark (Few) is trying to get a feel for our guards.”

Notre Dame has scored 80 points or more three times. The Irish scored in the 50s while dropping games to Missouri and Georgia at a tournament in Kansas City, Mo.

“When you’re not playing them, they’re a fun team to watch on tape, just how they move the ball and how they play together,” Few said. “They can hurt you in a variety of ways.”