Notre Dame needs Zach Auguste back in gear

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

An avalanche of excuses likely would have surfaced for Notre Dame junior power forward Zach Auguste during any sustained struggles of college basketball seasons past.

If Auguste didn’t play well for a game or two, it likely was somebody else’s fault. He wasn’t getting enough quality minutes to be an effective presence in the low post. He wasn’t getting enough touches to make something happen. The ball didn’t feel right. His shoes didn’t fit right. The referees had his number.

But this is the new and improved, and more mature Auguste. Following two straight games in which he scored fewer than 10 points and was an invisible paint presence, Auguste accepted the reasons. If he was going to point a finger, he was going to point one at the mirror.

“Man, I definitely haven’t had that aggressive presence,” Auguste said in preparation for Tuesday’s home game against Wake Forest (12-14, 4-9 Atlantic Coast Conference) following a six-day break from game action for the No. 10 Irish (22-4, 10-3). “I’ve been a little soft in the paint. I can say it myself. You just have to keep working and try to bounce back against Wake Forest.”

And try to play the way that, for the majority of the season, Auguste has played.

Aggressively. Confidently. Passionately. Purposefully.

Averaging career bests for points (12.7), rebounds (6.2) and minutes (23.4), this is the same 6-foot-10, 242-pounder who erupted for a career-high 26 points in the conference opener against Florida State. This is the same Auguste who offered 18 points and six rebounds in the stunning win at North Carolina, then had 10 points and 11 rebounds for his third double-double of the season in the overtime thriller at North Carolina State.

Auguste had 14 points and six rebounds in the home victory over Duke and had 16 points and five rebounds in the team’s most-recent game at Purcell Pavilion against Boston College. He’s done it. He’s delivered.

Auguste’s numbers started to slide 10 days ago in the Duke rematch. He played a little overwhelmed in Cameron Indoor Stadium. He wasn’t alone. Plenty of Irish did in a 30-point loss that saw Auguste go scoreless for the first time since last February. He grabbed two rebounds in 13 minutes.

Three nights later at Clemson, he again looked like someone wandering around aimlessly in the woods at night without a flashlight. Second in the league in field goal percentage (60.8), Auguste connected on only one of his six shots for two points and three rebounds. Each time he touched the ball near the bucket, he couldn’t score, or wouldn’t shoot.

Four days of practices, which featured big doses of five-on-five scrimmaging Friday and Saturday, allowed Auguste to get his game back in gear.

“That’s your best way when a guy is struggling to get back in a rhythm and get going again,” said coach Mike Brey. “He was moving pretty good and in a pretty good flow.”

Auguste has been dealing with a lingering issue with his left eye for the better part of a month. Thought at first to be conjunctivitis (pink eye), Auguste explained that he’s suffering from a viral infection. His eye was constantly blood-shot for a few weeks but that has since cleared. Still, there are times, especially when Auguste is tired, when the eye swells as if he’s been punched. It has made seeing a bit tricky.

“I don’t want to use that as an excuse,” he said. “It’s not that bad to where I can’t play. … I can play.”

Two days off without basketball allowed Auguste to clear any clutter from his mind before four good days of practice heading into Tuesday. It was a break that he admitted was much-needed for himself.

What does he need to do to be better? Easy. Just play. Be a presence around the rim on defense. Rebound. Run the floor. And convert easy looks. If teams look to eliminate guard Jerian Grant from playing his ultra-effective screen-roll game with Auguste, which has delivered plenty of easy chances for him, there are other ways for the big man to be effective.

“I just have to continue to be consistent,” he said. “I can’t try to focus on doing everything. I’ve just got to play my game, let it come to me.”

Auguste’s struggles against Clemson were minimized by freshman forward Bonzie Colson, who delivered four points, two rebounds, a block and a steal in 18 efficient minutes off the bench. Some wondered whether it might be time to start Colson. But for Notre Dame to finish strong over the final five games of the regular season and go into postseason with a whole lot of momentum, Auguste needs to return to being that consistent interior presence.

He knows it. His teammates know it.

“You just have to give him confidence,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton. “The biggest thing with Zach, he just needs to be confident that not only does he belong, but he can excel at this level. He can excel in this league.”

That message was driven home to Auguste in the days after the Clemson game by Connaughton and by Grant. They sat him down off campus and told him in no uncertain terms that he just has to be better than he was against Duke and against Clemson. And be better now. He had to own not playing well the last two games, and also had to own not letting any disappointment linger moving forward.

“Those two guys have been fabulous in the leadership department in that sense,” Brey said. “A lot of it is, give credit to Zach for growing as a young guy and being more of a young man handling disappointment.”

The seniors also reminded Auguste that they believe in him, and believe he can and will be better.

“At this point in his career, he has done it,” Connaughton said. “We’re going to be on him to do it.”

That means a lot. A whole lot.

“With this team, whether we’re losing or winning, we’re going to stick together and have each other’s backs,” Auguste said. “It’s bigger than me, man.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame junior power forward Zach Auguste looks to bounce back from two sub-par games.SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ

WHO: No. 10 Notre Dame (22-4 overall, 10-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. Wake Forest (12-14, 4-9).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Tuesday at 7 p.m.

TV: ESPNU.

TICKETS: Available.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Wake Forest had possession and a chance to win in the closing seconds Saturday at No. 2 Virginia. Guard Codi Miller-McIntyre then fumbled the ball away without getting a shot off in a 61-60 loss. Miller-McIntyre led the Demon Deacons with 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists. … Wake Forest has lost two of its last three league games. It has victories over Georgia Tech, Miami (Fla.), North Carolina State and Virginia Tech. … The Demon Deacons return three starters off last year’s team that finished 17-16, 6-12 and tied for 13th in the ACC. … Former Kansas and NBA standout Danny Manning is in his first season as head coach after two years at Tulsa. Manning led the Golden Hurricane to a 21-13, 13-3 finish and appearance in the NCAA tournament last season. He replaced Jeff Bzdelik. … The Demon Deacons average 70.7 points and allow 70.3 per game. … Nine players average at least 14 minutes a game. … Power forward Devin Thomas averages 12.3 points and 9.4 rebounds. … Wake Forest leads the all-time series 3-0, including 2-0 last season. … The teams have never met in South Bend. … Notre Dame currently has a one-game lead over Duke for second place in the ACC; Wake Forest is in 12th place. … With his next assist, Irish guard Jerian Grant will become the second player in school history (Chris Thomas) with at least 1,500 points and 600 assists. … Notre Dame has been idle since a Feb. 10 victory at Clemson. … The Irish have won at least 10 league games in 10 of 15 seasons under coach Mike Brey. … Notre Dame is 15-1 at home. … Winners of five of their seven league road games, the Irish return to action Saturday at Boston College.

WORTH QUOTING: “It’s a big game for me; it’s a big game for us. It’s not going to be the same as last game.”

-Notre Dame power forward Zach Auguste on playing Wake Forest, which beat the Irish twice last season.

Three weeks are all that remain in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season as five teams continue to chase the four double-byes in the league tournament.

Following is how the final regular-season schedules break down for the top five teams in the ACC standings.

VIRGINIA (24-1, 12-1)

HOME: Florida State, Virginia Tech

AWAY: Wake Forest, Syracuse, Louisville

NOTRE DAME (22-4, 10-3)

HOME: Wake Forest, Syracuse, Clemson

AWAY: Boston College, Louisville

DUKE (22-3, 9-3)

HOME: North Carolina, Clemson, Syracuse, Wake Forest

AWAY: Virginia Tech, North Carolina

LOUISVILLE (20-5, 8-4)

HOME: Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame, Virginia

AWAY: Syracuse, Georgia Tech, Florida State

NORTH CAROLINA (18-7, 8-4)

HOME: Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Duke

AWAY: Duke, Miami (Fla.), Georgia Tech