Mike Brey is certainly glad to have the March monkey off his back. Brey and the 2014-15 Irish silenced the critics who spurn Notre Dame for annually crumbling in the season’s biggest moments with an ACC Tournament Championship and a deep March Madness run. The Irish were one Jerian Grant fade-away jumper away from slaying the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats and earning a trip to the Final Four. Entering the new season, Brey faces yet another daunting task: replacing NBA-bound Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, the unquestioned physical and emotional leaders of last year’s team.
Just how valuable were Connaughton and Grant? Either Grant or Connaughton led the Irish in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks last season. They provided the clutch plays all season long: Grant’s rim-kissing superman dunk against Georgia Tech or his off-balance floater in the lane to ice a regular season win against eventual national champion Duke; Connaughton’s highlight reel included posterizing future #2 pick Jabari Parker and a game-saving block on a jumper from Butler’s Kellen Dunham in the Round of 32. Grant and Connaughton were the heart and soul of a team that went further in the tournament than any Irish squad since Jimmy Carter was in office.
Despite the big losses, Notre Dame still returns immense talent to South Bend this fall. The Irish bring back three double digit scorers and three of the top 6 returning 3-point shooters in the ACC (VJ Beachem, Steve Vasturia, and Demetrius Jackson). Throw in potential NBA-bound Zach Auguste and a strong freshman class, and Mike Brey could have Notre Dame poised to contend for an ACC title again this season.
Demetrius Jackson will look to build on his breakout sophomore campaign as he emerges as one of the premier point guards in the country. Jackson is a native of nearby Mishawaka, IN and, at 6’1” and 198lbs, possesses one of the best combinations of speed, strength, and shooting ability of any guard in college basketball. A tenacious on-ball defender and 40.9% 3-point shooter, Jackson can finish in the lane through contact as easily as he hits midrange pullup jumpers. He will need to improve as a facilitator on his 3.1 assists per game in order for the Irish to make a deep run in March. There are rumblings that this could be DJ’s last season in South Bend before he takes his talents to the NBA, where scouts project he could be a first round draft pick next June (#14 pick in DraftExpress.com’s 2016 mock draft). Jackson will be the floor general and leader of this Irish team and is my sleeper pick for All-American Point Guard.
Some of the biggest questions surrounding this Irish team will be how the frontcourt can matchup with some of the best in the ACC. Senior Zach Auguste proved that he could be a solid offensive option around the rim for Mike Brey last season, scoring 12.9 PPG while shooting 60.9%, second best in the ACC. Adding a midrange jumper and ramping up his physicality on the defensive glass (only 4.2 defensive rebounds per game in 2014) would go a long way for the Irish and Zach’s draft prospects (DraftExpress.com projects him as the 57th pick in their latest mock draft). Playing alongside Auguste this year will be undersized sophomore forward Bonzie Colson. At just 6’5”, Bonzie provided the Irish with toughness and intensity off the bench down the stretch last season. He showed flashes of offensive ability in 17-point games against Louisville and Duke at the end of last season, but will need to be more consistent as a mid-range weapon and in the paint. Whether he can keep opposing big men in check and rebound will be an area of his game to watch this year.
Joining Jackson as returning perimeter threats are juniors Steve Vasturia and VJ Beachem. Vasturia was a 41% 3-point marksman last year, ramping up his production over the last 16 games to 12.7 points per game. He was often charged with shutting down opposing teams’ best perimeter scorers and will look to do the same for Notre Dame this season. Vasturia possesses the shooting ability and physicality to best fill some of the holes left by Pat Connaughton. He excels as a spot-up shooter, but without Grant will need to more consistently create his own shot, which he did in stretches against Butler and Kentucky in the tournament last season. Look for Vasturia to have an expanded role in Brey’s offense and be an X-factor for the Irish.
Beachem could compete for a starting job this year, but may best fit the roster as a shooter coming off the bench. Beachem finished the year shooting 42% from behind the arc, but was at times a defensive liability. It will be interesting to see if he has bulked up in the offseason and can contribute as a rebounder. He remains one of the bigger question marks on this Irish squad.
Mike Brey brings in a trio of freshmen this season who could make huge contributions to the Irish this fall. There is a lot of hype surrounding Rex Pflueger, a 6’5” shooting guard out of Mater Dei High School in San Juan Capistrano, CA. Rex flashed his superhuman jumping ability and athleticism in this ridiculous offseason dunk compilation and won the Max Preps Holiday Classic slam dunk competition. Rex is a good perimeter shooter, but will need to prove himself as a defender and rebounder. Pflueger should play some meaningful minutes as an athletic scorer ND this season.
Elijah Burns is an athletic power forward from Troy, NY. At 6’9” he possesses the size to be a strong rebounder, and can step back and hit perimeter jump shots. Burns played on the United States’ U18 team in 2014 and on three Empire State Games teams. He could provide some athleticism off the bench in the frontcourt. Matt Ryan is the next in a long line of knock-down 3-point shooters under Mike Brey. Ryan is a tall forward out of Iona Prep in New Rochelle, NY with a clean shooting stroke and range that begins when he steps over half court. His recruiting stock dropped after surgery on both hips to repair a torn labrum in his junior year of high school, but a healthy Ryan will be a lethal weapon for the Irish.
Some questions remain about the Irish depth off the bench. Martinas Geben, the 6’9” sophomore from Lithuania, offers potential as a rebounder and a factor in the pick and roll game. His offensive game is still quite raw however and was used sporadically by Brey in his freshman season. Austin Torres logged doubled digit minutes 10 times last year, often to provide energy and toughness off the bench for the Irish. Perhaps the biggest glaring question mark is backup point guard Matt Farrell. Irish fans don’t know what to expect out of the 2nd year man from Bridgewater, NJ, but Notre Dame’s lack of depth at point guard could force him into a larger role to take the load off Jackson at times. Sophomore small forward Matt Gregory from Avon, IN will offer the Irish yet another 3-point threat off the bench.
While Grant and Connaughton were perhaps Notre Dame’s most productive and talented graduating duo in recent memory, this Irish team still has plenty of talent. Demetrius Jackson is a potential All-American, the Irish brought in an athletic and talented freshmen class, and Mike Brey can finally stop fielding questions about his team’s futility in March. I expect Notre Dame to be a 24 to 26 win team this year, but if Jackson takes his game to the next level and the Irish can shoot as well as they did last season, watch out for the Irish to be a dark horse in the ACC race.
University of Notre Dame ‘18
Statistics retrieved from: Espn.com, Draftexpress.com, Basketball-reference.com, Und.com