Analysis: Notre Dame starts hoops season with serious swagger

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It’s time.

Fall is barely a week old, but college basketball season beckons.

No longer do teams cool their collective heels until mid-October before they break out the basketballs. The NCAA now allow practice to start on the last day of September.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey gave his guys one final weekend away before getting on the daily practice grind that eventually will near triple digits and all the games and travel and wins and losses are done.

It starts for real for the Irish on Monday.

Coming off a combined 56 victories the last two years – most in school history in a two-year swing – Notre Dame enters 2016-17 sporting some serious swagger. The Irish believe more than ever that they belong, especially come March. That’s what happens when you’re the only program in the country to make the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight each of the past two seasons.

How can Notre Dame make a run at its first Final Four since 1978? Following are six questions that will follow it through the upcoming season, which ends in the Arizona desert and the 2017 Final Four.

• Can the Irish again get solid senior leadership?

Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant set a standard that might never be matched during that magical 32-6 season of 2014-15. They were strong. They were steady. Most importantly, they were sure. Of themselves. Of their teammates. Of the program. They were going to be good. They were going to great. Then they backed it all up.

It was a tough senior act for Zach Auguste and Austin Burgett to follow last season. But they maxed it out as Notre Dame won 24 games and again got within one win of the Final Four.

The leadership load falls first on the senior shoulders of team captains V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia. Both took the quietly-confident route their first three years, but those days are over. It’s time to be vocal, to lead as much with their words as with their actions. They’re major-minute, high-volume opportunity guys. But they can’t just be concerned about their own stats. They have to be the best teammates, the best leaders, the best at everything that they’ve ever been.

• What might be one sure sign that the season’s headed toward success?

Seeing two juniors - point guard Matt Farrell and power forward Martinas Geben - introduced as starters deep into Atlantic Coast Conference play.

Both open a year as main guys for the first time, though Farrell was the feel-good story maybe in the country after he fell out of the rotation around midseason before starting all six post-season games.

When Demetrius Jackson jumped to the NBA a year early, the ball became Farrell’s. It’s his show, and he ran with it during the summer. He played more confidently, something that must carry into games.

Notre Dame thrived the last two years with a lead guard (Grant, Jackson) who kept defenses on its collective heels with determined dribble-drives and decision-making. Farrell can be a fine facilitator, but he also cannot settle for giving it up too early and relying on others to make a play.

Geben just has to play. Defend. Rebound. Screen. Then rinse and repeat and repeat and repeat.

Ten of last season’s 11 scholarship players all took bites of the playing-time pie. Geben was the only one who never took a taste. He played 48 total minutes, yet remained confident that his time would come. Now is his time.

Freshman T.J. Gibbs is going to play a lot at guard, maybe even alongside Farrell. Sophomore Elijah Burns is going to challenge for minutes at power forward. But if they’re in place of Farrell and Geben as February nears, or Brey leans a lot on a four-around-one look with junior Bonzie Colson as the lone "big," that means the veterans didn’t do what the veterans in this program are expected to do - deliver.

• What one word needs to continue to be a program constant?


Notre Dame absorbed its share of body blows in 2014-15, but had plenty of punch to win a staggering 15 games away from home. It built on an exhausting double-overtime home win to win barely 48 hours later for the first time in school history at North Carolina. It erased an 18-point deficit to win in overtime at North Carolina State. It beat Duke and North Carolina on consecutive nights on Tobacco Road to win the ACC tournament.

That resiliency resurfaced a year ago. The Irish erased halftime deficits eight times to roar back with wins. That included the first-ever win at Duke after trailing by five at the break in the asylum that is Cameron Indoor Stadium. Notre Dame also was down a dozen to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, then won. It was down by four to Wisconsin before that stunning late-game surge.

The Irish have lost consecutive games only once over the last two years. Home or away, adversity again will surface in some form this season. The Irish need to answer.

• How will the rhythm of the coaching staff work?

Brey always points to the first exhibition (Nov. 1 vs. Mercy) as a chance for his players to see exactly how the pecking order falls when the bright lights are on. Who’s in a key role? Who accepts a different one? How have roles changed?

This year, those questions also include a retooled coaching staff with former Irish standouts Ryan Ayers and Ryan Humphrey, each in their first seasons in South Bend. How will the new staff operate as one during games?

Brey leaned heavily on former Irish assistant Martin Ingelsby, now the head coach at Delaware, to play the part of bench point guard. It was Ingelsby, seated immediately on Brey’s right, who often had the right offensive suggestion at a critical time. Anthony Solomon, now an assistant at Georgetown, saved his best stuff when it was time to motivate individuals during timeouts.

As players, Ayers was more measured, more analytical; Humphrey was all-out emotion and energy. They now work that way on the practice floor. In what ways will Brey look to them in games? Does the in-game role of associate head coach Rod Balanis change? How will having three-time team captain Eric Atkins, now the team’s video coordinator, as an extra pair of eyes at the end of the bench help?

• How has perception become reality?

Simply by doing something – OK, something really BIG – when everyone’s watching.

Prior to 2015, the book on Brey and the Irish was an easy read – solid program that didn’t matter much in March. That’s what happens when you win only six NCAA Tournament games over 14 seasons.

Following consecutive trips to the Elite Eight, the book on Brey and the Irish has added a few storybook chapters. That’s what happens when you win a combined six NCAA Tournament games each of the last two years.

The nation notices.

During the commitment announcement to Notre Dame from DeMatha (Md.) High School senior D.J. Harvey, a television talking head ran through his list of finalists. When the Notre Dame name surfaced, the first comment made was how Brey and Notre Dame go deep in the NCAA Tournament every year.

The Notre Dame name carries some serious cache. Time to take it a step further.

• Can we pencil in an Elite Eight three-peat?

Pricing flights today for Kansas City, Memphis, New York and San Jose (the four cities that host regionals) is way premature. Getting back to the second weekend a third-straight March sits high atop the Irish priority list, but there’s too many twists and turns awaiting to say for sure where the ceiling is for this team.

Nobody saw the Elite Eight coming in 2015 after Notre Dame trailed 43-13 at Duke in early February. Nobody saw it coming in 2016 after Notre Dame played like an NIT team in letting a 16-point lead in the second half get away in a late-December loss to Indiana.

One December setback won’t dictate this season; one gotta-get win in January won’t make it. It’s the longest of hauls. Notre Dame isn’t anywhere near the preseason Top 25. It may be ranked as low as 10th in the ACC. But opportunities await to deliver.

If the book the last two years is an indication, Notre Dame will deliver.

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