Other than confirmation that Joe Lunardi is an idiot (play-in game…really?), we obviously have learned that the Irish have no plans to relinquish their spot in the upper echelon of the ACC. While still unranked, the 7-0 Irish have taken care of business to date. ND and Virginia are the only two ACC teams that remain undefeated. Yeah, the competition hasn’t been stellar, but this squad has the look of a second-weekend contender.
As we go through the season here at Head v. Gut, game previews and recaps will happen more often. But here on December 1, it’s time to give the casual Irish fan that has inexplicably been hanging on every football Saturday a rundown of how Brey’s guys are sitting here at 7-0 before important December tilts with Fort Wayne, Villanova, and Purdue.
Offensively, this is a typical Brey team
Despite an uncharacteristic 11 turnovers in the first half of Tuesday’s win over Iowa, ND currently leads the country with only 8.4 turnovers per game. Remember, the Irish have finished in the Top 10 in this category each of the previous two years (3rd in 2014-15 and 6th in 2015-16). It’s also no surprise that the Irish are currently seventh in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. They share the ball, don’t turn it over, and can really shoot it.
Now that Zach Auguste is gone, the Irish have an incredible weapon in their free-throw shooting. Last year, Auguste was the main recipient of the pick and roll offense, leading to numerous trips to the stripe and words that cannot be repeated spouted toward my television, as he hit only 63% for the season. Now, the Bonz is getting those trips to the line, and converting at a 91% clip after his 12-12 performance against Iowa. The Irish are currently second in the nation in FT shooting at 84.5% through seven games. No improvement is more apparent than V.J. Beachem, who likely shot countless free throws in the offseason to rectify his 57% conversion rate in 2015-16. Beach is taking the ball to the basket more often, leading to more trips to the line, and is now shooting 82%. Oh yeah, Farrell hasn’t missed yet this season either (19-19).
Finally, as usual, they really can chuck it from deep. ND is averaging almost 10 triples a game, and making 40.6% of their attempts. While excellent, Brey routinely puts five guys on the floor that can hit the three. Of those in the rotation, only Marty Geben and Austin Torres aren’t threats from deep. The Irish have a sharpshooter off the bench in Matt Ryan, who amazingly has put up 32 triples (making 14) in 92 minutes played. Against Chicago State, Ryan fired up 14(!) threes in extended minutes due to a minor injury to Rex Pflueger.
The Irish have recognizable weapons on the offensive end, and possibly even better, more diverse ones than the past two years.
The Bonz is a star
This blog has predicted Bonz’s breakout since it’s inception during his freshman year, and it is finally here! I’ve always hoped that the Bonz would reach the lofty potential I saw in him (for Luke Harangody-type statistics), and his 24 point, 17 rebound performance against Iowa shows he is more than capable.
Of course, it’s early. The 18.1 point, 10.7 rebound averages through seven games certainly excite Irish fans. As the main big for the Irish on the offensive end, there will be questions whether an undersized forward can consistently succeed against some of the big men that will be thrown at him in ACC play. However, by adding the ability to hit the triple, the Bonz can now score at three levels, making him incredibly difficult to defend.
The sky is the limit here. The Bonz is starting to get some national recognition, and by the end of the season, a first team All-ACC selection could be in order.
Here’s a great article from Sports Illustrated on his rise to stardom.
Matt Farrell can play
I’ve already written about Matty Farrell in depth, but reiterating how good he has been is necessary. Simply put, he more than belongs. Farrell is averaging 12 points per game, and has a 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio. The Irish offense has not missed a beat with the loss of Demetrius Jackson, and Farrell is as big of a reason why as anyone.
Depth wise, this looks like a typical Brey team
In ND’s first three dominant wins, Brey somewhat surprisingly gave minutes to 11 players, including young bigs Elijah Burns and John Mooney. However, in wins over Colorado, Northwestern and Iowa, Burns and Mooney haven’t seen the floor. Just like Bonz as a freshman, I am guessing that Burns and Mooney just aren’t there yet defensively to get minutes against quality competition.
We all know that Brey shortens his bench as the competition increases. Tuesday’s win over Iowa, though, saw Brey rely solely on six players in the second half. The Big 4 (Beach, Bonz, Stove, and Farrell) all played at least 36 minutes. Is this sustainable? I don’t know. As discussed in the section below, extended minutes may have contributed to shooting slumps for Vasturia and DJ down the stretch last season.
It looks like there will be nine players in the rotation. The five starters and Pflueger are unquestionably going to play regular minutes. Torres will give the Irish 5-10 minutes per game to give Bonz some rest, and when foul trouble strikes. The question becomes: how does Brey find minutes for Matt Ryan and T.J. Gibbs? In the three wins over Power 5 opponents, Ryan have averaged eight minutes per game, while Gibbs has averaged seven. Both are very talented players, and I hope each get a little more playing time to keep the core players fresh throughout a grueling ACC slate. As discussed in the season preview, Gibbs’ minutes depend on Farrell’s productivity.
Stove has his shot back
At the end of last year, we chronicled Steve Vasturia’s deep shooting slump and questioned whether something physically was wrong with him (either injury or fatigue). In Stove’s final twelve games of the 2015-16 season, he shot 30.4% overall, and 20.5% from behind the arc. Calling it a deep shooting slump may actually be kind.
Vasturia has started his senior season looking reinvigorated offensively. He’s averaging over 16.3 points, up from 11.4 last year, and importantly, is hitting 46.7% of his threes. Though likely not sustainable, is it too much to ask for a repeat of his 41.1% as a sophomore? With Pflueger being able to guard the opposing team’s best player for 20-25 minutes a game, Stove is free to focus on putting the ball in the bucket. So far, he’s accomplishing that quite well.
Interior defense might be an issue
Teams with two solid big men scare me. Purdue (Swanigan and Haas) and UNC (Meeks and Hicks) immediately come to mind. On Tuesday, a freshman post player for Iowa (Cordell Pemsl) scored 18 points on 8-9 shooting, after scoring seven points combined in his previous two games. Early in the second half after Marty picked up his third foul, Iowa routinely went to Pemsl against Bonz for easy bucket after easy bucket.
Bonz has his moments defensively, but because he is only 6’5, he is no match for a larger, competent low-post scorer. Marty is going to be key for this team, and his second half effort against Iowa (7 rebounds in 8 second half minutes) hopefully will give him confidence to provide some resistance down low. When Brey goes to four guards/wings around Bonz, the Irish certainly flow better offensively. However, rebounding and interior defense takes a significant hit. This is especially concerning because Brey will go to Pflueger in crunch time due to his defense, and we know that Beach, Bonz, Stove and Farrell aren’t coming out of the game. Let’s see how they handle it.
The road ahead
The front-half of the ACC schedule is incredibly difficult, but before we get there, December can gives a glimpse of what to make of the 2016-17 Irish. Buy games against NC A&T, Colgate and St. Peter’s should be wins, which would guarantee the Irish 10 before the start of ACC play at Pitt on December 31.
Fort Wayne – December 6
When looking at the schedule when it was released, surely few circled a matchup with the Mastodons as a test. Then Fort Wayne took it to the Hoosiers, beating them in overtime. The Mastodons have some solid guard talent and athletic bigs, which will provide a good test for the Irish before the biggest non-conference game of the season.
Villanova – December 10
The Irish return to Philly in a little over a week to take on the defending National Champions. They are really good, and while they lost Arcidiacano and Ochefu, Hart and Jenkins are incredibly talented. Asking for a win here may be a bit much, but even a tough loss could show us with the Irish are made of.
Purdue – December 17
It’s an even year, so ND gets the hated Purdue Boilermakers in the Crossroads Classic. Purdue has already lost twice: to the previously mentioned Villanova Wildcats, and most recently to Louisville. As discussed above, this will be a telling matchup for the Irish to see how they handle a huge frontcourt in Swanigan and Haas. It may not be 99-68 like it was in 2014, but a win here could set the Irish up for a hugely successful season.