7 1/2 months of what if Karl Anthony-Towns missed just one shot in the second half. 7 1/2 months of that disgusting memory of Duke cutting down the nets after taking two of three from them. 7 1/2 long months of waiting to see if the Irish can build on their best season in over 35 years.
As I sit in Purcell Pavilion tonight as the 2015-16 season kicks off, all the great moments of last year will flood back as the ACC Championship banner is raised before the game. But after that banner is raised, reality will set in when Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton aren’t announced in pregame introductions. That reality, however, will not necessarily be sobering based on the talent that remains and the future of the program.
I’m going to tackle this in ass-backwards fashion because 2015-16 is a huge year for the Irish not only on the floor, but also in recruiting. While most of this preview will focus on the Irish on the floor, it is imperative for Mike Brey to capitalize on last year’s success and pick up a big time prospect in the spring. Last year’s run should have been extremely enticing to potential recruits who want to play a loose, up-tempo style focused on putting the ball in the hole. Yesterday’s early signing day confirmed a prototypical, solid Mike Brey recruiting class that includes a Top 100 PG, a 6’9 stretch 4 that decommitted from Florida after Billy Donovan bolted for OKC, and then a relatively unknown prospect that Brey used his favorite phrase about: “He’s a man.” (I plan on keeping a running total of how many times Brey calls someone a man this year…over/under is 38.5) All signs point to Demetrius Jackson declaring for the 2016 NBA draft, which would open up one scholarship for a big time prospect.
Brey is in the mix on Scout.com’s #5 2016 prospect Thon Maker, the 7-1 Sudanese-Australian-Canadian, who released a list yesterday with the Irish in his final six schools (along with Arizona State, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, and St. John’s). In addition, Scout.com’s #16 prospect, Jarrett Allen, recently was on campus for his official visit. Certainly, being in the mix for these two stud big men is a sign that last year’s success is creating additional avenues.
One major issue exists. Notre Dame has embarrassingly substandard basketball facilities compared to the other schools in the ACC (and on Maker’s list), and Brey is pissed about it. Originally, the ungodly expensive renovation and expansion of the football stadium was supposed to result in the Irish basketball programs taking over a facility that is currently used as a workout facility for students. Apparently, that’s not going to happen anytime soon (until at least August 2017). Recruits like to be coddled and they like fancy things, neither of which occurs having to practice in the Pit, where there isn’t even a guarantee that the basketball players will have access to the gym. One thing Brey has going for him though is his persona, and the fact that he could sell a steak to a vegan. If Brey can land Maker or Allen, then he will have parlayed the excellent 2014-15 season into a recruiting class that could take the Irish to the territory that the program desperately is trying to enter.
With Grant and Connaughton gone, this is now Demetrius Jackson’s team. D-Jax is Yogi Ferrell, except that he is built like a Greek God and enjoys posterizing 7-foot Purdue players.
What makes Jackson great, and also equally worries me, is his tenacity on both ends of the floor. At the end of last year, Brey gave him the keys to the ship (except for the last few minutes of close games where Brey reverted to the “put the ball in Jerian’s hands, don’t run an offense, and hope he makes a 25-footer” offense) and his aggression getting into the lane and setting up others should only increase this year. Jackson also is an above-average 3-pt shooter and lock down defender.
Nate, what the hell are you worried about then? Fatigue. Demetrius is going to need to be on the floor almost every minute, but Brey is going to have to find ways to get him some rest on the offensive end. He expends an incredible amount of effort on the defensive end (which how could you not love) that sets him apart from all the great point guards in college basketball (Van Vleet, Yogi, etc.)
Zach Auguste is getting some pub in these Top 100 player rankings, coming in around #40 in the few that I have seen. There is no question that he is a very talented offensive player, but what I really want to see is the defensive intensity and rebounding that he showed during the ACC and NCAA tournaments (except for his epic struggle with the vaunted Northeastern pick-and-roll). To borrow Brey’s phrase, Auguste was a man against Kentucky scoring 20 points and grabbing 9 rebounds. Should be set up for a huge year.
Then there is the unassuming Steve Vasturia, who just makes big shots, guards the other team’s best player, and looks like he belongs in a World of Warcraft tournament.
Whether this team returns to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament wholly depends, in my opinion, on the play of Bonzie Colson (who will only be referred to in this blog from now on as “the Bonz”) and V.J. Beachem. The Bonz plays below the rim at 6’5, seems to always be around the ball, and once he grabs it has a variety of ways to score (certainly some unorthodox ways). His freshman year reminded me of Luke Harangody’s: it took a while to get in the rotation, but then became a major factor by the end of the year. I truly think the Bonz can have a comparable career as the Gody, though maybe not as dominant, because he won’t need to be.
Beachem has proven that he can make shots, but now gets the chance to show that he has more than just a jumper. Brey wants him to use his size (6’8) to create opportunities for easy buckets at the rim and to be a force on the glass. No guard/small forward in the country rebounded as well as Connaughton last year, and while it would be unfair to expect similar production on the glass from Beachem, 4-5 a game shouldn’t be too much to ask.
ND’s sophomore backup point guard, Matt Farrell, apparently made some significant strides in the offseason as it appears he will be the first man off the bench for the Irish. Maybe it’s the sweet Wolverine chops that he has going on right now. While I didn’t think I would be saying this, Farrell’s 8-12 minutes of PT will be critical if he can run the offense to take a little bit of the load off of D-Jax. Also, someone apparently thinks he looks like Zac Efron…
Regarding the bigs, the Irish have a three-headed monster on the bench in Austin Burgett (who my sister says is a nice guy), Austin Torres and Martinas Geben. Burgett can provide some energy and rebounding, but hopefully never shoots a three-pointer again. Torres is undersized and athletic, and Brey likes to go to him when they need a spark. Geben was a pretty high recruit, got some playing time early in the year (with uninspiring results), and then found himself on the pine the last 20 games. Someone is going to get some minutes, I just don’t know who will.
The Irish have three freshman that all looked promising in the first exhibition game. Yes, I went to an exhibition game…almost stayed the whole time too. Matt Ryan and Rex Pflueger will get some minutes this year, but I would be surprised if Elijah Burns doesn’t redshirt. Ryan appears to be a gunner and reminds me a little bit of Tim Abromaitis. Pflueger can shoot it a little bit, but is more of an athlete in the mold of Connaughton. Brey rarely goes more than 8 deep, and with Farrell and whichever big man separates himself from the pack, there probably won’t be many minutes this year for Ryan AND Pflueger. I would suspect that Ryan ends up being the 6th man, getting about 20 minutes a game, by season’s end.
Last year walking into the stadium before Game #1, I told my dad that I thought the Irish would be a 6 seed. Granted, they were on nobody’s radar before the year, so my prediction was very optimistic. I don’t think Lunardi had them in his preseason bracketology, and they were picked to finish in the middle of the ACC.
This year, they are ranked in both the AP and Coaches polls, but ESPN didn’t have them in their Top 25 power ranking and Lunardi has them as a 7 seed. By the way, I have Lunardi as a 6,857 seed in the bracket of life. Back to the point, I’m optimistic again. A 4 seed and a second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance sounds about right.