Zach Auguste able to find switch for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH – Not only can the day of Zach Auguste’s metamorphosis be pinpointed.

The precise time can be targeted.

Think back to a near-dreadful Sunday evening in late January. The Notre Dame men’s basketball team was struggling at North Carolina State. Down by 18 in the first half and 12 at intermission.

It seemed grim. Auguste, a 6-foot-10, 242-pound junior, was supposed to be the Irish inside presence. That wasn’t working out so well.

At the break, he had two points on 1-of-5 shooting (three missed layups), six rebounds and one block.

Then, according to Irish assistant Rod Balanis, who is in charge of the post players, a light bulb went off: 4-of-4 shooting, eight points and five boards gave Auguste a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) and helped Notre Dame to an overtime victory.

Since then, the bulb has been burning brightly.

“The second half of the NC State game, he made some simple decisions; made some good plays; made some good decisions out of the post,” Balanis said, looking back at a turning point as the Irish prepared for Thursday’s NCAA Tourney debut against Northeastern. “Ever since that point, he’s been a rock to count on. That was hard to say at the beginning of the year.

“We had some comebacks before that, but to do that against a team that’s in the NCAA Tournament, that was a key turning point.”

“We needed some rebounding,” Auguste said as he dusted off the memories of Raleigh. “It was me playing to the best of my abilities. We didn’t want to go somewhere and get embarrassed.”

Since the rescue at North Carolina State, Auguste averaged 10.3 points and 4.5 rebounds over the regular-season’s final 10 games. In three Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament wins he averaged 11.7 points and 9.3 rebounds. Overall for the season his numbers are 12.4 and 6.3.

“Zach Auguste has got more than an edge, and he controlled it better,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “He was fabulous (at the ACC Tournament) and went to a whole other level, defending the post against (Duke’s Jahlil) Okafor,”

Auguste has the distinction of being the only big man in the country who has gone toe-to-toe with Okafor three times.

“(Auguste) did a great job on Okafor (in the ACC Tournament),” said Balanis. “I know Okafor had 28 (points), but he’s going to be the No. 1 pick in the (NBA) draft. He didn’t give him anything easy. He made him catch (a pass) out; he made him shoot over a strong chest.

“When he does that with normal people besides Okafor, it’s been very effective.”

“It was a great learning experience for me to go against (Okafor three times),” Auguste said. “It made me better every time I played him. After going against him, I can go against anybody.

“I was determined (in the ACC Tournament rematch). I had something to prove (after playing just 13 minutes in the blowout loss at Duke). The second time, I lost sight of what I needed to do defensively. Focusing on the defensive end helped me.”

That experience should pay off for Auguste Thursday when he matches up against Northeastern big man Scott Eatherton. The 6-8, 234-pound fifth-year senior averaged 14.6 points and 6.4 rebounds this season.

Regarded as the best post in the Colonial Athletic Association, the book on Eatherton is that he can function comfortably on the high post or low, meaning Auguste will have to use his athletic ability in his defense.

“(One of the) key areas where he’s really, really becoming better is as a low-post defender,” said Balanis. “Early in the year, he was almost a little bit of a liability in regards to protecting the rim and being able to guard post guys; contesting, getting guys to catch (a pass) a little further out.

“(Offensively), he’s done a fabulous job with his decisions on the post. He has had some unbelievable passes out of the post. He has not taken the ‘flier’ jump-hook. His efficiency is just off the charts.”

“I focus on trying to stay consistent on both ends,” Auguste said. “I have great teammates, great brothers, who make me accountable to stay on my game.”

“This is (Auguste’s) first year of being a main guy,” Balanis said. “He’s understood that with the development of this team and where it’s going, that if he just keeps it simple, good things are going to happen.

“It takes a process. It doesn’t happen overnight.

“He has as much talent as (any of the top Irish big men of the last 15 years). He really does. It’s just a matter of getting his mind right – that he has that much talent and to use it in the right way.

“It doesn’t happen overnight, especially with big guys.

“The last four or five games, he’s starting to rebound the ball. Pat (Connaughton) can’t get every rebound. The 13 rebounds Zach got in the (ACC Tourney) championship game (against North Carolina) were huge.”

The light bulb can’t go dim now.

A connected, engaged Zach Auguste has been a good Zach Auguste of late for the No. 8 Notre Dame men's baksetball team.AP File Photo/BOB LEVERONE