After Bonzie Colson scored in the paint and V.J. Beachem hit a three-pointer less than two minutes into Thursday’s game at Syracuse, Notre Dame’s will to compete took a nap and didn’t wake up until the Orange built a 26-point on its way to an 81-66 victory in the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse, now just 4-5 in ACC play, is not a good enough, explosive enough, or deep enough squad at the present time to justify a 23-1 Orange run that quickly turned a five-point advantage into a 17-point deficit less than halfway through the first half.
The most disturbing performance out of the gate was turned in by 6-foot-10 Zach Auguste, who followed up his one-point, two-rebound performance at Virginia in Notre Dame’s last challenging road venue with an apathetic effort against the Orange.
Ultimately, Auguste approached a double-double with eight points and 10 rebounds. He has enough talent/length to put up numbers by the end of a 28-to-32 minute performance. But by the time Auguste decided to put forth the effort necessary to compete with Syracuse’s springy front line, it was too late.
Auguste refused to put a body on 6-foot-8 junior Tyler Roberson and 6-foot-8 freshman Tyler Lodon, who snatched nine and 10 rebounds respectively with each coming up with four offensive rebounds. Auguste also reverted to his old shooting touch at the free-throw line, converting just 2-of-6.
Auguste certainly wasn’t the only culprit on the defensive end. Syracuse reached 80 points for just the second time in nine ACC games and came into Thursday’s clash averaging a mere 66.5 points per game in conference play.
Bouncy Michael Gbinije sliced through the Irish defense for 15 points while Trevor Cooney – a long-time Notre Dame nemesis who scored 33 points on nine three-pointers against the Irish earlier in his career -- tossed in 22 on 3-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc.
Notre Dame allowed Syracuse to convert 40 percent of its three-pointers (10-of-25); the Orange came into the game converting 35.8 percent.
Turnovers crushed the Irish early after averaging 9.2 through the first 19 games. Notre Dame had nine in the first half alone with Steve Vasturia – forced to play the point in Demetrius Jackson’s absence – and Bonzie Colson each committing three. It took a half-court buzzer beater by Vasturia to narrow the halftime margin to 17.
Notre Dame looked like a team that could afford to absorb a loss after four straight victories while Syracuse looked like the motivated, desperate basketball team that needed a W.
WHAT’S THE POINT WITHOUT JACKSON?
Did Notre Dame believe it could win this game without Demetrius Jackson, who was sidelined with a hamstring injury? The body language said no, and without Jackson, the Irish were forced to put the square peg in the round hole that is Steve Vasturia at the point.
In fairness to Vasturia, the point guard position takes him out of his element. The 6-foot-6 junior can handle the basketball and allow Jackson to play off the ball in situations. But without Jackson on the court to take charge of the basketball, it was extremely difficult for the Irish to get into an offensive flow, particularly against Syracuse’s sticky 2-3 zone.
Vasturia’s four assists matched his turnover total. He hit 3-of-5 from three-point range, which begged for more attempts. V.J. Beachem picked up the slack by converting 5-of-8 from beyond the arc, but it wasn’t enough, particularly with Matt Ryan missing his first seven three-pointers before nailing a couple of meaningless long-range shots in the final three minutes of the game.
Matt Farrell came in and gave the Irish some penetration ability against the zone during his 11 minutes of action. But Farrell’s offensive game is limited, and he missed his only field-goal attempt.
Without competent point guard play against the 2-3 – coupled with 41.8 percent shooting from the field, including too many errant shots on clean looks – there was virtually no way for the Irish to approach their superb offensive efficiency that sparked the four-game winning streak.
A MATTER OF TOUGHNESS
When Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant carried Notre Dame to the Elite Eight last season, toughness rarely was a question for the Irish. Without Connaughton and Grant – coupled with Jackson’s absence from the court Thursday night – toughness was at a premium.
Who are the tough guys on the Irish team? Jackson is one. Bonzie Colson certainly is the toughest on the team, although despite 10 rebounds – five on the offensive end – Colson didn’t use his body to his advantage in his 32 minutes of action, bypassing putting a body in box-out situations, which also plagued Auguste.
It’s as if Auguste needs to be reprogrammed every time the Irish put their uniforms on for another game. There is very little carryover from game to game. He drifts into passive play – particularly on the defensive end – on a regular basis. V.J. Beachem rebounds with his length and rarely reverts to the fundamental play necessary to be a consistent rebounder.
Rex Pflueger brings toughness to the court, but after a string of successful performances that earned him a spot in the starting lineup in Jackson’s absence, he picked up his third foul just nine seconds into the second half and scored a mere two points in 28 minutes of action, although he did hand out six assists.
Fortunately, the Irish return home Sunday to take on 1-7 Wake Forest, which is coming off a heartbreaking loss at Virginia that could have gone the Demon Deacons’ way. Unfortunately for the Irish, five of the next seven games after Wake Forest are on the road.
Ultimately, when Notre Dame’s season comes to an end – likely in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament – we’ll see 40 minutes of action in which a lack of toughness spells the end to the 2015-16 season prematurely in comparison to the individual talent the Irish put on the court, which is ample.