The loss of leadership and production with the end of the Jerian Grant-Pat Connaughton era will be difficult to quantify until next year when the 2015-16 Notre Dame team begins its pre-season preparations.
Suffice it to say that the loss is significant and prevents assurances of a repeat performance in the post-season where the Irish swept through Miami, Duke and North Carolina to claim the ACC championship, and then defeated Northeastern, Butler and Wichita State to reach the Midwest Regional finals against Kentucky.
“That’s been a big part of our success of our program over the years as guys continue to get better,” said Notre Dame assistant coach Anthony Solomon Friday from Indianapolis, the site of this year’s Final Four.
“We saw some sophomores that began to play like juniors and some juniors that began to play like seniors. The great thing is we have them coming back.”
“A big reason we had the success we had was because we had not only seniors, but some underclassmen that were still getting better,” Solomon said. “Up until a week ago, I said, ‘We still can get better, ‘ and by that I meant individuals that were still improving as college basketball players.
“Individual improvement is what allows the team to continue to grow, and I think everyone saw that this team still was getting better, and that’s because of the three we’re talking about.”
THE BIG THREE
In Auguste, Vasturia and Jackson, the Irish have the makings of another quality basketball team around which to build in 2015-16. Auguste exploded during the post season, averaging better than 16 points and eight rebounds per game, including 20 points and nine rebounds in a dynamic performance against Kentucky.
Auguste shot 61.9 percent from the field in 2014-15, and now, entering his senior season, he’s put himself in position to be one of the more accomplished big men in the college game.
“In our post-season play, Zach was our leading rebounder, and the scoring came in a way where those were big points for us,” Solomon said. “He allowed us to get easy buckets off rolls, slips, rim-to-rim sprints, second-chance opportunities…
“He did it against some opponents that had other big guys, and when it comes to 6-9, 6-10 guys, there aren’t many as quick and as fast as he is when he’s focused in on doing those things that allow him and our team to be really effective.
“It’s hard to get field-goal percentages over 60 percent, but Zach was able to maintain that throughout the basketball season and post-season. I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him in terms of how effective he’s going to be next year.”
Vasturia emerged as a money player for the Irish, particularly in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. His off-the-ball defensive abilities throughout the season were a key to Notre Dame’s overall defensive improvement as much as Jackson’s on-ball pressure launched a more stout defensive effort overall.
Vasturia added a clutch-shooting dimension as well while Jackson shot better than 50 percent from the field and often times kick-started Notre Dame’s penetrating offensive attack.
“Vasturia was consistently getting better with the ability to not only shoot, but to be able to drive to the basket and finish,” Solomon said. “Demetrius was more comfortable off the bounce, pulling up in transition for threes. Both of those guys played older than they were most of the season.”
Colson was a Godsend for the Irish when they needed another big man to assist Auguste, and despite standing just 6-foot-5, he fit the bill before struggling with his consistency down the stretch.
Beachem’s long-term worth likely will show itself more in the shooting area, but his length and athleticism also offer some rebounding and defensive promise.
“Bonzie Colson is continuing to grow into his body in terms of his weight, his cardio, his conditioning…all those things that will come into play in terms of what he needs to be effective on the college level,” Solomon said.
“V.J. Beachem in a different way is going to have to make adjustments with his body. It may not show in terms of the body type, but he’s going to continue to get stronger, which is going to help his game tremendously.
“A lot of it is a strength thing for V.J. He’s still growing into that body in terms of strength and how to utilize it. He’s strong in the weight room. A big part now is knowing how to use that added strength to be an effective basketball player, and I believe he will.”
A key man moving forward for the Irish is 6-foot-9, 265-pound sophomore-to-be Martin Geben, who logged playing time behind Auguste early, but eventually lost his slot in the rotation to Colson. Geben, the higher-rated of the two freshmen last year coming in, has major college basketball assets that never showed themselves during the 2014-15 season.
“We’ve gotten a better feel for what he needs and what’s going to allow him to be effective in college,” said Solomon of Geben. “That process will begin in terms of him making some adjustments to his body, his skill set, footwork…That’s all going to come. He’s got a very good future with us and we’re excited because we know what’s ahead for Martin.”
With Grant gone, the Irish need another guard to emerge, particularly in a ball-handling role. There were instances this season when freshman Matt Farrell practiced with the effectiveness and intensity to log playing time. Brey opted not to include Farrell in the rotation, but that should change next season.
“The pace and speed of the game, and going against Demetrius Jackson the last year, has helped Matt,” Solomon said. “That will help him going forward as well.”
Another contributor who showed flashes of productivity and understanding of how to play a contributing role was red-shirt freshman Austin Torres, a 6-foot-7 228-pounder who provided defense, rebounding and, above all, energy.
There remains ability and promise in 6-foot-9 senior-to-be Austin Burgett, who was emerging during the 2013-14 season when a heart condition sidelined him. Burgett has yet to get back up to that level of effectiveness.
“Burgett has some bounce, some athleticism, and he understands the system and how to play,” Solomon said. “He will continue to plug away at growing and developing his game. He will be ready to compete.”
It remains to be seen if Eric Katenda, who lost the sight in his left eye in a freakish summer pickup game three years ago, can make a contribution at a sturdy 6-foot-9, 236 pounds.
“This is the time of the year that some of our players over the years have made great strides,” Solomon said. “All of a sudden, you say, ‘Wow, he’s different!’ Changes occur because players put in the time, get the reps and continue to grow in terms of their bodies.”
A SCHOLARSHIP TO GIVE
Notre Dame’s scouting for the Class of 2015-16 is not done. The Irish still have a scholarship available with just 12 players on grant-in-aid this past season and walk-on Matt Gregory.
“We have another scholarship to give and I feel like it’s our job to fill that if we can find the right fit,” Solomon said. “Coach (Brey) will spend some more time evaluating. We have to evaluate our current roster and see if there’s someone out there that we’d like to add to our program.”
Although Solomon was speaking in general terms, the Irish are known to be taking a long look at 6-foot-9, 225-pound Michael Edwards out of John Glenn High School in Westland, Mich.
The bouncy, athletic Edwards garnered little interest during the fall signing period, entertaining offers from schools such as Northern Illinois, Illinois State and Akron prior to the start of his senior season. Edwards exploded in 2014-15, averaging 18.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
Notre Dame, Michigan and Arkansas have shown interest, and his offer sheet now includes Georgia and Auburn out of the SEC, Nebraska from the Big Ten, Pittsburgh from the ACC, Kansas State out of the Big 12, Marquette from the Big East, and SMU from the American Athletic Conference.
“In terms of size, athleticism and bounce, this game is quick in the ACC,” said Solomon, again speaking in general terms. “There are big guys, quick guys to the ball, and we’ve got to continue to explore.
“I don’t think we’d be doing a service to our program if we didn’t continue to look at guys. That doesn’t mean that we take someone, but we’ve got to explore.”