Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson grow into team MVPs

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

They each struggled as underclassmen to figure out the ways of the college basketball world, but eventually understood as upperclassmen how to channel frustration into focus.

Leader-like focus.

Winning-time focus.

They led. And they won.

A lot.

And on Monday, they each walked off with a share of top honors to cap “An Evening with Notre Dame Basketball,” a two-hour celebration of another Irish men’s season that ended with another trip to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight.

Senior power forward Zach Auguste and junior guard Demetrius Jackson, who will bypass his senior season for the NBA, were key reasons why Notre Dame was the only school of out 351 in Division I to make trips to the Elite Eight each of the last two years. They were key reasons why the Irish won a school-record 56 games the last two years.

As a result, both earned Notre Dame Monogram Club most valuable player honors.

It was the second-straight season that a pair of Irish shared the season’s biggest individual award. A year ago, seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, were co-MVPs after driving Notre Dame to a 32-6 finish. That included the school’s first-ever Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship.

This winter, it was Auguste and Jackson who pushed Notre Dame to a 24-12 record. That included the school’s first-ever win at Cameron Indoor Stadium and three memorable victories (Michigan, Stephen F. Austin, Wisconsin), in the NCAA Tournament, capped by Jackson’s one-man magic act in the closing seconds against Wisconsin.

“He made you believe,” Irish coach Mike Brey said of Jackson. “It was on display and then some against Wisconsin.”

Former Irish standout Pat Garrity, treasurer of the Notre Dame Monogram Club, presented Auguste and Jackson with their MVPs.

Both were long ways away from any individual honors as underclassmen. Both just hoped to survive to one day be upperclassmen.

Expecting a break-out sophomore season, Auguste instead spent nearly six weeks on the sideline when he let his temper get the best of him during an October practice. Unable to properly channel his emotions, something he would do time and again this season, Auguste slammed his left hand into a nearby wall during a practice in “The Pit.” He wound up breaking the hand, which derailed any serious shot he had of starting the season as a starter.

“I will miss his passion; I will miss his emotion,” Brey said. “He’s come a long way.”

Auguste saved his best for last as a senior. He finished this season with 22 double-doubles for points and rebounds, including three of four NCAA Tournament games. He led the ACC in rebounding (10.7) and averaged a career-best 14.0 ppg.

“It’s been crazy; it’s been a fun ride,” Auguste said. “It’s been a special two years.”

Auguste wishes it would be three.

“Still kind of hungry, wish I could go back one more year, try to get that Final Four run,” he said. “But, hey, I’ll take it. I’m blessed and humbled by this.”

And that day his left hand met that immovable object?

“The wall just happened to get in my way when I was getting mad,” he joked.

Jackson’s struggles surfaced just over the midway point of his freshman season. Expected to spend his first year as the third guard in a veteran backcourt led by senior captain Eric Atkins, Jackson was instead thrown into a larger role after Grant was separated from the university for the spring semester following an “academic misstep.”

Was Jackson a lead guard? Scoring guard? Combo guard? It all proved too much to sort out. The more he tried, the more his academics slipped. It reached a point where Brey forced Jackson to spend a week away from the team. The two would meet in The Pit for late-night shooting sessions that became more heart-to-heart talks about life than breakdown basketball drills.

Never did Jackson think he’d leave school barely two years later as a team MVP.

“It was a lot harder to visualize that, but always having that belief in myself,” Jackson said. “It’s been a great ride. It’s been awesome.”

As a junior, Jackson led the Irish in scoring (15.8), assists (4.68) and steals (1.2). He was second in minutes (36.0). Two weeks to the day earlier, he announced plans to jump to the NBA, where he could well be a high first-round draft pick come June.

Even now, he cannot believe that this chapter in his life is over. Felt like just yesterday he was choosing Notre Dame as a prep senior at Marian High School. Now he’s going into the real world. The working world.

“It’s gone by fast,” Jackson said. “Just enjoy your time here, enjoy the process and trust it.”

Jackson also took home the outstanding playmaker award. Other major award winners from Monday include V.J. Beachem (most improved), Martinas Geben (Notre Dame Club of St. Joseph Valley Rockne-Student Athlete Award) and Steve Vasturia, who earned defensive player of the year honors for the second-straight season.

• Power forward A.J. Burgett almost made good on a pre-ceremony promise to limit his senior speech to two words – thank you – before needing all of 47 seconds offer his thoughts. Burgett has already hired an agent – the same one former Irish power forward Tom Knight used during his brief professional career – and plans to play overseas next season.

• Turning the page comes quickly for an Irish core that will center around Beachem, Bonzie Colson and Vasturia next season. Notre Dame holds its first spring workout Tuesday at 7 p.m.

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Both struggled as underclassmen, but both Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson leave Notre Dame as team most valuable players after another special season.Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN