Locating more of a leadership voice that many within the program wondered might stay silent for much of his final season has seemed a breeze.
Delivering on his head coach’s preseason prediction that he get at least 10 rebounds a game has been somewhat of a snap.
When it comes to the tough stuff that Notre Dame senior power forward Zach Auguste has had to handle this season, he’s made most of the heavy lifting look easy. It’s been that simple stuff that has given Auguste the most aggravation.
Putting the ball in the basket from ridiculously close distances continues to be a conundrum for the captain. Most of the shots that the 6-foot-10, 245-pounder gets are right at the rim. Just turn, face, focus and finish.
Sometimes easier said than done.
As the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule hits its halfway point Sunday when No. 25 Notre Dame (14-6; 5-3 ACC) hosts Wake Forest (10-10; 1-7), the second-leading scorer (13.5) and leading rebounder (10.1) on an Irish squad looking to side-step losing two straight for the first time this season still strives to get part of his game in gear.
Last year, Auguste made 61.9 percent of his shots. He finished second in the league in overall field goal percentage to the eventual No. 3 pick in the NBA draft, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. Auguste still ranks among the league’s top five in field goal percentage, but it’s now at 53.4.
After shooting 57 percent from the field in 18 league games last season, Auguste has dipped to 49.3 (37-for-75) through eight games this year.
Why the drop?
“I don’t know,” Auguste said. “Maybe I need to slow down a little bit, take some time, gather myself and get my feet underneath me instead of trying to go up so fast and just throw shots up.
“I’ve got to take my time and look the ball into the basket.”
In 18 league games last season, Auguste shot under 50 percent from the field only four times. Eight ACC games in this year, Auguste has made fewer than 50 percent of his shots five times. Three have been losses.
“I don’t think he’s going to be this guy that all of a sudden changes overnight and he’s making 70 percent of them,” said coach Mike Brey. “But can we get him making them at a little more consistent clip? Can we get it on enough nights?”
A year ago, Auguste’s low-post plan was simple. He would set a high screen for Jerian Grant, wait for the guard to drive his man into the screen and then roll straight to the bucket. A pocket bounce pass or lob would be waiting for him to flush. If Grant kept his dribble and drove hard to the rim, Auguste would dive down the lane for a potential rebound dunk.
With Grant gone and Auguste now often sharing paint space with sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson, the Irish have run fewer screen-roll sets. Instead of getting a running start to the rim, Auguste plays many possessions as a traditional back-to-the-basket big — here’s the entry pass, now make your move.
The results have been sporadic. Sometimes he finishes; sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he draws a foul; sometimes he falls down. Sometimes he makes the right decision with the ball; sometimes he’s shaky. Sometimes he looks like he knows exactly how to counter the position of his defender; sometimes he looks uncertain.
“It’s different this year,” Auguste said. “I’ve got to create a little bit more for myself. I’ve been a little lackadaisical here and there, but I’ll be good by the end of the year.”
Auguste’s struggles around the rim aren’t from a lack of touches. The Irish often start a game or a half out of a halfcourt set by feeding him. But he hasn’t finished.
In Notre Dame’s first eight ACC games, Auguste has received an early touch — within the first three minutes of either half — in all but two games. He didn’t get one to start either half against Virginia, a game Notre Dame lost to start league play. He didn’t get an early one to start either half in Thursday’s 81-66 loss at Syracuse.
Over those other six ACC games, Auguste has had 12 touches early on in a game or a half. He’s converted only two. That translates into an anemic 16 percent.
Still, the Irish continue to look for him early.
“That’s definitely a key,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “It really opens everything up. It’s going to spread the defense out and keep the defense honest.”
Of the 16 halves of ACC basketball that Notre Dame has played, Auguste has shot 50 percent or less 50 percent of the time. He’s labored through eight halves that have ended 0-for-3 (Boston College), 1-for-4 (Duke, Pittsburgh, Syracuse) or 0-for-2 (Virginia).
When the Irish get a good Auguste, all is well. When it’s a struggle for Auguste, it’s often a struggle for all involved.
“There’s nights where he’s been really good with that and then there’s nights when he’s played fast,” Brey said. “When he has been steady and slower, he’s been really efficient.
“We’ve had that on more nights than not, or we wouldn’t be 5-3 and in the mix.”
Auguste continues to consistently rebound while chasing that scoring consistency. He’s been among the league’s best big men. He now needs to be even better starting a run through of some of the league’s low-block elite. On Sunday, Wake Forest’s relentless double-double machine, forward Devin Thomas (31 career, 10 this year) comes calling.
“He’s a bear,” Brey said.
Auguste is ready to wrestle him to deliver another bounce-back effort for himself and for the Irish. He’s often been at his best after losses. So have the Irish.
“It’s another challenge for me that I have to accept,” Auguste said. “I’m always hungry for the next game and a chance to get better.”
And be better.