ACC Preview: Notre Dame’s Burning Question

Posted by Matthew Auerbach on November 9th, 2015

Is the entrenched culture under Mike Brey enough to overcome the loss of two of the most decorated players in program history?

When Jerian’s Grant last second prayer went unanswered in Notre Dame’s valiant attempt to upset Kentucky in the Midwest regional final, it put an end not only to a remarkable late season run by the Fighting Irish but to two careers that won’t soon be forgotten. With the graduations of Grant and fellow classmate Pat Connaughton, Brey bid farewell to a combined 3,204 points, 1,166 rebounds, 947 assists, 268 steals and 8,821 minutes. What’s more telling than the staggering loss of that numerical production is that the club, given its setup of the roster, has a better chance to seamlessly replace those gaudy statistics than the exceptional intangibles provided by the departed captains.

The Notre Dame faithful is trusting that Mike Brey's system will prevail this season. (AP)

The Notre Dame faithful is trusting that Mike Brey’s system will prevail this season. (AP)

For Brey’s sake, he must trust that the sum of his ingrained system is greater than the individual parts. Coming off a 32-win season, an ACC Tournament title highlighted by a meticulous dismantling of eventual national champion Duke, and a deeper March run than any team in school history since 1979, Brey should feel more confident than ever that he has laid the groundwork in place to eventually return the school to its second Final Four.

That is not to say that the cupboard is bare, not by a long shot. Notre Dame will return three starters from last year’s club, most notably junior point guard Demetrius Jackson. Jackson, selected to the all-ACC preseason first team by the media, is poised for a breakout campaign as the team’s elite player. A former McDonald’s All-American, Jackson can score in a multitude of ways, as evidenced by a 59 percent effective field goal percentage last season, good for 79th nationally. Equally adept at penetrating the defense by utilizing the dribble or scoring from the perimeter, Jackson is also a more than capable playmaker, averaging a little better than three assists per game as a sophomore. That number is sure to rise this season as the 6’1” floor general will be the sole proprietor of the basketball in the wake of Grant’s departure.

Demetrius Jackson will take on a much bigger role. (Getty)

Demetrius Jackson will take on a much bigger role. (Getty)

The two most likely beneficiaries of Jackson’s ability to draw the attention of the defense are fellow returning starters Steve Vasturia and Zach Auguste. The 6’5” Vasturia is the epitome of a marksman. The team’s fifth-leading scorer at 10.1 points per game a season ago, his production is bound to rise with additional opportunities in his junior campaign. Ranking 37th in true shooting percentage and 47th in effective field goal percentage nationally, Vasturia’s presence on the perimeter will force defenses to make an unenviable decision; give help on a penetrating Jackson and risk leaving an uncovered sniper, or allow the elite finisher into the lane unimpeded.

If defenses choose option B, Jackson can choose to finish on his own or dish it off to Auguste, the frontcourt’s best player. Second on the team in points and rebounds, if the way Auguste finished last season is any indication, the senior may be a tad underrated as a preseason second team All-ACC selection. Saving his best for last, the 6’10” athlete averaged 14.6 points per game and just a touch under nine boards per contest in the Irish’s seven postseason games. He also shot a blistering 63.5 percent during the March run, really opening some eyes with a 20-point, nine-rebound effort against a Kentucky frontcourt littered with NBA lottery picks.

The presumptive favorites to join the three returnees in the starting five are junior V.J. Beachem and sophomore Bonzie Colson. At 6’8” with a pristine shooting stroke, Beachem will be tasked to extend defenses away from Notre Dame’s top three players, playing the offensive role that Vasturia did for the club a season ago. With a tremendous wingspan, Colson plays much bigger than his 6’5” frame. Versatile on both ends of the floor, Colson is a willing passer on the offensive end and can be a chameleon defensively, effectively guarding the post or extending out to the perimeter. Brey gained trust in him down the stretch a year ago, and he will be relied upon this year as the team’s ultimate role player.

Notre Dame’s depth will be tested this season, as the remainder of the roster is a virtual unknown. It is Brey’s belief that senior Austin Burgett and junior Austin Torres will be able to draw from their familiarity with the program and system to contribute in a meaningful way, as they combined to score just 89 points over the course of the entire last season. This lack of accomplished depth will allow the three-man freshman class of Elijah Burns, Rex Pflueger and Matt Ryan every opportunity to crack the rotation as well.

Brey’s teams have a knack of replacing even the most seemingly irreplaceable players and looking eerily similar every year, sometimes with even more success. Assumed to be crippled after the loss of three-time All-American Luke Harangody, Notre Dame won 27 games in the season following his graduation, climbing to as high as #4 in the AP poll. That team mastered the Brey edicts of ball movement and floor spacing, along with a demonstrated philosophy of passing up a good shot to get a great one, and ultimately ranking second nationally in offensive efficiency — just as his team did a year ago.

Will the program miss Grant and Connaughton? No doubt about it. But given the talent returning and the steward in charge, it’s reasonable to believe that this Irish team may not miss a beat.

Matthew Auerbach (70 Posts)

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