Has Notre Dame’s Mike Brey Done It Again?

Posted by Mick McDonald on December 1st, 2016

We are now just a few weeks into the season and only two ACC teams remain undefeated. Virginia has been as good as expected, with the Cavaliers handling the unexpected loss of Austin Nichols by using a committee-like approach we laid out when the news broke. The other unbeaten team, Notre Dame, may surprise many who haven’t paid attention to teams outside the Top 25. The Irish have played seven games to this point, four against low-major competition (Bryant, Seattle, Loyola (MD) and Chicago State) — which they have won by an average of 33.5 points per game — and three against middling high-majors. There are a pair of neutral court victories over KenPom top 60 teams Colorado and Northwestern, and an ACC/Big Ten Challenge home win over Iowa. All three of those wins figure to be solid top 100 wins for head coach Mike Brey‘s team come Selection Sunday.

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)

Most pundits figured that, after an outstanding two-year run punctuated by back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, Notre Dame was due for a fall thanks to the losses of star guard Demetrius Jackson and dependable forward Zach Auguste. It’s no easy task to replace a tandem that produced nearly 30 points, 14 rebounds and six assists per game, but it’s not like Brey’s teams haven’t done this before. Just last year, Notre Dame entered the season having lost stars Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. The lesson is to never underestimate Brey’s ability to develop the next man up, and it appears that many observers may have made that same mistake again this season. Junior Bonzie Colson has led the way for this year’s version, averaging 17.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. He has become Brey’s go-to offensive player, using nearly 27 percent of the team’s possessions as he has blossomed into a terrific scorer.

While Auguste’s role in the offense has been replaced by Colson, picking up the slack for the loss of Demetrius Jackson has been more of a combined effort. His scoring has come from wings V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia, while his steady point guard play has come from junior Matt Farrell. Beachem is an explosive athlete (you might remember his unbelievable dunk against North Carolina in last year’s Elite Eight) who is averaging 17.0 points per game (including 39.4 percent from three-point range) so far this season. Vasturia’s improvement to become more of an all-around scorer rather than just a long-distance threat (although a very good one, at 46.7 percent this season) has made the senior a much more dangerous part of Notre Dame’s offense. Finally, Farrell has done a terrific job as the Fighting Irish’s point guard, averaging 5.3 assists per game and logging a five-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. Brey doesn’t have a big shot-blocker inside or a particularly outstanding defensive squad this season (90th nationally), so he can ill afford to have his point guard give the opposition easy points through turnovers. Farrell has been up to the task so far.

One final note as to why Notre Dame could end up much better than expected comes down to free throws. The four players accounting for over 75 percent of the Irish’s minutes — Colson, Beachem, Vasturia and Farrell — have combined to take 87 free throws this season and are making them at an 89 percent clip. This means that close games should more often than not tilt in the Irish’s favor. Notre Dame still must get through non-conference tests against Fort Wayne, Villanova and Purdue, but it would be reasonable to presume that Brey’s group will reach ACC play with only one loss. So far, so good in South Bend, something that few predicted heading into the season.

Mick McDonald (70 Posts)

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