Who, and What, to Watch: Weekend Hoops

Notre Dame's 2014-15 basketball season kicks into gear today with a matchup vs. Massachusetts in the Hall of Fame TipOff Tournament. Former Big East rival Providence is on tap for Sunday with both games to be played at the Moyhegun Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.

Head coach Mike Brey's first three victories of his 15th season in South Bend were both easily attained and expected. This weekend, Notre Dame encounters its first does of resistance in fellow undefeated squads UMass and Providence, both, unlike the Irish, NCAA Tournament participants last season.

Below are a handful of key questions to monitor as the Irish attempt to return home 5-0 .

1.) Will Auguste's Ascent Continue? Three games, three times Notre Dame's leading scorer (19, 20, 21), but that's been against inferior athletes and with the benefit of a distinct size advantage. Now the 6'10" junior will put his absurd field goal percentage (74 percent on 23 of 31 from the field) to the test vs. like-bodied athletes and competitors. Minuteman senior center Cady Lalanne (6'10" 250) will provide Auguste's first stiff test while the Friars counter with 7'0" senior center Carson Desrosiers and proven power forward Tyler Harris.

Twenty points might be too much to ask from Auguste, but the Irish would settle for a solid 14 plus 8-9 rebounds, the latter more than he's averaged to date.

2.) On the attack? Three tomato can foes afforded Irish senior standouts Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton easy assimilation to their final seasons. And they gladly accepted, both working each outing to involve their teammates in an effort to boost collective confidence and to help head coach Mike Brey establish a solid nine-man rotation.

That ends today -- not, it is to be hoped, the nine-man rotation -- but deferential status from the potential All-ACC pair. Look for Grant to facilitate offense early and often this weekend and for Connaughton to hunt his three-point shot from the outset. (Connaughton is 8-13 from long range, but rarely launched early in wins over Binghamton, Navy, and Coppin State.)

Grant's assist numbers will be telling -- he's averaged almost eight, to date -- as will Connaughton's 10 per game rebounding totals through three. Notre Dame needs points from the duo to be sure, but both are tougher to guard when the aforementioned aspects of their games thrive as well.

Grant vs. UMass's Derrick Gordon is the perimeter matchup of the day to monitor.

3.) Eight or nine is fine, but please, not just seven! Sure, this is more of a statement than question, but the answer awaits.

Part of Notre Dame's early-season appeal in the wake of wins over poor opponents was the manner in which Brey's deep -- there, I said it -- deep rotation performed. There was little drop-off between ninth man Bonzie Colson, a promising freshman, and the team's starters. The Irish need contributions from at least three members of their four-man bench brigade V.J. Beachem (19 points vs. Coppin State), backup center Martinas Geben (stout inside as a rookie through three), junior forward Austin Burgett and Colson to win both this weekend

Expect three of the four to appear by the 9:00 mark of the first half -- Brey's use of the quartet thereafter will illustrate how much faith he has in each at this early stage. (Of note, Burgett missed Wednesday's win over Coppin State with a sore ankle.)

4.) A Little More Aggression? The only member of Notre Dame's starting quintet yet to distinguish on the stat sheet is solid sophomore Steve Vasturia. The second-year swingman though can do little wrong in the staff's eyes: he defends well, he facilitates the offense with good decision-making and ball movement, he acts as a third ball-handler, and he can purportedly shoot the lights out from beyond the arc. (Vasturia is 5 of 8 from long range to date after shooting a disappointing 33 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman.)

He was also passive over the first three games, largely because as a protyptical "glue guy" he wasn't often needed. He will be this weekend, and against Michigan State on Dec. 3, the high-water mark of the team's non conference slate.

5.) How far has he come? Nothing about sophomore Demetrius Jackson's solid start resembles his tentative rookie efforts last winter. The former five-star prospect has been engaged, explosive in the open court, and in charge. He was also relatively unchallenged athletically.

This weekend, Notre Dame's potential difference-maker at the point must continue to be the team's triggerman, both offensively in congress with Grant, and on the more important defensive side of the court as a constant pest, applying relentless ball pressure to opposing point guards.

Massachusetts junior Trey Davis and Friars facilitators Chris Dunn and Kyron Cartwright will provide solid early-season tests. Dunn continues his recovery from 2013 shoulder surgery, playing his best game to date in the Friar's blowout win over Navy.

Of note, Providence faces Florida State Saturday -- the Irish open their ACC slate with the Seminoles in South Bend on Dec. 13 before returning briefly to non conference action.


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