Looking back at Saturday night’s loss at Georgia Tech, I was a little peeved about the loss at the time. While I was bummed that the Irish blew their chance to go after a regular-season title, surprisingly, I stayed pretty calm. No one should be surprised that they lost in Atlanta, especially given the recent string of wins and the difficulty of winning in Atlanta. They were due for a setback.
The offense did not perform like the #1 offense in the country (especially with only one bucket in the last five minutes after going up 60-54). And while GT couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn in the first 18 minutes of the second half, everything fell for them at the end. Plus, Vasturia likely won’t ever play as bad of a game as he did Saturday. So no big deal…unless it snowballs.
The main question that needs to be addressed is this: Does this team have the ability to go on a run deep into March? I don’t think anyone should expect a second straight ACC tournament championship, but is a Sweet 16 appearance (or deeper run) attainable? Or do the Irish have the makings of a popular pick to be upset in the 1st round? The numbers say yes, due to that ugly 216th rated defense. Let’s look at why I think the pieces are in place for a pretty nice run into March.
*During his radio show on Monday, Brey surmised that there weren’t too many teams with four Top 25 wins, including at least two away from home. Twelve teams (seven from the Big 12) have at least four Top 25 wins (ND, Kansas, OU, Oregon, Virginia, WVU, Iowa, ISU, Texas A&M, Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor). Those with multiple road/neutral Top 25 wins, outside of the Big 12, include only Iowa and ND.
*ND hasn’t lost back-to-back ACC games since the 2013-14 season. This is more for tonight, when they try to avoid a second straight loss at Wake Forest. Wake is without Devin Thomas and Cornelius Hudson, but Crawford and CMM have picked up their games lately. Neither team plays defense, so expect a shootout…hopefully the Irish can put together a complete effort.
*In late January, Brey went to A.J. Burgett in the starting lineup for two games to try to get a spark. The fact that he hasn’t been seen since, due to a sprained ankle (correction thanks to the voice of the Irish, Jack Nolan), isn’t the point. It worked against Wake Forest at home (hoping for the same type of start tonight), but slow starts have been a huge problem for the Irish in the last seven games. Here are the halftime scores in those games:
at Syracuse – Cuse 44-27
Wake – ND 46-29 (the Burgett game)
at Miami – Canes 45-33
UNC – Heels 39-30
at Clemson – ND 35-29
Louisville – Cards 43-36
at GT – GT 37-30
Five of seven games with deficits of 7+ at half. It’s pretty obvious that the Irish need to stop digging early holes. Certainly the early defensive intensity has not been great, but the offense has been stagnant early at well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brey make a change in the starting lineup and bring Bonz back off the bench.
*I’ve been hard on Zach Auguste (and I think rightfully so)…but he has really impressed me the last four games. Well, except when he tries to dribble with his back to the basket or after a rebound, which almost always leads to a turnover. Auguste seems to be playing a tougher style of basketball, not focused on his numbers, but on grabbing big rebounds. Of course, his defensive skills and inability to quickly get off the floor to block shots (look it up, most of his blocks take a lot of time to develop) are maddening at times. However, 14 double-doubles is nothing to sneeze at. Let’s see if he has another gear on the defensive end, because there is no question the talent and athleticism are there.
*Demetrius also had a rough game in Atlanta, as he wasn’t aggressive on the offensive end. Probably as Brey said in his radio show, due to fatigue, as he has now played all 40 minutes in four straight games. Remember, he just hurt his hamstring less than a month ago. Other than his explosion against Louisville for 27 points on 6-12 from deep, DJ’s 3-point stroke has been pretty bad (including 1-6 against GT). Not counting the Louisville game, DJ is 6-38 (15.8%) from three since mid-January. We all know that he is going to have to hit big shots in March for the Irish to keep advancing, and certainly better than 16%.
*It’s pretty obvious that Rex Pflueger does not want to shoot. It’s okay to just keep focusing on D, Rex. But if you get a wide open look, you have to step up and knock one or two big ones down the rest of the way.
*Beachem has been incredibly solid lately as he and the Irish have turned the corner together. Before we look at his numbers, what has impressed me is the fact that V.J. has a key second-half block in each of the last four games (he has blocked shots in his last eight games). Additionally, he is looking to take the ball to the basket more and more, which I love. In his last eight games, Beach is averaging 13.5 points per game, which is exactly what the Irish need from him going forward.
*Yes, Stove (good nickname for Vasturia, Thoman) was brutal on Saturday, but I am not at all worried that we will see that Steve going forward. Fatigue is a potential concern, as he has only sat 30 minutes in ACC play.
*The Irish are going to need the Duke/UNC Bonz as we head towards March. By no means has he been bad, but he has disappeared at times in the last three games (averaging 10/8 in that stretch). If he takes it up a notch, which the Irish need him to do, watch out.
To recap, here’s what the Irish need to have a March 2016 that rivals March 2015:
*Shots to start falling for DJ.
*Continued toughness and better defense from Auguste.
*Consistency and steadiness from Vasturia.
*Exactly what V.J. has been doing
*Bonz to take the next step to stardom.
Projections for the remainder of the regular season:
at WF – W (Too much Bonz tonight)
at FSU – L (The Irish may struggle with the Seminoles’ athleticism)
Miami – W (Toss up…if they beat FSU, I could see this as a loss)
NC State – W (Surprised they aren’t better…this should be a win)
This would put them at 21-9 (12-6 in the ACC). Is that enough to get the double bye? Not sure. Let’s take care of business tonight.