Who, and What, to Watch: Irish Hoops

O'Malley offers a six-pack of season-relevant questions for tonight's season-opening contest against Binghamton.

1.) Who is Binghamton? And Who Else is on Tap? Not a team to worry about, or at least not if worrying about Mike Brey's Fighting Irish is among your winter hobbies. Head coach Tommy Dempsey's Bearcats finished 7-23 in the America East last season and though his solid shooting crew could find a bit of an offensive rhythm from beyond the arc tonight, slowing the Irish will be a tall task.

Notre Dame has three contests over the next five days but its first game of note will be played Nov. 22 at noon when the Irish take on Massachusetts at the Mohegan Sun Arena (Uncasville, Conn.). A date with former Big East rival Providence follows 26 hours later.

A date with Michigan State looms on Dec. 3. If the Irish lose to anyone else prior to a Dec. 13 ACC opener with Florida State, it's a very, very bad sign of things to come.

2.) Where are Auguste and Jackson compared to last March? Starting, for one thing, both by default and by merit. The latter conclusion must prove true -- Demetrius Jackson was a five-star prospect entering his rookie season of 2013 but he struggled throughout, deferring often to senior Eric Atkins and rarely flashing the form that earned McDonald's All-America honors for his work at nearby Mishawaka Marian (Mishawaka, Ind.).

Brey believes Jackson can rank among the best in the ACC at pressuring opposing point guards. If true, it would do wonders for Notre Dame's half-court defense.

After breaking his hand in the pre-season last year (never punch a wall, the wall will always win), Zach Auguste struggled early but showed potential in wins against Indiana, Canisius (overtime), Duke, North Carolina State, Clemson, and in Chapel Hill against North Carolina. He rose to the occasion, but rarely at a consistent level.

At 6'10" 240 pounds with leaping ability, coordination, and quality shooting form, Brey and the Irish need the program's oft-reference third-year light to go off for the Massachusetts native.

3.) Is Grant as good as advertised? Much of last year's face plant is blamed on the loss of Jerian Grant in late December to "an academic misstep." ("Academic Dishonesty" was not yet patented as the preferred wording by the powers that be.) But it's worth noting the Irish were just 8-4 with Grant, including home losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State.

That's not NCAA Tournament material, either.

Since his return, Grant was recently named to Jay Bilas' "Perfect College Basketball Team" as the starting off guard, and offered by Brey as one of the best players in the ACC. The league's coaches voted him the same.

Now after more than two seasons of intermittent big shots in clutch moments and flashes of offensive brilliance, it's incumbent upon Grant to take the final step in his development -- that is, play at an All-American level.

This question won't be answered tonight, of course, but Grant's march toward redemption coincides with Notre Dame's march toward meaningful games in March -- neither can afford missteps in November/December.

4.) Who else? Burgett, Beachem, Bonzie?

To the uninitiated -- and that's likely every college football fan reading this article wondering why I've yet to mention Cam McDaniel -- that's junior Austin Burgett, sophomore V.J. Beachem, and freshman Bonzie Colson.

The latter is said to be Notre Dame's best natural rebounder (6'5" 222 pounds) while the middle name, Beachem, is the first wing off the bench and a part-time contributor last season. Listed first among the trio, Austin Burgett is a modern "Swing-4" hopeful -- i.e., a power forward that can stretch the court with his shooting ability.

That remains to be seen, but Burgett proved last season he can impact a game as a weak side shot-blocker (ask Jabari Parker) and occasionally offer aid on the glass.

Two from the trio must develop by the time conference play gets into full swing in January if the Irish are to contend for a top six ACC finish -- one of the three must if they're to survive and reach .500 in league action.

Said Brey of Colson after eight training camp practices, "“We have an efficiency point system. Number one through eight practices was Jerian Grant. Number two was Bonzie Colson, because he’s rebounding the heck out of the ball…He's 6'5" but his wingspan is 6'11"…All I know is, he gets rebounds."

If he keeps it up, that should equate to automatic playing time for a defense that needs to limit foes to one shot as often as possible.

5.) What Can They Get From Geben? Six-feet nine inches, 255 pounds, and blessed with basketball instincts, true freshman backup center Martin Geben will contribute this season. He has too, because the only certainty regarding Auguste is that he can't handle the load alone.

Together, the two could make an interesting, viable, winning tandem. Brey will count on Geben to defend the post, set screens, and rebound. (It would be nice if Auguste did the same, adding a few blocked shots and finishes at the rim to his equation.)

Notre Dame will most often play small (four around one), which means the pair can split time, perhaps 30 minutes of Auguste to Geben's 10 as a beginning target.

6.) How High? Pat Connaughton and Steve Vasturia... With the exception of Grant, all of the names above have a basement level of play that is disconcerting. That is, they have high ceilings, but things might go south with a resounding thud, too.

Not so for the senior captain Connaughton and the sure-fire starter and staff-trusted sophomore Vasturia. Connaughton will be, at worst, "good." Vasturia at worst, "solid."

Both could be far better than program outsiders realize.

Step one for all of the above is tonight.

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