The regular season – on the heels of a 15-17, 6-12 campaign in 2014-15 – went beyond expectations as the Irish finished as the No. 3 team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
A week later, the Irish were headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 12 seasons. A week after that, it was a trip to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979 – long before any of the Fighting Irish players were born.
One more basket, one more defensive stop against Kentucky and it would have been the first trip to the Final Four since 1978.
In a whirlwind couple of weeks, Notre Dame men’s basketball went from perennial post-season wannabes to center stage as one of the most difficult teams in America to defeat.
Fast forward three months. Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton – the driving forces behind the incredible journey through post-season play – became the first Notre Dame tandem selected in the first two rounds of the NBA draft since LaPhonso Ellis and Elmer Bennett were tabbed in 1992.
Now comes the reconstruction of a champion, or at least the initial efforts to get back to such lofty heights.
“My concerns are not the basketball stuff we’re losing, and we know we’re losing a lot,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey following one of the team’s weekly summer gatherings with coaching supervision now allowed by the NCAA.
“The leadership stuff. That’s my biggest concern because those two guys set an unbelievable tone.”
And yet as the Irish were claiming the ACC crown, knocking off Northeastern, Butler and Wichita State in the NCAA tournament, and then scaring the daylights out of the then-undefeated Wildcats, the passing of the leadership torch was taking place.
“The program has been built where we’ve lost really good, great players and we’ve been able to figure it out the next year and be pretty successful,” Brey said. “But the leadership and setting the tone lost of those two men is my biggest concern.”
Amidst Brey’s cautious words comes optimism that the Irish will find that leadership and chemistry in his 16th season at Notre Dame.
“Demetrius really emerged in the Duke (regular-season) game on the road, which was a tough afternoon for us,” Brey said. “His voice was very strong that day, and then the rest of the season. Zach in March started to show some of that, and even Steve in his own kind of quiet way.
“In the spring, without Jerian and Pat around, they got to really run things, and now they’ve been back (on campus) and it’s interesting to watch. I give a lot of credit to the four of them because they know there’s a lot of responsibility on them now with those two guys gone.”
No. 4 in Brey’s projected leadership group is senior Austin Burgett, once a diverse, promising, multi-faceted athlete with a role who fell out of the rotation as a junior in 2014-15. Yet Burgett has remained a leader within the program. Once again, he’ll seek an on-the-court niche in his final collegiate season.
“I have a very open mind about who’s coming off the bench for us, and the one thing about Burg is he has really been around and knows how we play,” Brey said. “There are great stories about guys all of a sudden having a great senior year, and no one has had guys have great senior years more than our program.”
Expected to join Jackson, Auguste and Vasturia in the starting lineup will be junior V.J. Beachem, replacing Grant, and sophomore Bonzie Colson, who will have to shoulder some of the scoring and much of the rebounding lost with Connaughton’s departure.
“Never has the door opened better for a guy in our program than it has for (Beachem) with the two guys that graduated,” Brey said. “It’s a big summer for him. Be more vocal. Be stronger with the basketball. Those are the challenges I’ve made to him.”
A well-conditioned Colson will see his role expand dramatically as well.
“Bonzie Colson with more minutes – which he will get – is a natural rebounder,” Brey said. “To have Bonzie get outside of that arc a little more and be comfortable, he can do that.
“He’s very good with the ball and can shoot some three-point shots. Not the volume that Pat shot, but we want him to be confident when he’s open because he’s going to get open if we keep the floor spaced.”
With Grant gone, sophomore Matt Farrell will assist Jackson with ball-handling duties at the point. Red-shirt sophomore Austin Torres can provide some relief minutes up front. Sophomore Martin Geben, a 6-foot-9, 255-pounder, will try to rebound from a tough rookie season.
Then come the freshmen – 6-foot-6 shooting guard Rex Pflueger, 6-foot-8 long-range shooter Matt Ryan, and 6-foot-9 power forward Elijah Burns – with the first two fitting into the mix while Burns recovers from off-season ankle surgery.
Brey went so far as to call Pflueger “a more athletic, bouncy Vasturia” while declaring Ryan’s outside shot further along than the work-of-art jumper of Tim Abromaitis at a comparable stage in their careers.
“Can Zach and Demetrius and Austin and Steve set the tone?” Brey said. “That’s what I’m looking for this summer. Who’s emerging? That’s where my focus is.”
(Editor’s Note: Look for more from Mike Brey on the 2015-16 Notre Dame team on Irish Illustrated.)