How does Notre Dame plan to, in the words of head coach Mike Brey, “do that March thing” again?
By starting the 2015-16 basketball season the way it began the last.
“One of our themes is to be poor again, and to be hungry,” said Brey in the wake of a program-best 32-6 record last season. “We’re doing the same breakdown drills when we were really poor a year ago coming off 15-17. I’ve made that a point every day. ‘Remember these?’ We’re doing the same things coming off 14-4 (ACC mark).”
Incremental goals exist as always (the dreaded phrase “earn a bid” was uttered more than once at the season’s initial media gathering), but it’s clear that Notre Dame’s improbable run to the ACC Tournament title and subsequently to within one shot of the Final Four has changed not only the head coach’s pre-season narrative, but his players’ as well.
“There’s a little bit of ‘let’s try and go further; let’s see if we can go further next year,’ said Brey taking the pulse of his troops. “I think that was all from within them from the spring and in the summer. I didn’t have to go in and say a thing. I give (the veterans) a lot of credit of kind of being addicted to what happened in March and wanting to do it again.
“There’s pressure on this group after last year, and that’s a good thing.”
THE BIG THREE
Levels of leadership weren’t difficult to gauge among last year’s Irish. There was team captain Pat Connaughton augmented by fifth-year senior Jerian Grant. The latter ranked among the nation’s two to three best players; the former as perhaps the most respected captain in program history.
At first blush, the pair led and others followed. And then Demetrius Jackson emerged as an additional voice and Brey’s squad consequently took the leap from the land of the very good to the precipice of the sport’s elite.
Grant and Connaughton since took their talents to the NBA – the leftover leader is locked and loaded.
“He’s ratcheted it up even higher; another level,” said Brey of Jackson. “I was so proud of the growth he made from freshman to sophomore (last) year, but what he’s done in the off-season, being the main voice and kind of setting the tone and running things…He felt it’s his time. It wasn’t me anointing him.”
“No question it’s Demetrius Jackson’s team, it’s his voice. He loves it. He welcomes it. I’m thrilled he’s so confident in that position.”
Jackson is aided in that position by classmate Steve Vasturia and senior center Zach Auguste, two stars of Notre Dame’s tournament runs last spring.
“Can he be a double-double guy?” said Brey of his new standard for Auguste. “What he did not only in the Kentucky game but in March, there’s no reason why he can’t do that. He doesn’t have to reinvent himself as a player. He needs to start inside, be that great ball screen, hard roll guy. Even though we lost one of the great ball screen decision makers in Jerian, we still have a couple that are pretty darn good and Demetrius is growing in that role.”
Auguste scored 20 points on 10-13 shooting with nine rebounds in the 68-66 loss to Kentucky. He scored 16 with 13 boards in the ACC Title game victory against North Carolina and posted 25 points in the opening NCAA win over Northeastern. He collected 13 boards to help hold off Butler thereafter while adding 15 points on 6-6 shooting against Wichita State in the Sweet 16.
Jackson’s backcourt running mate Vasturia likewise shined late, posting 20, 15, and 16 points, respectively, on a combined 17 of 31 from the field against the Bulldogs, Shockers, and Wildcats.
“Sitting with coaches in the off-season, (North Carolina) Roy Williams and (Virginia) Tony Bennett, the first guy they ask about is Vasturia,” said Brey. “Coaches understand all the little things he does”
Vasturia will be asked to do big things this winter as well.
“Gotta score for us,” said Brey of his junior swingman. “He’s gotta drive it more, go ahead and take his guy. We’ve tried to ball screen more, not in super heavy doses. Last year was good but he didn’t have as many playmaking situations. Now he’s going to. Can we keep the assist-to-turnover good even though you’re looking to create?”
Vasturia committed just three turnovers playing 155 of 165 potential NCAA Tournament minutes.
STEPPING UP, STEPPING IN
Joining the starting lineup after key reserve roles last season are sophomore Bonzie Colson and junior V.J. Beachem. Colson emerged late last season, at one point connecting on an absurd 34 of 46 field goal attempts over a nine-game span, one that culminated in a 17-point outing off the bench vs. national player of the year Jahlil Okafor and eventual NCAA Champion Duke.
Beachem, on the other hand, suffered a slump at the worst possible time.
After hitting a momentum-changing three-point bucket against both Duke and North Carolina in the ACC Tournament, Beachem did not connect on a three-point shot in the NCAA Tournament, attempting just two and playing a combined 17 minutes. He scored just 14 points in Notre Dame’s seven combined tournament contests.
“We have to get him confident,” said Brey. “He did not have a good March, but man, to get to that March that was so magical for us, he helped us get there and really helped us win a lot of games and was a key guy. I’ve tried to most past March. We sent him on a little foreign tour (Paris) this past August. He was the leading scorer and rebounder.
“I thought he really delivered. He is a starter for us. He has been very, very good through six practices.”
As for who’ll back them up? Offer a guess, you might be right.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Who’s the sixth and the seventh guy?’ said Brey. “I have no idea. I’m still figuring that out but we certainly have a lot of candidates.”
All of them at present toiling with the proverbial poor, hoping to rank among college basketball’s royalty again by season’s end.