In a program that never has a “one-and-done” and thrives on players who excel with time in the system, Notre Dame – coming off back-to-back Elite Eights minus significant NBA talent – will compete for its seventh NCAA tournament appearance in the last eight seasons.
A deep, talented, competitive Atlantic Coast Conference that will have as many as 10 teams contending for an NCAA tournament bid will challenge the Irish in Mike Brey’s 17th season on the job.
“We just lost four NBA players in two years,” said Brey at Tuesday’s media day. “That’s a major drain on your talent.
“But we still have a lot of guys that have won together and have won at a high level. We’ve got a heckuva lot to work with and we’re still old. Get old and stay old has been a theme around here. We’ve still got experience.”
Seniors Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem and Austin Torres, and juniors Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell, will carry the baton passed on by Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste, who have moved on to the NBA the last two seasons.
Expectations are measured on the outside due to the talent drain. The attitude among Notre Dame’s nucleus sees it a bit differently.
“I don’t have to talk about goals,” Brey said. “This group talks about playing past the Elite Eight. That’s awesome when you’re culture generates that kind of leadership and tone without me getting involved.”
Brey takes a measured and realistic approach as one who has been through the wars in the old Big East and the ACC. But his optimism is valid as well.
“I know how hard it is to earn an NCAA bid,” Brey said. “You’ve got to have access to the thing before you can have fun in March like we have the last two years. It will be harder for us to get a bid this year given what we lost and that the league is amazingly deep.
“Having said that, I think we have a great chance to do that. We’d like to get back in the thing and have fun in March.”
Leading the way for the Irish will be Vasturia (11.4 ppg.), a key man in Notre Dame’s Elite Eight runs, and Beachem (12.0 ppg.), who caught fire in the post-season last year, launching its second straight deep run in the NCAA tournament. Colson, at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, is Notre Dame’s bull in the paint and double-double candidate.
“He’s going to have to play longer minutes for us,” said Brey of Colson.
Entering the starting lineup are Geben, a 6-foot-10, 255-pounder who has shaped his body into a more agile frame while still maintaining physicality, and Farrell, who takes over for Jackson at the point.
“Martin is a key for us,” Brey said. “We need him to have one of those junior years that we’ve had with guys around here.
“We’ve given (Farrell) the ball and said, ‘You’re the guy to run the team.’ I don’t want any indecision. He delivered for us in March. He’s a more confident guy because we’ve said it’s your team. Now run the team.”
Brey calls sophomore Rex Pflueger, a lithe 6-foot-6 defensive specialist, the “sixth starter.” Pflueger can slash to the basket, use his athleticism, and complement Vasturia as a top-level defender, although his jump shot remains a work in progress.
Torres, a senior with two years of eligibility, is undersized at 6-foot-7, but has some muscle (240 pounds) and great court awareness, especially as it applies to playing a role in Notre Dame’s system.
“Torres is Torres,” Brey said. “He gives us energy and he’s been a voice and a leader in his fourth year in the program. His role is limited, but he knows, ‘That’s what I do.’ He’s been an amazingly energizing force, even when he’s gone a few games without getting much playing time.”
Also in the mix is 6-foot-7, 228-pound Matt Ryan, a sharpshooter in the mold of Tim Abromaitis who’s been slowed by a stress reaction in his foot. Six-foot-eight, 235-pound sophomore Elijah Burns, who missed the 2015-16 season with a knee injury, and freshmen T.J. Gibbs and John Mooney will get their shots.
“(Burns) is a physical specimen,” Brey said. “He throws that body around. He really knows how to play, and there’s not a better voice out there. He’s talking on offense, he’s talking on defense, and he’s one of those bigs we’ve got to keep alive and let him get a bite of it.”
Gibbs is a combo guard who will complement Farrell at the point. Mooney is a “stretch four” with his shooting range, but also will provide physicality in the paint.
“There’s a great toughness and will about him given he’s the youngest of two brothers that beat on him in the gym,” said Brey of Gibbs, whose older brothers Ashton (Pittsburgh) and Sterling (Texas, Seton Hall and UConn) excelled on the collegiate level.
“Johnny Mooney has been impressive. He’s physically ready to play as a young guy. He can stretch the floor and shoot it like Rob Kurz did from that spot.”
The pre-conference schedule features Colorado and Texas or Northwestern in the Thanksgiving week Legends Classic in Brooklyn, Iowa, defending national champ Villanova, and Purdue before opening ACC play at Pittsburgh on New Year’s Eve day.
“People respected our program before the last two years,” Brey said. “But the last two years have kicked us to a new level.
“It drives the confidence of that locker room. Those guys have played in big games. Many of them made big plays in big games, and you just can’t simulate that in practice. You’ve got to experience that, and we’ve got a good nucleus.”