PHILADELPHIA – Demetrius Jackson hobbled toward the Notre Dame bench, gimpy from a nasty right ankle sprain suffered in the second half and wearing the look of a wounded warrior returning home from the battlefield.
His head coach, Mike Brey, himself damaged goods and wearing a protective boot from a calf injury suffered two nights earlier, greeted Jackson and shared a special on-court moment, perhaps for the final time with the heroic junior guard about to test the waters, which now allow a dip of the toe to test its tepidness.
The road to the Final Four is never easy. For the Irish – now losers of back-to-back regional championship games against Kentucky and North Carolina – the journey has ended abruptly against a proverbial brick wall, this one in particular.
“This was maxed out,” Brey said. “For two years in a row, we really got the most out of our group and they gave themselves to us.”
The roadblocks to the Final Four don’t offer more resistance than the undefeated Wildcats in ’15 and the Tar Heels – winners of nine straight – in ’16.
“We’ve had two tough opponents in regional finals, haven’t we?” Brey smiled. “The difference between North Carolina (this year) and Kentucky (last year) is that North Carolina is old and has played together. Kentucky was younger and that served us well.”
Indeed, the Tar Heels had a response for every positive feedback offered by the Irish, who dictated tempo from the outset and shot well to allow the pace to be at their desired rate.
The Irish never could, however, string together successful defensive possessions to make the upset come to fruition.
“I don’t know, man, it’s going to be tough,” said Zach Auguste of the difficulty of containing the Tar Heel offense in the Final Four after they converted 64 percent of their field-goal attempts and 83.3 percent of their free throws.
“When they’re rolling, they’re the best team in the country.”
Added Brey of North Carolina: “They’ve got the look. I know there will be some really good teams down there in Houston, but I would be shocked if they don’t win it.”
And so ends the journey into uncharted territory for the Irish, at least unfamiliar to a program that needed 37 years to match the mark of the 1978-79 teams that made consecutive trips to the Elite 8.
Those teams, coached by Digger Phelps, took it one step further with the Final Four appearance in ’78 before bowing out to a Magic Johnson-led Michigan State squad a step shy of the final weekend of the season in ’79.
And now the waiting begins, although the prospects remain optimistically bright, particularly if a couple of variables fall Notre Dame’s way.
Auguste, who bowed out with an uncharacteristic five-point, three-rebound performance that ends his collegiate shot clock, is definitely gone. He was Notre Dame’s rock over the final two months. He scored double figures in all but two of the last 16 games (the two exceptions against Carolina), 11 of which were double-doubles.
The only other variable of note is that of Jackson’s dilemma, whose only comment regarding his decision to return for his senior season or declare for the NBA draft was to say, “That’s something I’ll discuss later.”
Brey discussed it for him, and vowed that his role in the process would be that of a facilitator, not a pitchman.
“You can’t recruit him,” said Brey of Jackson. “He needs to be supported and get the information. If business says he should go, I’ll lead the parade out of town.”
All things being equal, Auguste is the more difficult of the two to replace without a clear-cut heir apparent as it relates to his contributions to the program.
Without Jackson, the Irish still have a player who can run the offense in Matt Farrell, a revelation that didn’t become apparent until last week in Brooklyn when he started his first games in an Irish uniform. He’s not Jackson, but he’s a more than capable maestro of the offense, particularly with a tag-team partner.
Unbeknownst to many who don’t follow the recruiting process quite as religiously as the football madness, incoming freshman Temple “T.J.” Gibbs is a shooting point guard with penetration skills and the game to finish around the bucket with either hand.
Not as physically mature as Jackson, his game is more well-rounded than Jackson’s was upon his arrival. Irish fans are going to appreciate the skillset Gibbs brings to the program.
Can Martinas Geben and Elijah Burns, the latter an impressive, young physical specimen coming off micro-fracture knee surgery, combine for the productivity Auguste provided? Can 6-foot-8, 240-pound freshman John Mooney be an early viable option?
Is there a Thon Maker out there ready to step in and bridge the gap? Is there a fifth-year senior transfer who can be a puzzle piece to give the Irish the mature paint presence needed?
These are the key questions, but there remain many more answers.
V.J. Beachem developed into a star the last couple weeks, averaging 16.6 points in post-season play and flashing the look of a first-team all-ACC player as a senior.
“If we would have won, he probably would have been the (East Regional) MVP,” said Brey of Beachem.
“I am really pleased that he’s coming back with great confidence. He’ll be a captain for us, he’ll be a voice, but he became a voice down the stretch. That’s what happens in our program.”
Steve Vasturia’s game leveled off come tournament time, but he is a battle-tested, steadying influence who has logged as many minutes as anyone over the last two years of Notre Dame’s success. He is a constant on both ends of the court with a level of constancy still to be attained.
Farrell should be in the mix for good now, adding ball-handling skills, some pretty impressive defense against North Carolina’s guards, and that “I-95 edge” Brey talks about.
Rex Pflueger needs to improve his offensive game, but he’s long, he’s tenacious and he adds a lockdown defender to Vasturia’s underrated ability to take on offensive stars of any shape, size, physicality and athleticism. Pflueger’s competitive nature is in the upper percentile.
Matt Ryan will become the deadeye shooter he was recruited to be. He’s that good, especially as he learns to extricate himself from defenses and get his shot.
If he can develop into the rebounder that a guy like Tim Abromaitis did, he’ll offer the well-rounded skills Brey’s four-around-one offense dictates.
Austin Torres provides energy, physicality and a commitment to the cause. He is glue to the model. Another incoming freshman, Nikola Djogo from Canada, is a long, bouncy athlete a la Pflueger, only with a polished long-range jumper.
The one player in the current mix that needs to up his game, particularly in post-season play, is Bonzie Colson, the junkyard dog bruiser whose game has stalled more than it has progressed.
Colson, whose height hurts him amidst the trees in the paint, has to use his 7-foot-1 wingspan and his physicality to his advantage, not fade away and avoid contact, which is counterproductive to his and his team’s cause. He is an approach adjustment away from being a much more consistently productive player.
“I love this group, and I love that we have a number of returning guys that have won in this tournament and feel they should win in this tournament,” Brey said.
The agony of defeat was evident in the Irish locker room, but so too was a level of mature realism. North Carolina is a buzz saw right now. It hurts, but the building blocks for another NCAA tournament run are ample if a couple other decisions fall their way.
“It takes a while to get that culture developed,” said Brey of the post-season expectations, which have now fully permeated the program. “I think we have it really strong.
“This team was tough, and we have a lot of guys coming back that can help us stay tough.”