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The reconstruction of the Irish

The two greatest areas of concern looking ahead to the 2016-17 Irish are rebounding and defense. Zach Auguste is gone, and the defense is a hit-and-miss proposition.

Eventually, the loss of talent catches up, particularly when two NBA first-rounders, a second-rounder, and a high-level, NBA-ish big man leave in back-to-back years.

Notre Dame’s consecutive Elite 8 appearances came about because its head coach, Mike Brey, does a masterful job of meshing puzzle pieces with a positive working environment.

But make no mistake, it took the talent level of Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton, Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste to reach regional championship games against Kentucky and North Carolina in successive years.

All four of those players are now gone, two last year and, as of Wednesday, two this year as Jackson officially announced his intention to become a professional basketball player with a year of college eligibility remaining.

How does Notre Dame pick up the pieces in 2016-17 without a sure-fire NBA-level presence on the team? Here’s a look at each area.

Backcourt: Steve Vasturia (Sr.), Matt Farrell (Jr.), Rex Pflueger (Soph.), Temple Gibbs (Fr.)

Frontcourt: V.J. Beachem (Sr.), Austin Torres (Sr.), Bonzie Colson (Jr.), Martinas Geben (Jr.), Matt Ryan (Soph.), Elijah Burns (Soph.), John Mooney (Fr.), Nikola Djogo (Fr.)

Recruiting: Notre Dame’s best bet for a big man is 7-foot-0 Thon Maker (Orangeville, Ontario), a five-star prospect who recently announced visits to Notre Dame, Arizona State and UNLV. More of a longshot is 6-foot-9 Jarrett Allen (Austin, Texas), who likes the hometown Longhorns.

A fifth-year transfer would bridge the big-man gap in the short term.

Ball-handling: Notre Dame lost its best ball-handler in Demetrius Jackson, but the development of Matt Farrell over the last three weeks of the season provides confidence that the scrappy point guard is capable of handling the basketball and running the offense.

Farrell is not a 35-minute-a-game player, however, which means Steve Vasturia must continue to be a competent handler of the basketball from the two-guard position. Rex Pflueger also becomes very important in this area.

The bulk of the ball-handling duties beyond Farrell will fall into the hands of freshman Temple “T.J.” Gibbs, who arrives as a legitimate four-star prospect. He should have an excellent chance to succeed Jackson in the starting point-guard role.

Penetration: Without Jackson, who could break down most defenses by slicing through them – even some zones -- Vasturia must continue to improve in this area as defenses began to take away his penetration late in the season.

Farrell and Pflueger offer this skill, although Farrell doesn’t have the finishing skills of a Jackson or Vasturia. Pflueger, who has a long way to go with his jump shot, needs to make this a consistent asset with his length. His ability to penetrate, finish and/or kick to shooters is critical.

At least on the high school level, Gibbs not only shows the ability to penetrate, but he can finish with either hand around the bucket. Plus, listed at 6-foot-3, he has the size to contend with the trees in the paint.

V.J. Beachem added this to his repertoire late in the season, and it was a huge benefit to the Irish offense. When he’s confident in his skills and goes for it, he has more than enough hops to finish like a champ, as he did on a devastating baseline drive-and-jam against North Carolina.

Shooting: The Irish should have two of the better shooters in the ACC in Beachem and Matt Ryan, whose role figures to expand as Brey makes sure his lineup has plenty of long-range snipers. Both have great length to help facilitate getting their shot when they want it.

Beachem was an outstanding 44.4 percent three-point shooter (88-of-198) in 2015-16, and many of those came in the post-season when it was clear that he was the man to stop for the Irish.

Ryan has the mechanics to be a 40 percent three-point shooter as well. He converted 46-of-123 (37.4 percent), which is a very solid first year, especially considering he rarely was afforded the playing time to get in a shooting groove.

Vasturia should be the beneficiary of playing extended minutes with Beachem and Ryan, who will get the most attention from the opposition. That should give him plenty of clean looks. Vasturia is a streaky shooter (45-of-131, 34.4 percent) who really struggled down the stretch of the season. His shot is flat and his release has an uncertain deliberateness to it that doesn’t portend consistency.

Farrell connected on 11-of-34 (32.4 percent) three-pointers and does not look like a sharpshooter from distance, although additional playing time likely will help him bump that up. He’s not a guy that needs to attempt more than a one or two from long range in most games with the cast that will surround him. He does, however, have to make the opposition respect his ability to bang down an open look.

Gibbs is a true shooting point guard. He has long-distance range coming out of the prep ranks. How well that translates onto the college level remains to be seen, but based upon comparative games coming out of high school, Gibbs looks to be a more consistent three-point shooting threat than Jackson. Jackson converted just 33.1 percent of his three-pointers this season.

If there’s need (or room) for another shooter, it’s long, bouncy incoming freshman Nikola Djogo, who has great range and a free-and-easy jumper. His time may be down the road a little further.

Rebounding: This will be a primary focus. Zach Auguste was good for about 35-to-40 percent of Notre Dame’s rebounds at 10.7 per game. Bonzie Colson averaged 6.7 rebounds playing 25.3 minutes per game.

If Colson becomes a consistent enough player to log 30-to-32 minutes per game, he can be a guy that averages in the nine-rebounds-per-game range. But he doesn’t take full advantage of his bulk by consistently putting a body on opponents in the paint, and his best basketball has come early in the season, not late, in each of his first two years in the program.

The Irish need some length behind Colson’s seven-foot wingspan on his 6-foot-5 body, and this is where the greatest questions arise.

Torres likely is never going to be a heavy minutes guy, but his time for a more extended role appears to have arrived. He’s a banger and a warrior that has assets, albeit limited.

Word from the practice floor is that Geben can be a terror. But he still looks too heavy without a lot of bounce and predominately a below-the-rim player.

Can Geben adapt to a four-around-one model? Does he have the footwork to get up and down the court, plus the hops to contend with ACC frontline athleticism? From the outside looking in, it doesn’t appear so.

Burns is a promising-looking prospect who sat out the season following micro-fracture knee surgery. At 6-foot-9, he’s put together well. His high school tape indicated the ability to play above the rim. The Irish sure could use this kid to begin playing to his potential because his upside among the unproven bigs is likely the greatest.

Mooney looks like a below-the-rim banger, which is needed. He also might be the best player on the roster at boxing out underneath, which is a perennial program shortcoming.

The best way for Ryan to assure continued playing time is to develop his rebounding skills to go along with his picture-perfect jumper. Tim Abromaitis was a shooter with a limited rebounding background, and he made himself into a guy that could snag seven or eight off the glass on a regular basis.

Beachem’s great ups should allow him to improve upon his 3.9 rebounds per game. It’s just a matter of emphasis. At 6-foot-6, Vasturia certainly is capable of improving upon his 2.6 average on the backboards. For Vasturia, it’s a matter of commitment to that aspect of his game.

Even at a paper-thin 200 pounds, Maker would help Notre Dame on the backboards with his incredible length and reach.

• Defense: The most limiting factor within the program, which is the flip side of a coach who has always won with offensive flow over defensive prowess/commitment.

The two best defensive players in the program are Pflueger and Vasturia. Pflueger’s minutes will be dictated by his offensive improvement. Vasturia rarely comes off the floor, and that likely won’t change, although the Irish need more consistency from him. His ability to play against opponents large and small, fast and strong, is an underrated asset.

Farrell showed himself well against Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig and North Carolina’s backcourt. But his size can be an issue against bigger guards.

Colson should be a better defender than he is. His lack of height can be offset by using his body to defend, which he does inconsistently. Torres, at 6-foot-7, is a scrapper who makes it challenging for guys taller and bigger than him. His offensive limitations, however, put a cap on his minutes.

The rest of the roster literally is unproven on the defensive end, although Mooney is a bigger body that suggests the ability to help the Irish bang a bit in the paint.


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