When in Rome

Every four years, the NCAA allows college programs to take an international tour during the off-season. It gives teams an extra 10 days in the gym together before leaving, followed by a overseas trip which they also practice and compete against local teams. Plus, if freshmen are declared eligible by the NCAA clearinghouse and complete summer school classes, they’re allowed join in on the trip.

Note: THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE WINTER 2014 ISSUE OF IRISH EYES MAGAZINE

This year, the Irish men’s basketball squad traveled to Italy in early August for some extra hoops, and a little bit of education as well. The 10-day tour included four games, all of which Notre Dame won, and visits to (among other things) the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel and the Ferrari Museum. And head coach Mike Brey thinks it came at just the right time.

“(This trip) was important because we are probably younger than we’ve ever been in my time (at Notre Dame),” he noted. “So to get this trip in and the practices was very helpful. I think we got a head start on our leadership and just being together. Between the trip and practices, we were in the gym together about 21 times. So it was just a great experience for our basketball team, and what an educational experience too. There are only three kids on my team who have been out of the country, so to be in another culture is such an experience. I think all of them at the end were like, ‘Coach, that was the trip of a lifetime,’ and it truly was.

“I wish the competition had been a little better but the other side of that was that I was able to play everybody freely and not worry about losing a game. I could just run guys through different lineups and just evaluate our personnel.”

The biggest key to any success the Irish will have in 2014-15 is Jerian Grant, the 6-5, 202-pound senior guard who missed 20 games last season while sitting out the spring semester due to an academic violation. Notre Dame was 8-4 through the first 12 games in which Grant jumped to the front of the pack as the leading scorer. In their final 20 games without him, the Irish limped to a 7-13 mark and were ousted in the first round of the ACC tournament. The off-season trip gave Grant a chance to play some games and re-connect with his teammates on the court.

One of those guys is Pat Connaughton, the 6-5, 214-pound swingman and only other senior on the team. The Massachusetts native was taken in the fourth round of the 2014 major league baseball draft by the Baltimore Orioles, and spent part of June and July pitching for the Aberdeen IronBirds, the Class A Orioles’ affiliate. Not only will Connaughton be counted on for his scoring prowess (he was the team’s third-leading scorer last year with 13.8 ppg), but also for his ability to rebound (he averaged 7.1 rpg and was second only to the now-departed Garrick Sherman’s 7.3 rpg).

“It certainly starts with Grant and Connaughton, our two returning seniors,” Brey stated. “They’ve started a lot of basketball games and have been very consistent and very well-thought of basketball players. They’ve set the tone. Jerian coming back has gone very well and the foreign tour was very helpful because he got to play games again and play with kind of a new nucleus. So it starts with those two guys, and I think they are two of the best returning players in the ACC.”

Another key component will be the play of sophomore guard Steve Vasturia, who had a very solid rookie season. He averaged just 5.0 ppg, but logged 23 minutes per outing and earned a starting spot in the lineup for 12 games.

“Another guy that’s maybe in the same class with those two guys even though he’s only a sophomore is Steve Vasturia. “With the year that he had last year individually and then what he did for us this summer, I almost think of him as a guy who’s been in our program three years instead of just one. He’s very consistent. He’s our best perimeter defender. He’s got a great feel for the game. He’s got good size (at 6-5 and 207 pounds). So he’s kind of established himself as kind of a veteran already as a sophomore.”

Rounding out Brey’s starting five for the trip was sophomore point guard Demetrius Jackson (6-1, 195) and junior guard Zach Auguste (6-10, 242). The duo started 15 and 13 games, respectively, last season, and Auguste had flashes of what he’s capable of doing while Jackson was learning to handle the reigns of the team. Brey wanted them to make improvements during the off-season, and the trip was a big contributing factor in accomplishing that goal.

“Two guys that we needed to make jumps this summer in Italy, and I think they did, were Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson,” Brey commented. “They both started every game over there. I thought Demetrius…one of the reasons our defense has improved is his ball pressure. He’s able to pressure the ball really unlike anybody we’ve ever had here in a long time, and he did that unselfishly. Then his decisions with the ball were smoother and cleaner. He didn’t turn it over as much, which is an area that we talked about in the spring that he needed to improve on. He got more comfortable in his role, which is to pressure the ball, spearhead our defense, run our team and make good decisions. Everything else is kind of gravy, and I think that’s a good role for him.

“The biggest thing we wanted Zach to do was slow down a bit. He got himself into trouble early in his career when he played too fast or becomes overly emotional. I think we’re making progress in that area. There are still some times when he can get going too fast and that’s usually when he makes a mistake. But his tempo was better and I thought he ran the floor and rebounded well although he still needs to improve defensively.”

Beyond what will most likely be Brey’s starting five once the season commences, the Irish will be largely young and inexperienced…a departure from the usual veteran squads Brey puts on the court and, thus, allowing him to slowly bring along his youngsters. This season, a pair of sophomores, V.J. Beachem and Austin Torres will play key roles. The 6-8, 187-pound Beachem, who hails from Fort Wayne, and 6-7, 218-pound Torres, from nearby Mishawaka, give Notre Dame some needed size around the basket.

“We came off the bench quickly with V.J. Beachem who gave us a great shot in the arm,” Brey noted. “He’s a shot maker but still needs to get better as a defender, although he can rebound for us with his length. One of the pleasant surprises of the trip was Austin Torres, the red-shirt freshman with his athletic ability and his activity around the basket?offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, shot-blocking and athletic energy plays. A real spark that we need to keep developing.”

Juniors Eric Katenda, who has completely recovered from a knee injury, and Austin Burgett received plenty of playing time as did the three frosh - forwards Martin Geben and Bonzie Colson and guard Matt Farrell.

“Martin will be counted on to spell Zach Auguste, and he was able to get comfortable in a role of just defend and rebound and get people open by screening well. Bonzie Colson is one of those guys…I don’t know what position he plays but he’s always around the ball. And Matt Farrell, our young point guard, got more comfortable pressuring the ball and running the team. He and Demetrius were kind of sharing those duties.”

Without doubt, though, everyone will need to make contributions if this year’s squad is going to successfully navigate another challenging schedule

“If you look at the non-league games, I love the challenge of UMass and Providence, who were NCAA tournament teams with Providence being the Big East Tournament champion,” Brey noted. “That’s a great test for us basically in front of their fans. We have two great home games for our fans and our program with Michigan State and Florida State in December. Those will be key wins for us if we can get them. That would really give a young team some confidence before Christmas.

“Plus, we have the Crossroads (Classic in Indianapolis versus Purdue in December). I love that atmosphere down there. Then we have the ACC, which only gets tougher with Louisville coming into the league. We’d like to get back to what we had going in the Big East with the home-court advantage after going 5-4 at home (in the conference) last year.

“So we’ve got a big schedule, but we had some extra opportunities to get things going on the trip, and I think we’re off to a good start on who we are as a team.”

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