Big, best season beckon Notre Dame senior Zach Auguste

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

A career year when everything he did on the basketball court seemed to fall into place is considered a starting spot rather than an exclamation point for Notre Dame senior power forward Zach Auguste.

There’s a ways to go and more to do for the Marlborough, Mass., native.

Auguste spent his first two seasons scrambling and struggling to figure out how he fit. He wanted to play more minutes, wanted to do more in the open floor in transition, wanted to be that main post presence, wanted it all but didn’t understand that it’s all a process. Sometimes, it was a painful one.

Auguste experienced more downs than ups those first two years. He spent his freshman year looking over his shoulder as veterans Jack Cooley, Garrick Sherman and Tom Knight monopolized many of the low-post minutes. Auguste had a few moments, but one poor possession usually had him headed back to the bench.

As a sophomore, August wanted almost it too badly. A key chunk of preseason was missed after he smacked one of the padded walls in The Pit and suffered a broken left hand.

As a junior, Auguste finally relaxed and realized that he could be a factor as a major-minutes guy. The results were impressive. The 6-foot-10 Auguste played in 37 of 38 games with 36 starts. He averaged career bests for points (12.9) rebounds (6.5) and minutes (24.4). He shot a career-best 61.9 percent from the field, second in the Atlantic Coast Conference behind only league player of the year and eventual NBA lottery pick Jahlil Okafor.

Now with the clock ticking late in his collegiate career, Auguste has to do it again and again and again. As good as he was for stretches last season — particularly in postseason when he averaged 14.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in seven games, including a 20-point, nine-rebound effort against Kentucky — he has to be even better.

Auguste believes he will.

“I have that chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I realize that every game really counts now. You can’t take anything for granted.

“I have no choice but to go as hard as I can.”

Yet still keep it simple. Auguste struggled his first two seasons because he often was left in knots pressing to figure it all out. One bad possession, one missed shot, one poor decision off a double team would leave Auguste so flustered and frustrated that it would affect the next play and the next play and the next one after that.

Mike Brey often chose not to play him because the coach couldn’t trust him. Those were days, Brey said, when Auguste fought the game, wrestled with the swings between good and bad, sparred with emotions. And it cost him.

“I’ve grown from that,” Auguste said.

Auguste played well last season because he embraced the good and the bad and just played.

“That’s why he’s amazingly productive,” Brey said. “He now knows to simplify and concentrate on a few things, whereas his mind used to wander through a lot of things as a young player.

“He’s another example of a guy in our program who has made progress through the years and has grown up.”

Auguste’s marching orders this season are simple — rebound and roll, then roll and rebound. And above all else, defend the post. He still should shoot a high percentage because many of his looks are right at the rim. He will have the chance to improve his free throw percentage (63.6 percent last season) because he’ll likely make many trips to the line as the main low-post threat.

“He doesn’t have to reinvent himself,” Brey said.

There’s also the expectation that Auguste can deliver a steady string of double-doubles for points and rebounds. He finished last season with four. Brey believes he should hit for at least 10 and 10 each time out.

“I want to take that in and out every night,” Auguste said of the double-double challenge. “I’m not going to focus too much on the points because that will come with the rebounds. If I can get 10 rebounds, I should be able to get 10 points.”

No returning Irish was more connected to last year’s seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant than Auguste. On the court, Auguste and Grant were a lethal pick-and-roll combination. Turning the corner off an Auguste screen, Grant often found the big man rolling hard to the hoop for dunks and layups.

Off the court, Auguste spent endless hours with Connaughton and Grant, who preached to him night after night about how much the team needed him to be really good if they were going to be really good.

In many ways, they pushed and pulled him like big brothers. He followed them, looked up to them and played to please them as a thanks for believing in his game. And in him.

“They’re gone and moved on and doing their thing in the league now,” Auguste said the NBA rookies. “These are my guys right here. I’m focused on here and now with my brothers.”

A weekend away from those brothers allowed Auguste to grow even more confident in his game. Working as a counselor for the four-day adidas Nation Global 2015 in Long Beach, Calif., Auguste played pickup against and with the likes of Anthony Barber (North Carolina State), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Brice Johnson (North Carolina), Georges Niang (Iowa State) and Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga).

Those guys were good in games, as was Auguste.

“I can play at that level,” he said. “It was just a matter of me showing it.”

That this is Auguste’s last run of college basketball finally hit him last week during the team’s media day when he was taking the annual senior picture with Brey and classmate Austin Burgett. He’s guaranteed only so many more games. It’s crazy, Auguste, thought, how fast the time has gone, how he’s come such a long way. As much as he accomplished last year, Auguste believes there’s still more to do.

His best season beckons.

“I’m a lot more confident and focused and determined,” he said. “What I did last year is a sign of what’s to come.”

Torres on the mend

Asked last week if he envisioned an expanded role for former Penn High School standout Austin Torres from the one he played last season as the hustle/rebound/energy guy for short bursts off the bench, Brey didn’t hesitate in offering a succinct answer.

“Nope.”

That role will be different in one regard for Torres, who averaged 2.0 points and 1.6 rebounds in 7.1 minutes last season. The 6-7, 234-pound junior may miss up to a month with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

Torres is wearing a full brace on his left leg and is on crutches. It's the same knee he underwent arthroscopic surgery on prior to his freshman season, which he sat out to preserve a year of eligibility.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame power forward Zach Auguste had a bust-out junior year, and wants to be even better as a senior.SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ