Fifth-ranked Virginia will test Notre Dame's patience, poise

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Everything about a Notre Dame men’s basketball practice one day last month unfolded in its usual, business-like routine until one possession during a five-on-five drill shredded the status quo.

Straying from the script, coach Mike Brey instructed two members of the blue (reserves) team to immediately double team power forward Zach Auguste every time he touched the ball in the low post. The blues crowded him. Pushed him. Smothered him. Even fouled him. Anything and everything to get Auguste flustered and frustrated and unsure of what to do.

It worked. Auguste threw it away a couple times while doing a slow boil in knowing he had to be better.

Next couple of possessions, the blues did the same with junior point guard Demetrius Jackson. Doubled him. Hedged hard on screens set by an Irish big near the top of the key. Denied Jackson the ball after he gave it up. Didn’t let him go where he wanted to go with his dribble.

Like with Auguste, Jackson played flustered for several possessions. He was frazzled and outwardly frustrated.

In a way, the head coach couldn’t have been happier.

The start of Atlantic Coast Conference play was weeks away, but Brey wanted his two captains, his two main guys, the two that will top every league opponent’s scout to understand what lay ahead. Get used to it, Brey counseled Auguste and Jackson. Come league play, which starts Saturday with a visit by Notre Dame (9-3) to No. 5 Virginia (11-1), they’re going to see a whole lot of it game in and game out, week in and week out.

Keeping their composure while solving that constant stream of double-team pressures is the new normal.

“They’re going to come after those two guys,” Brey said. “Whatcha got, fellas? We have to get them more mentally ready for that and not to be affected or not to feel, ‘I’m not getting a shot’ or force something.”

In preparation last month to play Indiana, which likes to change ends as fast as anyone, Brey dusted off an old but good transition defensive drill he leaned on to slow Connecticut during the old days in the Big East. He still refers to it as the “Connecticut transition drill.” Notre Dame also has a specific drill designed to prepare for another former Big East colleague, Georgetown. Think of this exercise that the Irish have done every so often in practice in preparation for Saturday’s league opener as the “Virginia frustration drill.”

“That segment is really important to develop the mental toughness and to really put those two guys in the heat of the battle, which they will be in a lot after the New Year,” Brey said. “They’re marked men.”

The first few times Auguste and Jackson had to handle it, it lived up to its name. Frustration often won out. But as they’ve come to understand that both are key guys — take them away and teams feel they can take the Irish away — both have accepted that they have to look to make an easy decision against any hard defensive look.

“It’s just making the simple play,” said Jackson. “It’s not always going to be a thread-the-needle pass. It’s keeping it simple and making plays and being smart.”

And continuing to play through the certain frustration that will surface. Auguste did that Tuesday at home against Liberty. Flames coach Ritchie McKay, who had spent the previous six seasons as an assistant at Virginia, implemented many of the defensive principles of the Cavaliers against Auguste. That included doubling the post.

Auguste committed four turnovers but remained focused enough to keep doing his job. He scored 13 points and tied his career high with 14 rebounds. The defensive looks he sees Saturday will be similar to Tuesday, but with a twist. The Cavaliers are more talented, more athletic, just better than the Flames.

That’s OK by Auguste.

“It’s a great test,” he said. “I take on that challenge.”

Patience has to be part of his plan. Auguste cannot panic when he sees a double descending. That will lead to a rushed kickout to a teammate who may not yet be in position to receive the pass. He can get into his post move quicker and not allow the double team to set up. Or he can allow the double to come, wait for V.J. Beachem or Steve Vasturia or Jackson rotate to their spot, then give them a quick look before reposting.

Most important for Auguste is to sloooooow dooooown.

“I’ve learned the hard way that if you’re not patient with it, you can definitely turn the ball over quickly and easily,” he said.

That patience also pertains to Jackson, who at times this season has in Brey’s terms “run the building” like former All-ACC first team guard Jerian Grant did last season. Virginia likely won’t allow him an opportunity to do that Saturday. That’s also fine as long he doesn’t try to force an issue.

Foul trouble limited Jackson’s ability to constantly handle the ball last month at Illinois. But once he picked up his third early in the second half, Jackson moved off the ball. That allowed sophomore Matt Farrell and Vasturia to initiate the offense while Jackson became even more of a problem for the opposition. He finished with 21 points and four assists.

Conference play raises all the stakes. Just being good enough like they were at Illinois might not be good enough for an Irish team that continues to search for an identity — just how good is this Notre Dame team? How good can it be?

Playing well against a team it has had zero success (0-3) or answers for (average margin of defeat 14 points) the previous two years would be a massive step for this core. It’s not going to be easy. Easy’s over. It’s going to be a whole lot of tough stuff — frustration-drill tough — from here on out.

Are these Irish tough enough?

As leaders, as captains, as THE main guys, it’s up to Auguste and Jackson to drive this train through the ups and downs, regardless of what’s going on with their games, regardless of what defenses are doing to demoralize them.

“We’ve got to bring our best every single night on both ends of the floor,” Jackson said. “We’ve got to make plays. We can’t just hope for a win; we’ve got to go out and make things happen to win games.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame's Zach Auguste gets the ball stripped away from him by Youngstown State's Francisco Santiago during a basketball game at Purcell Pavilion on December 21, 2015. SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES

WHO: Notre Dame (9-3) vs. No. 5 Virginia (11-1).

WHERE: John Paul Jones Arena (14,593), Charlottesville, Va.

WHEN: Saturday at 5 p.m.

TV: ESPN2.

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: This matchup features the teams that won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season (Virginia) and tournament (Notre Dame) championships last season. Virginia has finished first in the league the last two years. … Virginia has won 10 straight games since its loss at George Washington. That includes a victory at Ohio State and home win over No. 16 Villanova. … The Cavaliers are 6-0 at home. … Virginia returns three starters off last year’s team that finished 30-4, 16-2 in the ACC. The Cavaliers lost in the third round of the NCAA tournament to Michigan State. … Virginia was picked this preseason to finish second in the league; Notre Dame was picked fourth. … A first team all-league selection and co-player of the year in preseason, guard Malcolm Brogdon leads the Cavaliers in scoring (16.2). … Virginia averages 75.6 points per game and allows 59.1. … Virginia leads the all-time series 8-1. The Cavaliers have won eight in a row, including 2-0 in Charlottesville, since a 57-56 Irish victory on Feb. 21, 1981 at the Rosemont (Ill.) Horizon. … Notre Dame begins league play with two straight road games (next up Thursday at Boston College) for the first time in three years in the ACC and the first time since 2008-09. … Notre Dame has a chance to beat a team ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll on the road for the first time since 2010-11, when it won at No. 2 Pittsburgh.

WORTH QUOTING: “They’re really disciplined and always so sharp and so crisp. They don’t make mistakes. We can’t be turning the ball over, and have to be as sharp as we can be.”

-Notre Dame junior guard Demetrius Jackson on Virginia.