Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated

Expectations Run High For Brey, Irish

Attrition among ACC frontrunners has hit hard. Brey believes returning two of the best players in the conference will make the Irish one of the ACC’s pre-season favorites.

The loss of Steve Vasturia’s overall game and V.J. Beachem’s heat-check shooting will be felt, just as the departure of Jerian Grant/Pat Connaughton following the 2015-16 season and Demetrius Jackson/Zach Auguste after the 2016-17 campaign had to be absorbed.

But as the Irish gather for their once-a-week practice with the coaching staff this summer, Mike Brey – entering his 18th year at the helm of the Fighting Irish – sees a familiar basketball team with diversification in the frontcourt as well as the backcourt.

Nothing pleases Brey more than having an “old” basketball team.

“You’ve got a culture that’s still very strong,” said Brey to Irish Illustrated. “The tone will be set by 10 returning guys that have won a lot. I love that dynamic.

“We’ve got a lot of interchangeable parts. We’ve had 10 or 11 good players in practice for a couple of years. I’m excited to experiment.”

This may be Brey’s most versatile team in terms of inside-outside presence. Player-of-the-Year candidate Bonzie Colson anchors a deep frontcourt while senior Matt Farrell – one of the great out-of-nowhere stories in all of college basketball last season – spearheads a relatively young but dynamic backcourt.

“Losing two key guys every year seems to be our theme,” Brey said. “But if you look at some of the pre-season stuff, the thought now is that we’re going to be able to replace them and be okay.”

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The greatest challenge facing the Irish – winners of 82 games the last three seasons – will be finding playing time for a crowded frontcourt in a system that gravitates toward a tried-and-true four-around-one system.

After losing four in a row to fall to 6-5 in conference play last season, Brey turned to his perimeter-oriented approach. The Irish reeled off six straight victories and eight of their last 10 in ACC regular-season play to qualify as the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament.

Colson, an all-ACC first-team selection and a leading candidate for multiple top awards nationally, is a given after averaging 17.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.

“Bonz has a chance to be the conference player of the year, the national player of the year, the Wooden Award winner…,” Brey said. “The great thing about Bonz is that nobody wants to win more than that guy.

“When your best and most decorated guy is unselfish and wants to win, that helps with everybody’s frame of mind. Guys love playing with him. They love his toughness and edge. It’s contagious.”

The battle for playing time around the glass – after Colson -- has begun this summer. Fifth-year senior Austin Torres, senior Martinas Geben, red-shirt sophomore Elijah Burns and sophomore John Mooney are battling for a niche up front that will be dominated by Colson.

While Geben showed well late in the 2016-17 season after struggling, and Torres provides instant productivity virtually every time he gets a two-or-three-minute stint, Brey would like to see Mooney and/or Burns apply pressure for playing time.

“They’re our future on the frontline,” said Brey of Mooney and Burns. “They’re both 250 pounds. There’s a toughness about them. They can rebound. They’re great with the ball. They’re really good passers. They know how to play as a big guy in our system. They both can stretch and make a shot.

“The dilemma I’m going to have is I’ve got a lot of big guys and nothing has really changed. Can they beat somebody out? Can they put pressure on Torres and Geben? They’re our future and we’ve got to keep developing them.”

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What Colson is to the frontcourt, Farrell is to the backcourt, only there are more spots to fill, which will allow junior Rex Pflueger, sophomore T.J. Gibbs, red-shirt freshman Nikola Djogo and freshman D.J. Harvey ample opportunities to contribute.

“I thought he would be very ready last year, but he was better than I thought,” said Brey of Farrell. “How he reacted to being thrown into the starting lineup in the NCAA tournament (in 2016) told me everything I needed to know.

“I was like, ‘Okay, we can give him the ball and he’ll be ready.’ But he just exploded right away.”

As a 42 percent shooter from three-point range, Farrell will be tasked with helping pick up the slack lost by Beachem’s long-range scoring and Vasturia’s penetration game.

“He’s going to have to score for us,” Brey said. “He’s got to hunt his shot a little earlier in the clock. He could defer last year because he had V.J. and Steve. I’ve gotten on him (this summer) about turning shots down.

“He said, ‘We haven’t passed it enough.’ I said, ‘Matt, you’ve got to think of yourself as more of a scorer earlier in the shot clock.’ His percentages are so high, that’s not being a bad point guard. That’s a good shot for us.”

The frontcourt-backcourt punch of Colson-Farrell will be one of the best in the ACC.

“In baseball, they say when you’re strong up the middle, you’ve got a chance,” Brey said. “Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell give us strong up the middle. They’re two of the 10 best returning players in the ACC, and maybe two of the best five or six returning players. They’ll set a great tone in our leadership.”

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Pflueger, who averaged 21 minutes per game last season and shot an efficient 39.7 percent from three-point range on 68 attempts, has improved his shooting form since coming to Notre Dame, but likely will never be a prolific shooter from long range.

First and foremost, he must be Notre Dame’s top defender now that Vasturia is gone while continuing to make good choices when he decides to load up and let it fly.

“The one thing we don’t want to mess with is what he brings on the defensive end,” Brey said. “He’ll always be that for us and he understands that.

“We need him to score and hunt his shot, but he’s still got to take good shots. His percentage was high last season because he took good shots. I don’t want him to forget his mid-range game and his driving because he gets fouled and he’s athletic around the basket.”

Brey expects Gibbs to pick up the slack lost on the defensive end with Vasturia’s departure.

“T.J. Gibbs can really guard,” Brey said. “He’s tough, strong and he’s improving his concentration on getting through screens. I think he can really helps us in that department.

“Plus, he can score. He came in for us last year and would score seven or eight points in 14 minutes. There’s a scoring need there given what we lost with V.J. and Steve.”

Djogo and Harvey will seek roles on the 2017-18 team as well.

“Djogo is athletic, he can run, he can rebound, he’s long and he’s explosive,” Brey said. “He’s a better defender than he knows and he can shoot it. He’s an intriguing body with a great frame of mind. He’s got to take better care of the ball, but we said the same thing about Farrell and Pflueger early on.”

Harvey – Scout’s No. 44 prospect in the Class of 2017 – offers the Irish a dynamic scoring threat in the making. For Brey, however, that’s low on the priority list during Harvey’s rookie season.

“Harvey can sit down in his stance and athletically guard people,” Brey said. “I want him to keep it simple. Defend and rebound. Don’t worry about hunting your shot and forcing stuff up. Work your way into our culture by playing defense and rebounding first.”

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Whereas the Irish were considered one- and two-year wonders following their back-to-back Elite Eight runs, the pre-season landscape in 2017-18 will look much different.

“We’ll play with some expectations now,” Brey said. “The last couple of years, we’ve been picked seventh, eighth, ninth…I don’t think we’ll be picked that low this year, and I would agree with that.”

The underdog role doesn’t apply to the Irish anymore.

“People haven’t been sure about us and it’s been fuel for our players,” Brey said. “We’re going to be thought of as a team that will be right there challenging for a double-bye and the ACC championship.”

Brey’s deft handling of expectations and egos will come into play.

“What I’m going to have to help this group with, because their expectations for themselves are so high – which is the sign of a great culture – is getting them over disappointment when they lose a game and not being suicidal and thinking the world is ending,” Brey laughed.

“I’m going to have to keep this group loose because they want it really, really bad.” Top Stories