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Futures Market: ND Hoops 2017-2018

The Irish return a ton of basketball talent in 2017-18, led by Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell. There will be more big-man options on a team full of shooting potential.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The 2016-17 season had just come to an inglorious conclusion.

The Fighting Irish, one step from achieving a second-weekend ticket to the NCAA tournament, fell short well short against West Virginia after back-to-back Elite Eights.

Now comes the prospect of moving on to the 2017-18 season without the No. 22 (Steve Vasturia) and No. 40 (V.J. Beachem) all-time leading scorers in Notre Dame basketball history.

“As I told the young guys, ‘You had, yet again, another great example of two seniors who have led and have been men and prepared every day,’” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey following a convincing 83-71 loss to West Virginia. “I’ll miss those guys.”

Brey had both eyes on the present but some occasional glances at the future during Notre Dame’s run to the ACC championship game, through the hard-fought two-point victory over Princeton, and the Mountaineers’ complete performance against the Irish.

“This time of year I’m always thinking a little bit about next year,” Brey said. “I mentioned (to the team), ‘Maybe the most important game of the year was the Pittsburgh game.’

“To start 1-0 on the road, I took the two seniors out and next year’s starting lineup gave us an eight- or nine-point lead. We were able to ride that out and the seniors came back in and made some big plays.”

Beachem and Vasturia struggled in the ACC-opener. Beachem finished with just six points, missing all five of his three-point attempts. Vasturia came on big in overtime, scoring eight of Notre Dame’s 10 points, including the game-winning three-pointer with 2.5 seconds remaining.

“That really sticks in my mind,” Brey said. “Those guys that will rotate up into key roles have all had a taste of big games. I’m looking at those seven guys. They’ve all been part of some good stuff, and I really feel good about Johnny (Mooney) and Elijah (Burns). We’ve got to find ways to get them going.”

Make no mistake, Vasturia and Beachem are huge losses for the Irish. Yes, Vasturia’s jump shot was and always will be flat. Yes, Beachem went through some horrific shooting slumps.

But Vasturia was Notre Dame’s best penetrating finisher around the basket, a one-for-the-ages free-throw shooter, and a lockdown defender both individually and within the team concept.

Beachem was a career 39.1 percent (228-of-582) three-point shooter who had six or more rebounds in four of the last 10 games. He also added some much-needed shot-blocking/shot-altering skills to his repertoire as a senior.

What remains, however, is an exciting blend of talent.

BONZIE COLSON/MATT FARRELL
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Provided Colson returns for his senior season – it’s pointing that way, but nothing is certain – the Irish will enter the 2017-18 season with a solid foundation and tremendous building blocks in the front and backcourt.

“You’ve got a national player of the year candidate coming back and you’ve got one of the best point guards in the country,” said Brey of Colson and Farrell.

“So your guy in the hole and your guy at the point…what do they say in baseball? Be (strong up) the middle? We’re pretty good down the middle with those two guys.”

Brey and Colson will discuss the options in terms of testing the NBA waters, as Beachem did a year ago.

“I think he knows he should be a four-year guy, but like with any of our guys, if it’s time to analyze and evaluate, and if one team loves you and it’s the 18th pick in the draft, I’ll be the first to shake his hand,” Brey said. “We’ll sit down with the family next week and talk about that.”

Said Colson following Saturday’s game: “I haven’t even thought about anything like that. I don’t know. I haven’t talked to my family yet.”

Farrell had one of his more anonymous games this season against West Virginia. As the only legitimate ball handler against West Virginia’s press, Farrell carried a big burden, just as Colson did up front as Beachem, in particular, Vasturia and the rest of the team struggled to score.

Farrell took just six shots – his fewest in 15 games – converting 2-of-4 from three-point range, scoring eight points and handing out six assists with four turnovers.

It was tough ending to an otherwise brilliant junior season as a leader, distributor and clutch three-point shooter.

“We’ll get back at it,” Farrell said. “I guarantee you we’ll get back at it.”

With Colson and Farrell back in 2017-18, the Irish would be assured of garnering some pre-season attention, even if Brey would prefer to continue flying under the radar during the pre-season.

“Pick us ninth! Please! Pick us ninth!” Brey joked.

“You look at what you’ve got coming back and those two guys are two of the 10 best players in the ACC. So you feel like let’s keep doing what we’re doing, get back in this thing and make a run at it again.”

REX PFLUEGER
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

The junior-to-be ascends to a leadership role, a task he naturally gravitated to in February and March, particularly once he entered the starting lineup in 11 of the last 12 games.

“Trust me, I’m already thinking about it,” said Pflueger of the areas of his game he intends to tackle. “Redefining my body, getting ready to play major minutes, and then getting better in all aspects of the game, mentally and physically.”

“I think my aggression toward the boards has improved,” added Pflueger, who had 40 rebounds in the last 10 games. “That’s why I say I want to get better mentally. (Establishing) that thought process of being aggressive on both ends of the floor.”

Pflueger shot a solid 39.7 percent from three-point range (27-of-68), taking a judicious approach on a team that had other, more capable shooters. His flawed jump shot – there’s a snapping motion not conducive to a consistent touch -- puts a ceiling on how much he increases his long-range offerings.

But his defensive abilities are special and his commitment to making sure Brey’s plan is executed gives the Irish another building block with Colson and Farrell. An improved, more consistent approach to penetration and finishing around the rim is more important to this team than his three-point shooting.

AUSTIN TORRES
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

The fifth-year senior in 2017-18 will be named a captain, according to Brey, which helps with the leadership lost by the departure of generally-reserved Vasturia and Beachem.

Torres’ offensive skills and free-throw shooting will always be shortcomings, but his energy off the bench and his ability to make impactful plays within seconds after stepping on the court offers a glue piece to a team transitioning into Phase 4 of the recent success.

In an offensive system that has leaned toward a four-around-one or five-out look, Torres will have a difficult time dramatically increasing his playing time, particularly as John Mooney and Elijah Burns join the suddenly-crowded frontcourt with Colson, Torres and Martin Geben. Torres remains, however, a valuable chip to the big picture.

MARTINAS GEBEN
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

When he lost his starting job in the 12th game of the 18-game ACC slate, it looked like he might be lost for the rest of the season. Geben went nine games with four points and six rebounds and two DNPs mixed in.

But Brey went back to Geben in the 17th ACC game – at home against Boston College – and Geben became a productive player during a three-game stretch when he averaged 12 minutes per game with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Geben was a lesser factor in the final four games against Florida State, Duke, Princeton and West Virginia. But he looked like a player on the rise down the stretch, which once again raised promise moving forward, albeit guarded.

Geben understands team defense, he’s an above-average passer as a big man, and when he asserts himself and plays with confidence, he’s an asset.

Unbeknownst to many, he’s a quality free-throw shooter at 76.6 percent (23-of-30) in 2016-17 and 78.3 percent (47-of-60) in his career. Perhaps a better touch around the rim could evolve from that soft free-throw touch.

T.J. GIBBS
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An aggressive defender and a quality free-throw shooter – he was 6-of-6 in the NCAA tournament and finished the season at 83.0 percent (49-of-59) – Gibbs’ game needs a lot of work.

For starters, Gibbs needs to change his body and his physical conditioning. He needs to be a more finely-tuned athlete who maximizes his assets. He’s strong, which helps him on the defensive end and gives him a future as a driving, penetrating presence.

But he’s a short-stepping athlete who needs to increase his athleticism and ability to explode to the basket. He played well below the rim on drives this season, which makes it difficult to finish, as Farrell found out on many occasions.

Gibbs’ ball-handling bordered on high-school like against West Virginia. He needs to live with a basketball in his hands between now and next season.

He’s not ready to be a point guard, which is fine since Farrell has another year. But he’ll be asked to do much more next year, including handling the basketball when the sharp-shooting Farrell is hunting his shot or needs a blow.

Brey believes there’s a lot of upside with Gibbs. Even his reactive technical foul against West Virginia wasn’t all that bad, according to his head coach.

“T.J. was great,” Brey said. “He is such a competitive dude. He feels so bad about the technical. He’s a warrior. I told him, ‘Relax, don’t you worry about it.’

“When he did it, a couple of our assistants were mad and I go, ‘I kind of like that. We needed a little fight today.’

“He’s a battler, he’s a fighter, and he will be a key guy for us. He’ll have more minutes. There’s a great toughness about him that I love.”

Brey’s first order of business with Gibbs is similar to what it was with Farrell during his first two years in the program.

“Decisions with the ball,” Brey said. “(Gibbs’) assist-to-turnover has got to be better because he’s going to be in a quarterbacking, playmaking spot more now.

“He’s a better three-point shooter than his numbers (17-of-53, 32.1 percent). He hasn’t had a chance to get into a good rhythm. He’s a good shooter, like his brothers. They can all shoot the ball. I think he’ll be a weapon shooting the basketball when he plays more minutes.”

MATT RYAN
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The sophomore wasn’t able to mask his disappointment over his lack of playing time in 2016-17. He was visibly upset with his 11 minutes against West Virginia as Beachem struggled through another tough shooting game. Pflueger consoled a frustrated Ryan when Ryan was yanked out of the lineup after yet another short stint.

Ryan has to first decide whether he wants to be a member of the program the next two years and commit to the cause. As an upperclassman, he would be afforded the same benefit of the doubt from Brey that Beachem did, as long as he makes a commitment to becoming a more complete player, which begins on the defensive end and as a rebounder.

Ryan has the potential to be a phenomenal shooter. His two-year 39.8 percentage from three-point range (82-of-206) speaks volumes. He has great size, a high release point and a clean jumper, which makes him a real potential weapon as a junior and senior. His range is deep and his shot is a thing of beauty.

If he can learn how to play basketball within the Brey system – he hasn’t yet – he’ll be a key piece to Notre Dame’s future fortunes.

JOHN MOONEY/ELIJAH BURNS
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Two untapped talents as Brey played to his team’s strengths/experience in 2016-17.

Mooney is a sturdy (6-foot-9, 245 pounds), hard-working, mature young man with shooting range. He knew his playing time was not going to materialize this season, but he could be seen working up a sweat before practices with big-man coach Ryan Humphrey.

He has the potential to be a significant piece to Notre Dame’s future up front.

Burns also is a committed future piece at 6-foot-8, 235 pounds. He communicates well on the court and understands the importance of doing Notre Dame’s “dirty work” in a program that accentuates the three-point shot. He is one of Notre Dame’s better off-the-ball screeners.

The concern with Burns, who looks great physically, is that he’s a below-the-rim big man. It’s uncertain exactly what he brings to the equation on the offensive end, but his communication within a team defense can be an asset.

Mooney and Burns will compete with Colson, Torres and Geben for playing time, which makes for an interesting issue on Brey’s hands. Does he accentuate a more traditional two-bigs approach, or does it continue to be a Colson-led frontcourt surrounded by shooters?

At the very least, Notre Dame’s big-man options will be vast compared to the 2016-17 season. The emergence of one or both would give the offense another approach beyond the team’s shooting prowess.

NIKOLA DJOGO/D.J. HARVEY
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The two freshmen on the team with Djogo preserving a year of eligibility in 2016-17 and Harvey the solo member of the incoming freshman Class of 2017.

The left-handed-shooting Djogo is a fascinating prospect. At 6-foot-7 and now in the 215-pound range after entering at 203, Djogo appears to be a quality shooting option. He has an unblockable high release point at his size and has been a dead-eye shooter visible to the media in pre-practice situations.

Brey also has said that Djogo has all-day energy. Djogo paces most running drills in practice with his long, springy athleticism.

Unless Harvey arrives with great maturity and a quick adaptation to Brey’s system, it’s going to be difficult for him to get minutes, at least on the surface. He is another longish, bouncy shooter who can penetrate and finish at the rim with either hand, or pop out and nail what appears to be a very aesthetic jump shot.

These are two promising, athletic shooters, each with four years of eligibility.


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