This is how I felt this past weekend after watching another Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, a beatdown from Virginia the next day, and news that multiple ND players were declaring for the NFL draft.
Well, the Irish sit at 9-4 after getting manhandled by Virginia on Saturday. As I write this (and yes I know it is a month overdue), I don’t really know how to feel about this team. The talent is there, I think. The production, however, is not.
With a backloaded ACC schedule, the Irish have to do some serious damage in the next 7-8 games (at BC, Pitt, GT, at Duke, VT, BC, at Cuse, WF). They can get 6 of those, and probably need to, because UNC, Miami (twice) and Louisville are on the February/March slate. Before we look forward, let’s look back at what has gone right for the Irish, and what has contributed to four early losses.
The Bonz. Colson has been the most consistent player for the Irish through the first 13 games, and has stepped up in the last 5 (14.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg) as Auguste has taken a Christmas slumber. Similar to Connaughton last year, he is an undersized 4 that has picked up the rebounding slack. However, he faces the same difficulties as Connaughton on the defensive end when matching up against skilled bigs. Love this guy, and he should play a huge part in hopefully helping the Irish get back to the tournament.
The frosh, Matt Ryan, is going to be a stud by the time he is done at ND. He has all the makings of the next great shooter for the Irish, and at 6’8, will only develop the rest of his game. While not the greatest defender, his effort is there. He will only continue to get better as the year progresses, as it wouldn’t shock me for Brey to give him 20-25 minutes a game as the 6th man (and only guy to get significant minutes off the bench) the rest of the year.
Vasturia has been very solid in games against quality competition. He has been efficient taking it to the hoop and has developed the 10-foot, line-drive floater that I have no earthly idea how he makes. Surprisingly, he has been inconsistent with the 3 this year, as evidenced by that awful brick he threw up against UVa that led to the strangest shot clock violation I have ever seen. Just named an additional captain today.
We all knew that for ND to sustain the success of last year, Demetrius Jackson would need to step into the role of Jerian Grant. As a projected lottery pick, I thought he could do it. I envisioned a Russell Westbrook style of play that would lead to explosive drives and then kickouts for wide open 3s. It just hasn’t happened yet. I have seen two instances where Demetrius has taken the “me against the world” mentality (2nd half against Illinois and 2nd half against UVa) that Jerian had. While I certainly prematurely touted him as a potential POY candidate before the season, I still think he finds that edge and becomes one of the most explosive players in the country. I hope I’m right this time, or else an early entry to the NBA draft many not be a foregone conclusion as most thought.
V.J. Beachem has been pretty solid all year, but I’d like to see more from him only because I think he still has another level that he can reach. He made a couple nice jumpers off the dribble against UVa, which is rare, as he typically gets most of his points off 3s. His rebound numbers are a little lower than I’m sure he wanted (4.5 rpg). Just like DJax, a little more aggression from Beach taking it to the rim and on the glass is needed.
The Irish have been atrocious in the 2nd halves of games this year. 8 point lead at half against Monmouth…loss. Up 15 in the 2nd half against Iowa, allowed a 16-0 run, but then got a big win. Up 15 in the 2nd half against IU, who closed the game on a 17-2 run…loss. Last year it was the first 5 minutes of the 2nd half that was the Achilles heel, hopefully this year poor 2nd halves don’t become a recurring theme.
Free throw shooting has also cost ND a couple games. Auguste missed two with less than 30 seconds left against Bama that could have put the Irish up 3. They went on to lose by 1. Although Bonz was awesome against IU, he missed two with just over a minute left in a tie game. Looking at the stats, 68.4% (193rd in the nation) as a team just isn’t going to cut it. Two surprising numbers jumped out at me. First, Jackson is shooting 70% from the line, which is down from 78% his freshman year and 75% last year. Second, Beachem is 2-8 from the line the entire year. Not only is the 25% shocking for such a good shooter, but this shows that he could certainly be a little more aggressive off the dribble.
I’ve mentioned Zach Auguste a few times above, and while he has eight double doubles, his performance against Virginia was concerning. Obviously, 1 point and 2 rebounds in 22 minutes is shocking for a guy who came into the game averaging a double double and had 20 and 9 against Kentucky last year. I just don’t see the same consistent intensity from him that he showed in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, where he attacked the rim and actually played solid defense. Against Stony Brook, Auguste was absolutely fantastic and dominated Jameel Warney, who is a heck of a player and a beast inside. Five minutes into the second half against UVa, there was a sequence where he got great post position against Anthony Gill 5 feet from the rim, got the ball, and immediately passed it back out to the wing. It shocked me because Auguste typically will attempt to make a move toward the basket. Brey likely noticed that this was a sign that he was defeated mentally and pulled him for the next 10 minutes in favor of Austin Torres (and only put him back in when Torres fouled out). Maybe he is injured? I don’t know. What I do know is for this team to return to the 2nd weekend of the tournament, Auguste needs to have that fire and production that he showed at the end of last year.
Brey is notorious for having a short bench, but this year, it is shorter than ever. Matt Farrell has been in the rotation to this point, but in his limited minutes against Virginia he looked many steps too slow to play meaningful minutes in the ACC. At this point last year, Bonz had not seen much playing time, very similar to Rex Pflueger this year. Pflueger is athletic, has a nice shot, and can handle the ball. He could give the Irish some minutes in the near future. Torres will still get the energy minutes and spell Auguste/Colson. The question I have is, where is Martinis Geben? The guy was a Top 100 recruit, and he can’t get off the bench.
Where do we go from here?
Losses to Monmouth, Alabama, IU and Virginia don’t necessarily inspire confidence, but the schedule seems to give the Irish the opportunity to find their footing. If they can get on a nice little roll and beat BC, Pitt and GT in their next three, they’ll get a shot at a Duke team that is very beatable in two weeks. I really liked Jackson’s aggression in the second half against Virginia, and hope it continues. I think Auguste can turn it around too, just like he did last year after he was suspended in early January. Colson, Beachem and Vasturia should be able to keep up their consistent production, but the Irish simply need more from their two best players.
I still think 11-7 in the ACC is doable, which would put the Irish at 20-10 overall going into the ACC tourney. That Iowa win looks better and better, and 20-10 would likely be enough to get a 7-9 seed. BC should be just what the doctor ordered to get this thing back on track to set up an extremely important game against Pitt on Saturday.