Notre Dame men now must do more with less

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.-Camped in a corner of the court during an Atlantic Coast Conference road game earlier this week, Notre Dame freshman guard Steve Vasturia waited for a fellow rookie to make something happen before doing work.

Confident that he could connect on a 3-pointer during the second half of a close contest against Florida State, Vasturia set his feet and focused. When Demetrius Jackson probed the defense with a dribble but found little around the rim to his liking, he kicked a pass to his left for Vasturia. His 3 with 10:45 left sliced a six-point deficit in half.

That one possession in a game the Irish lost by one possession (76-74) said a whole lot about the past, the present and the future of a squad struggling to figure it out 19 games into the regular season.

The past – Notre Dame rolled off a magical 27-7 season in 2010-11 by riding a starting lineup of five seniors.

The present – There have been times during league play this season when the Irish have had no seniors on the floor.

The future – For the Irish to get back to the NCAA tournament a fifth-consecutive season, a group of five underclassmen (three freshmen, two sophomores) must do more.

A host of uncertainties awaits Notre Dame (11-8; 2-4 ACC) as it closes a three-game week Saturday at Wake Forest (13-6; 3-3). This much is known — the trio of Eric Atkins, Pat Connaughton and Garrick Sherman continues to handle much of the heavy lifting. Probably too much. Through the first six games of ACC play, the three are averaging 47.5 points and 20.1 rebounds with 62 assists. Those numbers comprise 66 percent of the scoring, 58.6 percent of the rebounding and 71.2 percent of the assists. The three are averaging 35.3 minutes per game. The rest of the team 14.3.

One of the three has led the Irish in scoring, rebounding and assists in each of the last seven games. If it’s not some combination of Atkins or Connaughton or Sherman, the Irish seemingly have no chance. But somebody, be it Vasturia or Jackson or sophomore Zach Auguste must become a consistent fourth and even fifth guy to keep the three from being ground down once mid-February arrives.

“They’re working so hard,” Vasturia said. “They have a big workload. We’re trying to do anything to win, but we know we have to do more to win.”

Even more will be expected Saturday of the underclassmen. Sophomore power forward Austin Burgett, who started the last two games, will not play because of a rapid heartbeat issue known as junctional tachycardia that surfaced Tuesday in Tallahassee, Fla. He’s scheduled to undergo an outpatient cardiac procedure early next week and will be out seven to 10 days.

Power forward Tom Knight is questionable after missing the last four games with a sprained ankle, the flu and pneumonia. If Knight cannot go, the Irish have to get their first league road win with eight available scholarship players. The eighth would be sophomore Eric Katenda, who has played all of 60 seconds this season.

From the time the Irish had to reinvent themselves late last month following the dismissal from school of leading scorer Jerian Grant, it’s been one guy here, another guy there. One game, Jackson ties his career high of 13 points in the home win over Virginia Tech. Another, Burgett gets his career best of 11 points with five rebounds in the near-miss at Georgia Tech. Auguste looks on the verge of a breakout in some games, but then steps back into the shadows with a pedestrian effort. Vasturia has played like a veteran for stretches, a freshman in others.

“It just takes time,” Auguste said. “We’ve got to keep fighting through it. We need to have other guys step up. We’re trying to do more together.”

More doesn’t mean scoring, something young guys who had their share of high school success have trouble understanding. Didn’t get enough shots? That’s OK. Get a loose ball, set a screen, set up someone else. Hustle. Compete. Play.

“As you get older, you realize that just because you’re not scoring doesn’t mean you’re not playing well,” Knight said. “I think these guys are starting to realize that. You can be a big part of this team without scoring. It’s something they’re willing to embrace.”

Irish coach Mike Brey is in a situation he never was in during his previous 13 seasons in South Bend. He built one of the most cohesive and consistent programs in the Big East by being old, by playing few guys and leaning on a core group of seniors. He doesn’t have that luxury this season, and has no choice but to mix and match combinations with guys who otherwise would be bit players on a veteran team.

At one point during the second half of Sunday’s home win over Virginia Tech, Brey drifted far down the sideline so he could better instruct Vasturia and fellow freshman V.J. Beachem where to go and cut during a specific offensive set. Those teaching moments usually are reserved for the practice court in September and October, not January, and definitely not during league play, a time when the Irish program has often operated on cruise control.

Instead, the training wheels remain, and have shown few signs of becoming unhinged.

“It’s new territory,” Brey said. “I want to keep those young guys’ heads up. You want to teach them. You don’t want to jump down their throat.

“They want to be good.”

But for the Irish to be good, for this season to be a success, the underclassmen have to be good. Not next year or two years from now. Now. Had everything about the program remained status quo, Auguste and Burgett and Beachem and Jackson and Vasturia would have been allowed more leeway to play through their growing pains. Not this season. They have to learn on the job, a process that often has looked painful.

“You’ve got to involve them,” Brey said. “They’ve got to develop with us if we’re going to have a shot at this thing.”

With each league game that gets away – Notre Dame’s four ACC losses are by a combined 22 points — more pressure mounts on captains Atkins and Connaughton and Sherman. They’re the leaders. They have to lead. Not only that, they have to do more and score more and rebound more to make sure the season doesn’t start slipping away.

But they need help. Something has to surface from somebody. Soon.

“It’s not just us three,” Connaughton said. “We collectively have to stick together and fight these next few games out.”

TNoie@SBTinfo.com 574-235-6153 Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame sophomore forward Austin Burgett will undergo a cardiac procedure on Tuesday and will be out the next 7-10 days following it. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)