Here come the reinforcements

The loss of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton is significant. But the strides made by Zach Auguste, Steve Vasturia and Demetrius Jackson were substantial as the Irish advanced to the Midwest Regional final. There are several players on the current roster capable of stepping up, followed by an influx of freshman talent.

Notre Dame’s run to the Elite Eight – a first for the program since 1979 – has raised expectations moving forward, even with the loss of AP first-team All-American Jerian Grant and a captain for the ages, Pat Connaughton, who scored, rebounded and defended with uncommon effectiveness and passion.

The growth of big man Zach Auguste, swingman Steve Vasturia and point guard Demetrius Jackson bodes well as the changing of the guard from a talent/leadership standpoint began during Notre Dame’s valiant run to the Midwest Regional finals, where the Irish fell by two points to Kentucky.

To expect to compete for the Final Four on a regular basis may be a bit pie-in-the-sky for a program that has difficulty attracting four- and five-star talent on a consistent basis. Yet Notre Dame should not be going 12 years between Sweet 16 appearances. Getting to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament should be a realistic goal from this point forward.

Bonzie Colson, V.J. Beachem, Austin Torres, Martin Geben, Austin Burgett and Matt Farrell – significant-to-bit players along the 2014-15 journey – have the capability to form a formidable squad in 2015-16 with the above-mentioned three players.

And now come the freshmen. Rex Pflueger, a 6-foot-5, 185-pound two-guard from Santa Ana, Calif., Matt Ryan, a 6-foot-7 ½, 220-pound three-man/shooting forward from New Rochelle, N.Y., and Elijah Burns, 6-foot-7, 210-pound four-man with range from Blairstown, N.J. join the mix this summer.

Anthony Solomon, Irish assistant coach in his second stint at Notre Dame with Mike Brey, oversees the national recruiting process for the Fighting Irish. We caught up with Solomon, who is in Indianapolis for the Final Four, to discuss the incoming freshmen.

“There’s a lot of bounce in Rex’s game in terms of his vertical jump, and he’s been able to translate that into the game of basketball,” Solomon said. “It’s important to have the elevation, but you need to know how to use it. As the college game grows, he grows with the game. He’ll be a very effective player slashing to the basket, but he also has the ability as a guard to shoot the ball. We very much like the future of Rex. He’ll be an exciting player to watch.

“Anytime you have the ability to drive and slash the defense, you’re in a position to make good decisions. Rex has the ability to do that, and he sees that right now. Jerian came in with those instincts to be able to see the floor very well, and Rex has some of those same instincts.

“Rex has a great personality. He’s very mature with his social skills, and that allows him to mix and match with other personalities on and off the court. He’s visited us a couple times and he gets along with his (future) teammates very well. He’s quite mature as he approaches his freshman year. That’s an important part of making a smooth transition to the next level.

(Editor’s note: Ryan had double hip surgery in March of 2014, which limited his preparation for his senior season at Iona Prep. He still managed to average 19 points, eight assists and four assists per game for the Gaels his senior season. Ryan was named New York’s Mr. Basketball.)

 “Matt can shoot…he can really shoot,” Solomon said. “He can shoot along with having great size as a shooter. People have thrown out the name Kyle Korver, that he’s Kyle Korver-like. Tim Abromaitis, no question about it, there’s a similarity.

“When those guys have that 6-6, 6-7 size, once you get it up over your head, it’s hard for (defenders) to factor in on it. He’s got size with very deep range. He’s come along well since the injury and had a very effective senior year of high school. He got Mr. Basketball, so he’s back on track.

“There is a lot of energy with Matt. That personality and energy help you make that transition from high school to college quicker. The ability to communicate and socialize is part of your confidence, and I think that’s needed as you make the adjustment from high school to college.

“He’s a young man that wasn’t always on the most-publicized AAU programs up until about two years ago,” Solomon said. “As he began to face better competition, he’s grown to figure it out. The competition has helped him to become better.

“Elijah is a versatile forward. He has a lot of good basketball going forward in his career. He’s got some athleticism and a good feel for how to play the game. He’s an excellent passer and he’s got some touch.

“When you say versatile, he can do things around the basket, but he’s able to step away from the basket, face the basket around the high-post, three-quarter area, and he’s a strong kid for his age. He’ll continue to grow in that area.

“His body is more physically developed right now than he was, but Carleton Scott comes to mind when you talk about the versatility, the length, the athleticism, and the ability to play away from the basket. He’s a guy that can be effective 10 feet and in, but also can step out beyond the three-point line and be an effective player.

“He’s a very unselfish teammate, and when locked in and focused, he’s a very good vertical jump rebounder. He has the instincts and a knack for the basketball. We’re excited to see what he can become in that area, especially losing someone in the mold of Pat Connaughton and what he did for us for four years.”

(Note: Look for the second part of Irish Illustrated’s interview with Anthony Solomon as he discusses the players returning and the roles they’ll likely play as the 2015-16 team is formed.) Top Stories