Two straight Elite Eights, and the Irish have just six votes in the AP poll. Is this disrespect, or a proper assessment of this year’s squad?
The Irish lose Demetrius Jackson (wouldn’t he still look nice on this roster?) and Zach Auguste from a fringe Top 25 team before the NCAA Tournament run. V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia take over the Senior leadership responsibilities, and Bonzie Colson gets his opportunity for big minutes and big production. Strictly looking at this year’s roster, could the AP voters’ disrespect be warranted? Sure. But, at what point does the program start getting the benefit of the doubt?
ND is 5-1 against Duke since joining the ACC. They have three wins over UNC in the past two seasons. Granted, they can’t beat Syracuse or Virginia, but the Irish have quickly found success in just three years in the ACC. Here are five reasons why that success continues in 2016-17.
1. Beach is an NBA talent.
During last year’s NCAA Tournament, Beachem upped his scoring average from 12.0 PPG to 17.5. Of course, he has the silky smooth jumper that all of us wish we had, shooting over 50% from deep in the tournament. But that’s not all he can do. As last season progressed, he started showing the mid-range game that could be absolutely deadly this year. Couple that with the ability to finish at the rim, and Beach’s potential this year could exceed his NCAA Tournament production.
2. The Bonz is now free.
It is no secret that this blog is a huge fan of The Bonz. With Auguste gone, the Irish offense will run through him. No more playing second fiddle: he is the guy. The Irish will start the year with Colson at the 4, and Martinas Geben at the 5. Brey wants Geben to play the Jack Cooley role: set screens, rebound, and play defense. This frees up The Bonz to be an absolute force on the offense end. In addition to his ability to get crafty buckets around the rim, look for Colson to step out and hit the three with regularity. The time is now, Bonz.
3. If Farrell can’t handle the heat, T.J. Gibbs can.
Matt Farrell surprisingly stepped into the starting lineup in the NCAA Tournament and performed admirably. He has the handle and the swagger to run the team, and his jumper is underappreciated. But what if he struggles? Brey went out and found a point guard with serious talent, T.J. Gibbs. Gibbs is the younger brother of Ashton (Pitt) and Sterling (Hall/UConn), two talented and hard-nosed guards that you should be familiar with. He’s not as explosive as DJ was getting to the rim, but TJ’s ability to knock down jumpers makes him a critical piece to this year’s team. He absolutely will be in the rotation, but how much time he gets depends on Farrell’s productivity. Good problem to have.
4. The Irish actually have depth.
Brey is notorious for having a short bench, with 7 (maybe 8) in the rotation, but 2016-17 could be different. The starting lineup is set with Farrell, Steve Vasturia, Beachem, Colson and Geben. Gibbs makes six in the rotation.
Rex Pflueger will be the first man off the bench for the Irish, as he continues to evolve into the next Pat Connaughton. We know he can play defense, but his offensive game should improve significantly this year if he has confidence in his shot.
Matt Ryan has been dealing with an injury early in camp and missed the first exhibition game. He played 14 minutes in the second exhibition game and should be ready to go. Ryan’s ability to shoot the ball will get him minutes, especially in a 4 around Bonz lineup where all five on the floor can hit the triple. It’s possible that he follows a similar path as Beach, which would mean about 15 minutes per game in his Sophomore season and 6-8 PPG.
The Irish have two intriguing young bigs in Elijah Burns and John Mooney. Burns redshirted last year, which provided him an opportunity to learn the system. If he can provide some energy and defense, Burns could carve out a small role in the rotation. His main competition is the Freshman, Mooney. The former Florida commit has the size and toughness to give the Irish some quality minutes. Mooney also can step out and shoot it from deep, which could give him an edge on Burns on the backup big spot.
While Austin Torres may not get many minutes, it is great to hear that he has been medically cleared after a scare.
5. The triple is the great equalizer.
Last night, IU took down Kansas with a lineup that featured all five players with the ability to knock down threes. With 8 of the 10 players in contention for rotation having the ability to shoot it from deep, the Irish have a significant weapon that they surely will use. In Monday’s second exhibition game, the Irish shot 30 threes, hitting 11. One thing to look for is Stove’s (Vasturia) ability to shake off his extremely poor shooting in the second half of last season. Be prepared for this team to chuck it.
I’ve seen the Irish anywhere from 7th to 12th in preseason ACC polls. Until they show me that they cannot live up to the success of the last two years, I continue to believe that not only is this a tournament team, but it is a 5-6 seed. The brilliance of Beach, steadiness of Stove, and the emergence of Bonz as a star will give the Irish another chance to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.