Last year at this time, the talk was of Notre Dame’s man in the middle – Zach Auguste – averaging a double-double. He ultimately achieved that goal by scoring at a 14.0 clip with 10.7 rebounds per game.
Comparable numbers will be expected of junior Bonzie Colson this winter in a slightly different role.
As for the four big men who will theoretically replace Auguste and assist Colson up front, the goals are much more modest.
“Each of the big men understands the responsibility we have to fill in the role,” said junior Martinas Geben, the 6-foot-10, 255-pounder who played sparingly his first two years in the program. “All of us are very excited about the opportunity.”
That opportunity requires some very simple guidelines.
“For them and us to be successful, we have to set screens for our guards,” said first-year assistant coach Ryan Humphrey, who will be counting on Geben, fourth-year junior Austin Torres, red-shirt freshman Elijah Burns, and true freshman John Mooney to compete for the workload up front.
“From there, we have to shape up and get mismatches. Instead of everyone wanting to get the ball on the box and trying to make some Hakeem Olajuwon moves, let’s just keep it simple, let’s set good screens, and when we’re rolling, most of the time we’ll have a guard on our back.”
For Burns, a 6-foot-8, 235-pounder who offers the Irish the promise of a big man who can play with his back to the basket or facing it, it starts with effort.
“For all our bigs, we’ve just got to play hard,” said Burns, who sat out the 2015-16 season following micro-fracture surgery on his right knee. “That’s what Z brought: a lot of intensity.
“Obviously, he had great numbers, averaging a double-double. But all we can ask ourselves is to play as hard as we can and do what we have to do. If that gets us to Z’s numbers, then that’s what it is.”
The 6-foot-7 Torres is the elder statesman of the group, and despite his limited offensive skills, he’s as qualified as any of the Irish big men to accomplish the goals set for them. He’s currently at a career-high 245 pounds.
“A little more perimeter defending and being able to handle the ball more,” said Torres of the additions to his role with the Irish, which have always been defense, rebounding and energy off the bench.
“Coach has said we’ve been moving the ball really well when I’ve been in the game because I’ve attracted people on rolls and have gotten people open. It’s pretty much the same as it’s been since I’ve been here. I’m trying to bring the productivity in minutes a lot higher than it’s been.”
For the time being, it’s Geben who is slated to open the season as Notre Dame’s starting big man. There’s plenty of water to flow under the bridge between now and the start of the regular season in mid-November. But the plan is to give Geben first crack at the spot.
“I think it’s going to be by community, but I’ve been very pleased with Martin Geben,” Brey said. “We’ve played him with the key guys a lot (this summer).”
Brey, one of college basketball’s great confidence-givers, left no doubt with Geben prior to the start of six organized summer practices that he would be the guy getting the first call.
“I told him, ‘When you come down here in the spring, you better not have a blue (second-team) shirt on. You better have a white shirt on and think of yourself as a starter,’” Brey said.
“I told him, ‘Here’s what I want you to do. Get (V.J.) Beachem and (Steve) Vasturia open, defend and rebound. We’ll drop stuff off to you. You don’t have to do anything else.’”
Brey has churned out player after player who has muddled along for two years in the program and then emerged in Year Three.
“He’s one of those guys here who when it’s his junior year, it’s time,” said Brey of Geben. “Martin is really sharp. He knows what will keep him on the court. He gets it and embraces the role. I think he’s very ready to be a starter for us. That’s the plan.”
But if Geben falters, there’s the Torres, the freshman Mooney and the intriguing Burns, who provides promise amidst the great unknown.
“Zach was more of a post-up guy,” Burns said. “I can pop out to 15 feet and hit the shot.
“But I just want to make the right play. Penetrate, kick, go to the basket, and get my own shot. My strengths are my intensity and being a great teammate. Playing hard every possession and picking my teammates up when things go wrong.”
Come the start of the ACC schedule, Notre Dame figures to be a great unknown for the rest of the league as well as Brey and his staff.
“It could be a thing where we turn to all of them throughout a season,” said Brey of his multiple big men. “It could be all hands on deck.”