Unfinished business awaits Notre Dame men's basketball
Fresh off a season for the ages that saw the Notre Dame men’s basketball team set a modern-day record with 32 victories, capture its first-ever league tournament championship and get within one win of the Final Four for the first time in nearly four decades, one question remains.
Can the Irish repeat this season?
The quick answer? No.
That’s because duplicating it all is not part of the plan.
As fall practice really gets rolling this week in preparation for the 2015-16 season, it’s more about picking up where Notre Dame left off in late March and taking it further than starting from scratch and trying to do it all again. Spring workouts, summer conditioning, even the early fall practices often were tagged on social media with a catch phrase sure to serve as this season’s mantra.
Now barely a week into practice sessions that ultimately will flirt with triple digits, following are six questions and answers about Notre Dame as it prepares to get back on the grind of another college basketball season.
• Who steps into the leadership void vacated by graduated seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant?
The next leader up seeds were sown just before the New Year when coach Mike Brey compared then-sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson to former guard Ben Hansbrough. Both he said, had similar leadership traits. Behind Hansbrough in 2010-11, the Irish went 27-7 and climbed as high as No. 4 in the nation. He was fiery. He was demanding. And he earned his teammates’ leadership trust.
Jackson showed signs (the blowout at Duke, the NCAA tourney win over Butler) of being a lot like Hansbrough with his leadership style. His voice was among the loudest and strongest over the final six weeks. He was fiery. Demonstrative. Demanding. Now it’s going to be on display full-time. He’s a veteran. He’s the point guard. And this is his team.
Jackson has plenty of help in carrying the leadership load. Power forward Zach Auguste returns for a second year as a main guy and has reached a maturity point that Brey didn’t think was possible. He’s also a senior. So is Austin Burgett, whose greatest value has been behind the scenes. That should continue.
It doesn’t all fall on Jackson, but there’s no question he’s driving this train. And as Brey first hinted at nine months ago, he’s going to drive it hard.
Last year’s leaders were phenomenal in their day-to-day approach. But that was last year.
“Jerian and Pat were off-the-charts fabulous for us,” Brey said late this summer. “But there’s the theme of, ‘Yeah, we love them, but let’s be better and let’s go further without them.
“They want to show, well, it wasn’t just those two guys. We’ve got some other guys still here.”
• When was the page turned from last season?
The program absorbed all the accolades of winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and coming so close against Kentucky in the Elite Eight through spring and most of the summer. They received their league championship rings during a private team dinner in early September, and were recognized during the Notre Dame-Texas football game, but Brey was ready for a fresh start around the first week of August.
The ACC tournament championship trophy was on display for photo opportunities during his annual Coaches vs. Cancer golf outing. He smiled with it and told stories about it throughout the day, but by nightfall, he was done reliving how it all unfolded in beating Miami (Fla.), Duke and North Carolina on three consecutive nights in Greensboro, N.C.
“I said, ‘You know, we need to put that thing away now; I’ve seen enough of it,’” Brey said. “It’s great that everyone got to see it, but we all have to move on. We’ve got to move past that.”
• Who needs to do more and deliver more this season?
A year ago, Auguste and Jackson were under the microscope with questions about how each would respond to larger roles and more responsibility as starters. Auguste (12.9 ppg., 6.5 rpg., 61.9 FG percentage) and Jackson (12.4 ppg., 3.6 rpg., 3.1 apg., 34.7 mpg.) enjoyed career years. They needed to become main guys and played like it for the majority of the season. Now they’re potential all-league talents.
The spotlight shifts to juniors V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia, but for different reasons.
Beachem enters his first season as a starter. Somebody needs to step into the role as the main perimeter threat vacated by Connaughton (team-high 93 3-pointers) within the starting unit. Beachem gets the first chance. Few Irish enter the year feeling they have more to prove. Beachem worked last season as the sixth-man in a part-time capacity (14.6 mpg.) and struggled to carve a role in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. He went without a 3-pointer in five of seven games and was scoreless in three of the final four.
Vasturia started all 38 games last season and was scary efficient (10.1 ppg., 3.0 rpg., 1.7 apg., 32.5 mpg.). He always seemed to make the key play at a critical time. He did it as the guy opposing teams seemingly ignored on scouting reports, which often focused on limiting Grant’s looks, keeping Jackson under wraps or neutralizing Auguste and Connaughton around the rim. Vasturia was free to survey everything and pick his spots.
That changes this season. He’s now a known guy who will be expected to offer more – create off the dribble, get to the foul line more, lead and score. Can he handle increased workload and still continue to be his usual, efficient self?
• How is this program viewed from a national perspective after last year’s near-miss?
Not surprisingly, more of a one-year wonder than one that could be on the verge of sustaining something special.
Notre Dame may not be ranked in the nation’s main Top 25 poll – the Associated Press – when it debuts next month, but that’s par for the course. In the last decade, Notre Dame has started a season outside the first AP Top 25 seven times. In six of those, the Irish eventually made the NCAA tournament.
Despite all it did last winter, Notre Dame does not appear in many early rankings. Notre Dame even was picked by one national publication to be around average – with a projected seventh-place finish - in the 15-team ACC.
“We’re all over the board in the preseason stuff,” said Brey, whose teams have averaged 24.2 wins over the last five years. “You can use it a little bit as proving yourself again and coming out of left field again.”
Notre Dame returns five of its top seven from last year’s rotation. It has sophomores ready to do more; it has freshmen talented enough to play sooner rather than later.
Notre Dame should again be really good. Maybe not 32-6 and ACC tournament title good, but good enough to again be a factor into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. And perhaps beyond.
• What about that elephant in the arena?
There’s no way of writing around it or wishing it will stay away until April or May. It’s not among the season's key storylines, but it is there.
Should Jackson enjoy the type of year that everyone expects from him as one of the league’s premier guards and Notre Dame again makes noise in March, the former McDonald’s All-American and Marian High School standout could be the first Irish to jump to the NBA a year early since 2001 when former All-American and two-time Big East player of the year Troy Murphy was an NBA lottery pick.
Way-too-early 2016 NBA draft projections have Jackson slotted as a likely first-round pick. Some have him on the lottery fringe. That’s some select company, company that many wondered if Jackson might ever join. But he’s come a long way in a short time to become that good, even elite.
If everything falls into place for all involved this season, Jackson, like Murphy, might have no decision but to leave. It’s not something that will be addressed on a monthly, weekly or daily basis, but it is something that’s not going to go away.
• Can this group again win and work as one?
Brey often underscored how pure the Irish were last season by telling the rotation tale of sophomore Bonzie Colson and junior Austin Torres. When Torres was in the minutes mix during the early part of the season, there was no bigger cheerleader than Colson, who garnered a half-dozen DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision) through the first 17 games. When opportunity knocked in mid-January, Colson bulldozed his way into being a main guy and remained one the rest of the year. Other than Grant, no Irish may have been more efficient. Colson had no bigger booster than Torres, whose minutes he monopolized.
How does the rotation shake out? Is Burgett finally a main guy? What about Torres? Colson’s expected to start and play major minutes. Sophomore guard Matt Farrell is ready; classmate Martinas Geben is in better shape to handle the long haul. Freshmen Rex Pflueger and Matt Ryan are coming. Quickly.
Brey understands that it may not be as easy as it was last year. Everyone on the back end is going to want more. It’s the way of the college basketball world.
“They’re going, ‘Well, coach, I had a good attitude last year, what do I get this year?’” he said. “That’s part of your group dynamic – staying together, chasing it together. That’s a big, big thing.”