PHILADELPHIA – Yes, Zach Auguste knows who Bill Walton is, despite the fact the big red head starred at UCLA 20 years before Auguste was born.
No, he didn’t know about the record everyone was talking about as No. 6 seed Notre Dame prepared for its Sweet 16 trip to Philadelphia to take on No. 7 seed Wisconsin Friday night in the Wells Fargo Center.
“That’s crazy,” said Auguste when told he’s threatening to break Bill Walton’s NCAA tournament shooting percentage mark (68.6).
“That’s a lot of pressure now. I wasn’t aware of that. To be mentioned with Bill Walton is humbling.”
There was a time when pressure would get the best of the 6-foot-10, 245-pounder out of Marlborough, Mass. When he became the heir apparent to Irish big man Jack Cooley in 2013-14 – while sharing front-line duties with Garrick Sherman and Tom Knight – it was a hit-and-miss proposition for Auguste.
In fact, his inconsistency led to less than 17 minutes of action per game in 2013-14 when he averaged a modest 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds.
The up-and-down performances continued into last year, his junior season, on and off the court. He missed the Georgia Tech game in early January when an academic snafu prevented him from making the journey to Atlanta.
But there were flashes of brilliance along the way in 2014-15, like the 26 points in the ACC opener against Florida State, the 18 points in a victory at North Carolina, and the double-double in the come-from-behind road victory over North Carolina State.
Something really clicked, however, when the 2015 ACC tournament rolled around. Auguste was dominant in the tournament championship victory over the Tar Heels, scoring 16 points and grabbing 13 rebounds as the Irish claimed their first conference title and launched him into the NCAA tournament where he began to zero in on Walton’s record.
Unbeknownst to Auguste as a freshman in 2013, he began to stalk Walton’s NCAA tournament mark with a modest 3-of-5 shooting performance in Notre Dame’s first-game loss to Iowa State.
After the Irish missed the tournament in ‘14, Auguste made 10-of-14 shots and finished with 25 points in a hard-fought, opening-round victory over Northeastern last year.
Auguste missed five of seven shots in the second-round victory over Butler, but was nearly perfect against Wichita State and Kentucky. He converted all six of his field-goal attempts against the Shockers and then traded blows with Karl-Anthony Towns, finishing 10-of-13 from the field for a 20-point, nine-rebound effort against the Wildcats.
When the lights turned on, so did Auguste.
“He flat-out believes on this NCAA tournament stage,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “I can’t believe there’s been a player in Notre Dame history who has been more effective and more efficient (in the post-season). This guy really delivers. He loves bright lights and big games.
“It’s amazing. It’s a guy who knows who he is. To be mentioned up there that he could maybe break Walton’s record, that says it right there.”
Auguste has come a long way since his freshman season when he frequently could be seen staring off into the upper reaches of the Purcell Pavilion seats as Brey was disseminating information during a timeout.
The growth process has continued this year after he followed a one-point, two-rebound game in Virginia to kick off the ACC schedule by averaging 15.4 points and 10.8 rebounds per game the rest of the way in conference play.
“His growth in maturity has been incredible,” said Torrian Jones, captain of the 2003-04 squad, current academic counselor at Notre Dame and analyst for radio broadcasts.
“He’s a guy that has always had unlimited potential and got some unfair scrutiny because people knew what he could be before he was ready. Because he had to be a leader this year and recognized what we lost from last year, he’s really stepped up and taken it on himself to do those things.”
The motivation to become a double-double machine – 21 in 34 total games, including 10 out of 18 ACC games – was publicly announced as the goal by assistant coach Anthony Solomon at the awards ceremony last spring when they celebrated Notre Dame’s Elite 8 run.
Auguste took the stated goal at face value.
“Coach talked to me about it,” Auguste said. “He challenged me like, ‘We need you to be a double-double guy.’
“They were saying last year there were a lot of inconsistencies in my rebounding and that was something that I could elevate. It’s something I took to heart.”
Once entering post-season play at the ACC tournament in Washington, D.C., Auguste looked at each game as a do-or-die situation. Win or your college basketball career is over.
“It’s bright lights, it’s a stage that’s set where you can potentially set up a long career for yourself individually,” Auguste said. “It’s fun. The atmosphere is electric, the crowd is into it, everybody is into it, it’s big-time basketball.
“Last year, I knew I had a chance to come back. This time, it was serious. Lose and it’s done, my (college) career is over. I want the championship game to be my last game.”
Auguste scored 10 points and grabbed 12 rebounds against Michigan last Friday, converting 4-of-5 shots, and then responded with a 16-point, 15-rebound performance in the one-point victory over Stephen F. Austin.
His only miss among nine field-goal attempts against the Lumberjacks was his put-back of a Demetrius Jackson miss, which Rex Pflueger then tipped in with 1.5 seconds remaining to send the Irish to Philadelphia.
“I got contact and missed, but the way it went down, I’m happy,” Auguste said. “We got the bucket and the win.”
The way Auguste is shooting around the basket, it’s no wonder he expects them all to go in. In his last four NCAA tournament games – vs. Wichita State and Kentucky last year and against Michigan and Stephen F. Austin last week – Auguste has converted 28 of his last 33 field-goal attempts.
His near-record-setting 43-of-59 shooting in seven NCAA tournament games (72.8 percent) has earned him a new nickname around Notre Dame.
“Reggie Jackson was Mr. October,” said Jones, “but Zach is Mr. March.”