A Mike Brey-coached Notre Dame basketball team will be leaning on its defense as the offense finds its rhythm without standouts Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton.
Now that’s something you don’t hear every day.
“It’s the one time I’ve said, ‘Our defense is ahead of our offense,’ and that’s not been the case here in our program,” said Brey, entering his 16th season at the helm of the Irish after taking Notre Dame to its first Elite Eight trip in three-and-a-half decades.
“I can say that now, and a lot of it is the bodies that are added to the court.”
A Notre Dame lineup without Grant and Connaughton weakens the starting core. Few players in the history of Irish basketball have had a more profound impact on the program than Grant, a first-round draft choice of the New York Knicks, and Connaughton, a second-round selection of the Portland Trailblazers.
From leadership to scoring prowess to toughness and rebounding, a Notre Dame team without Grant and Connaughton likely won’t be able to duplicate last year’s NCAA tournament run or third-place finish in the ACC.
But when the Irish open regular-season play at Purcell Pavilion against St. Francis (Pa.) on Nov. 13, Brey will look to a longer, more disruptive corps of defenders to gain the advantage.
A backcourt of juniors Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia, and a frontline of senior Zach Auguste, sophomore Bonzie Colson and junior swingman V.J. Beachem offer length and defensive prowess seldom recruited by Brey.
“When you put Beachem and Colson on the floor with Grant and Connaughton out, think about the wingspans that are added to the court and the wingspans that are not on the court,” Brey said.
“With Connaughton and Grant, it wasn’t like I was on them about guarding guys all the time because I needed them to score and I needed them to stay out of foul trouble. Beachem and Colson are long.”
Brey isn’t saying Notre Dame will be better without Connaughton and Grant. Connaughton was one of the great leaders in Notre Dame sports – not just basketball – history. Despite standing just 6-foot-5, his ability to rebound with the best in the game was uncanny.
Grant developed into an NBA player through hard work to go along with his first-round athleticism and playmaking skills.
But from a pure defensive standout, the addition of the 6-foot-8 Beachem and the 6-foot-5 Colson (with his unusually long wingspan) condenses the basketball court on the defensive end, particularly when the bouncy, athletic 6-foot-10 Auguste is playing confidently and staying out of foul trouble.
Last season, Brey entrusted Jackson with the responsibility of pressuring the basketball, which pushed teams away from the paint and forced them to start their offensive sets a bit further away from the rim. Brey has said since Vasturia’s rookie season in 2013-14 that the 6-foot-5 guard has a mastery of team defense.
Put it all together and it has the makings of a much-improved defensive effort after the Irish finished 10th in the ACC in scoring defense (65.8 ppg.) and 10th in defensive field-goal percentage (.427).
Consider that Virginia, which ranked No. 1 in both categories, allowed 14.4 fewer points per game while limiting opponents a full six percent less success on field-goal attempts.
“Jackson and Vasturia are two of the best defensive guards in the country,” Brey said. “They may be the best, and Auguste has improved.
“So when you think about Jackson, Vasturia, and then you add the Beachem/Colson wingspan, that’s a pretty good (five) guys that can get into you, get deflections and fly around the basket.”
It starts up front with Jackson, who became a complete basketball player as a sophomore during Notre Dame’s ACC and NCAA tournament runs. But his focus in 2015-16 won’t change.
“Ball pressure is something I can do to help our team the most,” Jackson said. “I want to lock in on both ends of the floor.”
Vasturia, on the surface, doesn’t strike many as a defensive stalwart. But he understands passing lanes, anticipates the next move of opponents on the offensive end, uses his length and 212-pound frame to his advantage, and makes the five working together a more cohesive unit.
“Defense is a huge emphasis for both of us,” said Vasturia of his backcourt tandem with Jackson. “We can disrupt the game, especially bringing the ball up or disrupting offenses further from the hoop. As you saw last year, when we put together multiple stops, it translated into good possessions on the other end.
“We’re familiar with each other from playing so many minutes together last year, so we know where each other is going to be defensively. The offense will get there.”
A key figure in the Irish defense and the player who can take it to the next level is Auguste, who found his groove in the post-season, playing with confidence and a swagger that raised eyes, particularly in Notre Dame’s near-upset of No. 1 Kentucky.
When Auguste is confident and out of foul trouble, he’s an offensive/rebounding force. His post-up defense has improved – his performance against No. 1 overall draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns would be an overwhelming challenge for anyone – which would complete the five-man defensive crew.
“You can’t be overly concerned with scoring points,” Auguste said. “You can create opportunities through offensive and defensive rebounding. It was an emphasis late last year and I locked in on it.”
Make no mistake, Notre Dame still will be able to score. The Auguste-Colson dynamic will be interesting to track because it’s not Brey’s typical four-around-one offensive attack minus Grant/Connaughton.
But if the Irish can rely on their defense more than they have in the past, this ultimately has a chance to be a complete, well-rounded team.
“The court is smaller,” said Brey of the advantages Notre Dame’s projected starting lineup affords. “We get more deflections, we block a few more shots, and we rebound higher.”