Prister’s Thursday Thoughts

There are a multitude of possible reasons as to why Notre Dame said thanks but no thanks to Malik Vann. The benefit of the doubt rests with Mike Elko.

MOVING VANN
Spartan Digest

The Notre Dame football staff recently bypassed the opportunity to land Malik Vann, a four-star defensive end from Ohio who is listed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds.

They what?

That was the first – and natural – reaction to the news that the Irish had backed away from Vann, who recently confirmed it himself via Twitter.

Thanks but no thanks, as if the Irish had an ample supply of pass-rushing defensive ends who get after the quarterback and spend most of their game days in the opponent’s offensive backfield.

The 14 sacks and 61 tackles for loss in 2016 say otherwise.

So why in the name of Ross Browner would Notre Dame shut the door on a strongside defensive end with good but not great pass-rushing capabilities and a clear interest in choosing Notre Dame?

A knee-jerk reaction is natural as the remnants of the Brian VanGorder era linger. He pushed for marginal prospects such as Pete Mokwuah, Elijah Taylor, Brandon Tiassum and Micah Dew-Treadway, and now the Irish were turning their backs on a legit four-star prospect.

Rather than overreact, it makes more sense to analyze and assess. Why? Because this is a brand new era – the Mike Elko era – a guy who will work his tail off recruiting and recruits to his system rather than taking anyone that shows an interest.

Until further notice, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt – and then some – because of the quick track record he’s established.

Elko and the rest of Notre Dame’s recruiters finished very strong in the signing Class of 2017, landing legit prospects such as defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Jordan Genmark-Heath down the stretch.

The question still stands – why not take Vann? Let’s take a closer look at all the variables that are/could be in play.

What if Vann, listed at 6-foot-3, was closer to 6-foot-1½ when he came on a recent visit? What if the Irish coaching staff didn’t see Vann’s physical makeup extending much beyond his current 245?

What if behind closed doors, in the film room, Elko and his staff see better fits and equally realistic catches for the Irish such as Thomas Booker et al?

What if Elko sees Tagovailoa-Amosa as a better fit at strongside end than Vann? What if sophomore Khalid Kareem offers as much if not more at the position? What if the arrival of Jonathan MacCollister this August gives Notre Dame an abundance of options at that position? What if Class of 2018 strongside defensive end Justin Ademilola offers, in Elko’s mind, what Vann does?

The Irish are facing a numbers crunch in the recruiting Class of 2018. They have to be judicious in their choices, particularly with 10 prospects already committed. Overloading at one spot with a bunch of similar-type players would be foolhardy.

To think we know more about this than VanGorder ever considered is not a stretch. His track record of poor decisions and indifference preceded him. But not so with Elko, who not only brings an exciting new scheme to the equation, but also has a clear and concise plan regarding personnel and how it fits.

To have questions about Elko’s plan is natural; to dismiss his plan after all he’s done in a short period of time is an overreaction.

When it comes to Vann and any other decision Elko makes in the short term, my mind is wide open because the signs up to this point dictate it.

A TIME TO APPRECIATE

It seems as if more time is spent pointing out what a player can’t do than appreciating what that player offers to the equation. That’s the nature of the games we play.

It’s often only after Player A is gone that you realize what you had and what you will miss.

Steve Vasturia is about a 37 percent career three-point shooter – good, but not great. He has seldom been a consistent rebounder. He’s not flamboyant and never (okay, once) brings the crowd to its feet with a slam dunk. He’s workmanlike, and workmanlike often leaves some wanting more.

V.J. Beachem was a late bloomer. He scored just 64 points as a freshman and 196 as a sophomore. Until last season, all he did was shoot. He couldn’t penetrate and he’s still only an occasional rebounder. When he has a cold shooting night, he contributes little.

Vasturia and Beachem played their final game in Purcell Pavilion Wednesday night, and the time will come next year – even though the Irish should remain very solid in 2017-18 – when you’ll miss their contributions.

Vasturia has been a quality defensive player from day one. He’ll finish his career as one of the top 25 scorers and the No. 2 all-time Notre Dame free-throw shooter. (He’s tantalizingly close to setting the single-season mark set by Ryan Hoover.)

Vasturia is Notre Dame’s best finisher at the rim not named Bonzie Colson. He is unflappable and clutch. No matter how physically beaten down he is by the end of the season – he’s just not that strong -- he always answers the bell.

Beachem, as much as anyone, carried Notre Dame to the Elite Eight last season. For his career, he’s converted better than 40 percent of his three-point shots, which is all the more impressive since he is a high-volume shooter.

The Irish needed a shot-blocking presence in the paint, and he’s become that to some extent. Most importantly, he’s not shy about taking the big shot with the game on the line.

When Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant walked out the door two years ago, everyone knew what the Irish were losing. It was obvious.

When Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson walked out the door a year ago, everyone knew what the Irish were losing. It was obvious.

When Vasturia and Beachem walk out the door in the next few weeks, not everyone will realize what the Irish are losing. It won’t be as obvious because contributions on the basketball court aren’t always obvious.

The time has come to appreciate what these two have done for the program, and we’ll sum it up with two numbers: 79 and 26. Those are the number of Notre Dame wins and losses – a 75.2 winning percentage -- during the last three years.

Here are a couple other numbers to chew on: 37 and 16 – the number of ACC wins and losses the last three seasons. That’s a 70 percent winning mark in the best conference in the country.

Connaughton and Grant, Auguste and Jackson, Colson and Matt Farrell all have had a strong influence on those numbers. But over three years, Colson, Vasturia and Beachem have had the most and that’s worthy of a salute to two great Notre Dame winners.

BREY VS. DIGGER
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

With Notre Dame’s victory over Boston College Wednesday night, Mike Brey now has 379 victories with the Irish in 17 seasons. That’s a mere 14 shy of the Notre Dame all-time mark (393) set by Richard “Digger” Phelps.

With a chance to add a few more victories this season –- and the prospect of yet another quality team in 2017-18, led by Colson and Farrell – Brey will breeze past Phelps and likely reach the 400-victory mark in his 18th season with the Irish.

When that happens, who will be considered the greatest men’s basketball coach in Notre Dame history?

That’s the debate going on these days as Brey continues to build upon recent successes. It wasn’t a question, the victory total notwithstanding, until the last two years as Brey (and his NBA-level talent) made it to back-to-back Elite Eights and now threaten to claim a share of first place in the 2016-17 ACC regular-season.

To me, this is an apples and oranges comparison and, quite frankly, a meaningless exercise in minutia.

Phelps was and remains the pied piper of Notre Dame basketball. When Austin Carr left as the all-time leading scorer in Irish history nearly five decades ago, Notre Dame had virtually no noteworthy basketball history of which to speak.

Phelps quickly turned college basketball on its ear by creating a true national power with the ability to knock off No. 1-ranked teams at any given moment, including the greatest of all-time -- UCLA. In his seventh season, he led the Irish to the Final Four, followed by an Elite Eight trip.

Phelps’ last couple teams stumbled -- 16-13 and 12-20 -- before his inglorious exit. But he led the Irish to five Sweet 16 appearances, an Elite Eight and a Final Four. He put Notre Dame basketball on the map, and he did it with the bull-in-a-china-shop persona that today, at age 75, remains firmly intact.

He can be seen frequently sitting courtside, as he was again Wednesday night, still lording over the program he built into a powerhouse during the regular season, if not the post-season.

Who’s the best coach in the history of Notre Dame? How do you compare?

Phelps benefitted by a) not playing in a conference and b) participating  in a smaller field of NCAA tournament entries that allowed for an easier path to the Sweet 16.

Brey got to the Sweet 16 just once in his first 14 seasons at Notre Dame. But he turned the Irish into a Big East frontrunner. Nine times in his first 13 seasons, and seven of the last eight, the Irish have won double-digit conference games.

After a struggle in his first year in the ACC, Brey has a) won an ACC title and b) posted a 37-16 mark in conference play to go with those Elite Eights.

It remains important to Phelps that he be considered the greatest Notre Dame men’s basketball coach of all-time; Brey couldn’t give a damn about such titles, which only adds to the difficulty of declaring one over the other.

It’s impossible to make a distinction because the variables of their respective careers are so different. It simply doesn’t matter.

Both were/are what the program needed during their respective reigns. Both are the best men’s basketball coaches in the history of Notre Dame.

(Note: Thursday Thoughts will be on hiatus until the conclusion of the NCAA tournament.)


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