Analysis: Notre Dame thinking Elite Eight again, and beyond

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Everything changes as the Notre Dame men’s basketball program recalibrates from the season that was and reboots for the season that will be.

There will be new roles and new goals. New challenges in the non-league; different hurdles to clear in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

One aspect that won’t change are the expectations of how the Irish should feel when it again all ends.

Each of the last two seasons has concluded with crushing Elite Eight losses. But the way the Irish reached those points were wins. Big wins. They got there last year in going 32-6. They got there this year in going 24-12. They got there by maxing it out.

“When you feel you got the most out of your group, that’s really rewarding for me and my staff,” coach Mike Brey said eight nights ago when it ended in the East Region championship. “Two years in a row, we feel we really got the most out of our group.

“You’ve got a lot of guys coming back that know what that feels like.”

Guys that know they don’t want to feel that way again. Not without at least one additional step, one additional weekend of work.

Following are five storylines worth watching as Notre Dame prepares to do what many once thought was unthinkable – make a three-peat run at the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight. And perhaps, beyond.

Jersey Boys at the point

Former guard Demetrius Jackson pulled a stunner last week when he bounced from potential NBA draft hopeful to college dropout in less than 48 hours. Though his exit strategy was a surprise, leaving early was not.

The Irish coaching staff anticipated such a scenario. It’s why incoming point guard Temple (T.J.) Gibbs of Seton Hall (N.J.) Prep was the gotta-have, No. 1 guy in this recruiting class.

A four-star, first team all-state selection, the 6-foot-3 Gibbs averaged 20.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.4 steals his senior season. He may not have Jackson’s prep pedigree, but Gibbs may be every bit as talented. Expecting Gibbs to start the minute he arrives for summer school may be a stretch in April, but don’t be surprised if the ball is in his hands and in it a lot by the time conference play rolls around.

While the rookie gets ready, and maybe even after he is, the show turns over to sophomore Matt Farrell. The Bridgewater, N.J., native went from a frustrated potential transfer candidate through a chunk of league play (12.3 minutes per game) to key guy during the NCAA Tournament run (26.7 mpg.). He seemed a different player than the one who languished on the bench through winter. More sure of himself. Confident. Even a bit cocky.

The Irish offense should be in capable hands with both.

Who mans the middle?

Zach Auguste departs with 26 career double doubles for points and rebounds in his hip pocket. The 6-10 power forward may have played as well as any big man in the country the last six weeks. Who jumps into his vacated spot (29.6 minutes a game) is a question without an answer. For now.

Notre Dame remains involved with five-star unsigned prospects Jarrett Allen (6-9, 210, Austin, Texas) and Thon Maker (7-1, 218, Sudan). Getting an accurate, I-know-how-this-will-go read on how Notre Dame fits into the plans of each is like trying to decipher Chinese Mandarin in an afternoon.

Allen didn’t inform the Irish coaching staff of his wish to make an official campus visit last fall until about an hour before his commercial flight left Texas. That Maker’s prep teammate, guard Nikola Djogo, is headed to Notre Dame matters little. Maker is a one-and-done guy, but where do academics rank on the priority scale?

Opening door No. 3 – a graduate transfer big man who would be eligible right away – could be the safest route, but also the trickiest. Adding an experienced scorer/relentless rebounder/rim protector/finisher may be this program’s missing piece, but said big guy would have to mesh seamlessly into a veteran locker room that’s won a school-record 56 games the last two years. That’s a slippery big-man slope.

Beachem could just be getting started

Needing to deliver last month, the senior- and captain-to-be did that and more.

Beachem showed flashes early in the year – in Orlando, against Indiana, at Syracuse. But nothing about those snapshots of special mattered if he didn’t do it in March.

He did it in March. Beachem was arguably the team most valuable player during Notre Dame’s foray through the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA tournaments. He averaged 15.0 points and 1.5 rebounds in two conference tourney games, then kicked it into another gear and went for 17.5 points and 4.0 rebounds in the four NCAA contests.

He didn’t shrink from the spotlight. He thrived. Watch the baseline drive and windmill dunk he delivered against North Carolina. Afterward, he gives the Tar Heel bench a stare-down. That’s something he wouldn’t have dreamed of doing his first two years.

That’s a testament to how far his game has gone. And can go. He’s becoming more than a spot-up shooter, more than a quiet, fit-in guy. He’s learning to trust his myriad talents.

Jackson could give the program consecutive first-round NBA draft picks this June. Should Beachem continue on his current career arc, it’s not out of the question he makes it three in a row in June 2017.

More, please

Freshmen Rex Pflueger and Matt Ryan each had a bite of the playing-time apple this season. Now it’s time for both to take an even bigger bite.

In many ways, each was a one-trick pony. That likely was not by their own doing, maybe more of what the program needed at that time.

Pflueger (2.3 ppg.) became the defensive perimeter stopper. He rarely looked to get something for himself on offense. As he sent him to the scorer’s table early in the North Carolina game, coach Mike Brey reminded Pflueger not to be shy about looking for his shot. He never took one. His lone bucket in NCAA play was the tip-in of an Auguste miss against Stephen F. Austin that sent Notre Dame to the Sweet 16.

When Pflueger’s offensive game catches up to his defense, watch out. He’ll send fans into a frenzy the first time he gets a breakaway look at the rim. You’ve been warned.

Ryan (5.1 ppg.) needs to develop a counter move to his calling card – the 3-point shot. When that wasn’t falling (37.4 percent) or opponents ran him off the line, Ryan couldn’t adjust. Time to add a few escape dribbles into a mid-range jumper or get all the way to the rim.

Defensively, the door’s wide open for the 6-9 Ryan. If he can consistently rebound the way he did early in the year against Georgia Tech (career-high seven), he might never leave the floor.

This season offered both the opportunity to get their feet, but both now have to dive into the deep end of the college basketball pool. They can. And likely will.

Exceed the standard

When 2015 ended with the near-miss to Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final, silence dominated the Notre Dame locker room inside Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland. All of it was so new to a program that had advanced to an Elite Eight for the first time since 1979 that nobody knew how to feel. Be mad? Be sad?

It was a different scene eight days ago inside Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. There was a lot of emotion. Heartache. Heck, tears flowed from Ryan while still back on the bench late in the North Carolina game.

That loss cut this core deep. The returning Irish have won a school-record six NCAA tournament games the last two springs and want more.

Getting to the tournament’s second weekend no longer is the baseline standard.

#Notdoneyet was the program motto this year. Expect the mantra again when October arrives.

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame's V.J. Beachem (3) tries to block a shot by North Carolina's Brice Johnson (11) during the NCAA regional finals on March 27 in Philadelphia. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)