It was clear to most observers that head coach Mike Brey’s 2015 Irish – a group under construction – would likely suffer its first loss over last weekend’s three-game tournament slate in Orlando.
Two losses in those three games, however, raised a few eyebrows.
After losing a pair at the final gun to Monmouth and Alabama – with a six-point win over Iowa intermixed – Notre Dame responded with a 51-point second half en route to a not-as-close-as-it-looks 84-79 victory over the Fighting Illini.
Fortunately for Brey’s crew they don’t play again until Tuesday (Stony Brook on Dec. 8) and have just contests between today and a Dec. 19 showdown against Indiana in Indianapolis.
In other words, practice time awaits – which brings us to today’s three keys.
Two of Notre Dame’s four best players happen to be power forwards with senior Zach Auguste (outstanding last night with 16 pts., 14 boards, 4 assists, 2 blocks) and sophomore Bonzie Colson (unflappable on both ends) wholly necessary if the Irish are to A.) Defend their glass, or B.) Grab a rebound after January.
But the pair can’t co-exist offensively for 40 minutes, because try as they might, it’s clear the Irish need spacing – and thus four shooters – to produce an offense that can offset the superior athletes on tap in ACC play.
Enter last night’s final minutes five of Auguste, Colson, Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, and backup point guard Matt Farrell.
The floor was spaced by two proven shooters (and one we’re told can fill it up in Farrell). But more important, it had three playmakers off the bounce – three guards that moved well off the ball, attacked with it, and set up their big man of choice – Auguste, last night – in his comfort zones near the hoop.
The three-guard attack should be a nightly option going forward because it allows Colson and Auguste to play off of each other (instead of just with each other) and it’s a method of attack that can augment the 4-around-1 look (remove either Colson or Auguste, insert two from the Farrell, V.J. Beachem, Matt Ryan trio).
Notre Dame’s technical starting lineup does not need to change, and at times it will be the necessary group to combat size in league play, but it does need the variety other lineups provide.
He defends the other team’s best perimeter player. He drives to the hole with confidence. He shoots off the bounce, finds the open man, and of course, he still knocks down the open look from beyond the arc.
While crucial cogs such as Auguste (inconsistent/scratching the surface as a senior) and Jackson (mentally trapped between All-American candidate and bona fide killer) Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia continues to operate in a comfort zone.
There’s nothing he doesn’t do well enough to help a contending team win, and he’s as such the perfect “No. 3” man for Brey’s evolving Irish.
Now the Irish need their No. 2, Auguste, to play as he did last night, most nights, and their No. 1, Jackson, to approach every night as one of the five best guards in the country.
OUTSCORING THE OTHERS
At some point this season, Notre Dame won’t have the defense necessary to win a game (at Duke?). And at another point, it probably won’t be able to crack the opposing defense enough (at Virginia!) to do the same.
Thus to maximize their ACC win total (hint: it won’t be 14 again, but 10-11 is attainable), the Irish will have to, as Brey has put it already this season in a win over Milwaukee, “score to get out of the building.”
Not a problem when the shots are falling, the ball is moving, and Auguste is fully engaged. But to ensure those attributes most nights, the team’s transition offense is essential.
Jackson can finish with the best of them. Vasturia is underrated in that regard and an outstanding decision maker with the ball. He, Beachem, and Matt Ryan are ideal trailing shooters on the secondary break and Farrell is intriguing in space as well.
Colson is coordinated and calm and as for Auguste, he’s at his best on the move, catching passes other big men don’t and finishing with aplomb.
There’s nothing not to like about Notre Dame’s top seven options in transition – they might benefit from running more, even after the occasional made basket.