BadgerNation: What have been the biggest surprises and disappointments in Notre Dame's 2015-16 season?
Tim Prister: After starting out 1-2, Notre Dame surprisingly won its next 8 of 10, including a win at Duke and home victories over North Carolina and Louisville. It was uncertain whether Notre Dame had the leadership and maturity with the loss of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. To bounce back like that after such a shaky start quickly took Notre Dame from a team that might not make the NCAA tournament to a double-bye ACC tournament team.
The disappointment came early (losses to Monmouth and Alabama) and late by losing four of its last seven before the NCAA tournament when they lost their offensive rhythm.
BN: Notre Dame was a basket away from making the Final Four last season and playing Wisconsin. Who from that team has taken the biggest steps forward this year?
TP: Zach Auguste has matured into a dominant big man, as inconsistency and lacking the emotional wherewithal to avoid the ups-and-downs of a season plagued him early in his career. He’s gained control of his emotions and has found a “go for it” gear that we weren’t sure we were going to see.
The biggest jump has been made by junior V.J. Beachem, who has become a go-to guy in the postseason tournaments. He’s shooting .465 from three for the year and has averaged 15.8 in last four (two ACC tournament, two NCAA) after averaging 11.1 during season. He’s a quiet kid who has come out of his shell. Being a demonstrative player hasn’t come easily to him. It’s clicked in now.
BN: The Irish play a slower tempo (321st in Kenpom) but have the seventh most efficient offense in the country (119.2 points per 100 possession). What makes their offense tick?
TP: It’s always been (Irish head coach Mike) Brey’s free-flowing offense that doesn’t emphasize sets as much as reactive, instinctual offensive flow. They space the floor well and he’s almost always had a bevy of 3-point shooters. He doesn’t have as many now because he relies on Demetrius Jackson’s penetration and distribution, and Auguste has been spectacular underneath. They’ve always protected the ball well, although they went through a rash of turnovers recently. They’ve always been a high-assist, low-turnover program under Brey.
BN: What have been the biggest problems defensively for Notre Dame this season?
TP: Notre Dame’s biggest problem has always been a true lack of commitment to defense. Brey is an offensive coach, so sometimes when they press that defensive button, it doesn’t fire. They’ve never been a particularly gritty, get-stops-when-they-need-it team, although they certainly got stops late against Stephen F. Austin that allowed for the game-winning tip-in. This is where I believe Wisconsin has the greatest advantage. If the game is decided by defense, the Badgers win.
BN: What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Notre Dame trouble? Where do you think the Irish have the edge over the Badgers?
TP: Notre Dame has a tendency to turn cold-shooting teams into hot-shooting teams. Wisconsin’s field-goal percentage in its first two NCAA tournament games is below 40 percent. Notre Dame has been a cure-all for poor shooting teams, particularly from 3-point range. Now that Koenig is hot, he’ll likely stay hot against Notre Dame. I could see the Badgers having a huge 3-point shooting game.
The greatest edge comes in Final Four experience. Notre Dame has post-season experience now with the ACC tournament championship last year and now five NCAA tournament wins in the last two seasons. But they don’t have more than Wisconsin. Perhaps that’s negated by the fact that Notre Dame has more returning players that played key roles last year than Wisconsin. But Hayes and Koenig played significant roles last year, and I really liked Showalter’s game against Xavier. Wisconsin has some bounce off the bench in Khalil Iverson. The winning culture at Wisconsin is further embedded than it is at Notre Dame.
BN: Who is the biggest x-factor for Notre Dame in order to beat Wisconsin Friday?
TP: Steve Vasturia. Vasturia and Beachem have kind of exchanged roles. Vasturia, the steadying influence on the team, has gone cold. He’s 7-of-32 from three in the last nine games and is averaging less than nine points per game after scoring at a 12-point clip. Our stated x-factor heading into last weekend was Beachem and he responded. If Notre Dame can get Beachem-Vasturia to be productive in tandem – with Auguste and Jackson offering a typically solid performance – they’ll win.