After compiling a 38–16 record in its last three seasons in the Big East, Notre Dame had a rocky initial foray into the ACC. A conference-opening victory over Duke quickly spiraled into a 6–12 league record, due in large part to an inconsistent defensive effort, the inability to control the backboards without the graduated Jack Cooley and the loss of Jerian Grant to “an academic issue” in December.
Head coach Mike Brey, who likes to rely on older players to carry the load, was forced to play young, which should benefit the Irish in 2014-15.
“The young guys played too much for how this program is built,” says Brey, who begins his 15th season with the Irish. “We racked our brains with changing personnel to changing style of play. We simplified our offense, and that made us more efficient the second half of the ACC season. We bled while they were playing, but it will help them be better prepared this season.”
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The Irish will miss Garrick Sherman’s 13.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, but the bulk of the talent returns up front. Pat Connaughton, a 6-5 leaper, was a fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in the June amateur baseball draft, but he will return to Notre Dame for his final season of basketball. Connaughton averaged 13.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game last season, and Brey calls him the team’s “only real, true captain.”
Notre Dame needs 6-10 junior Zach Auguste to emerge as a consistent presence. And 6-9 junior Austin Burgett must become the “stretch-4” player who has thrived in Brey’s free-flowing offensive system in the past. Burgett was just beginning to emerge last season when heart issues, which were corrected by a surgical procedure, derailed his progress.
Auguste and Burgett will be aided by sophomore V.J. Beachem, a willowy swingman who showed flashes of shooting prowess as a freshman. Bruising 6-9 freshman Martin Geben, originally from Lithuania, will push Auguste. Geben draws favorable comparisons to Cooley, a former first-team All-Big East selection. Bonzie Colson, also a freshman, is a physical 6-5 forward with shooting range and a 7-footer’s wingspan.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish Facts & Figures
Last season: 15-17, 6-12 ACC
Last NCAA Tournament: 2013
Coach: Mike Brey (300-159 at Notre Dame, 141-88 Big East/ACC)
ACC Projection: Ninth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
The loss of the stabilizing presence of point guard Eric Atkins is significant, but athleticism abounds with the return of Grant and additional playing time for sophomore point Demetrius Jackson, a former McDonald’s All-American.
The 6-5 Grant was playing outstanding basketball through 12 games last season, leading the Irish in scoring (19.0 ppg) and assists (6.2 apg) while shooting over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from three.
“(Grant’s) stats when he left us were the best of his career, and he was a focused defender for the first time,” Brey says. “I fully expect him to pick up there and have an added chip on his shoulder to show people he’s back.”
Jackson started 15 games but never found the consistency he’ll need to show as a full-time player. Brey would like to see Jackson take on a more assertive approach. Sophomore Steve Vasturia could get the starting nod over Jackson following his strong rookie season.
“In the midst of a year that was disappointing as a team, (Vasturia) had a great year,” Brey says. “He’s reliable. He may be our best perimeter defender.”
Expectations for the Irish in Year 2 of the ACC will be low, which is a starting point from which Notre Dame thrived at times in the Big East.
Brey believes he has two of the top 15 players in the league in Grant and Connaughton, but they’ll need unproven, inconsistent players from 2013-14 such as Auguste, Burgett, Beachem and Jackson to patch the holes from a year ago, plus contributions from freshmen Geben and Colson.
If that happens, Notre Dame could push for an upper division finish. At the very least, a .500 mark in conference play is a reasonable goal.
“It’s very similar to when I got the job (at Notre Dame) in 2000,” Brey says. “At the time, Notre Dame was 30 games under .500 in the Big East, and the question was, ‘Can you develop an identity in the Big East?’ That’s where we are now. We’re fighting and scratching to create an identity in this league, and it ain’t going to be easy.”
Martin Geben, a 6-9, 230-pounder from Hagerstown, Md., via Lithuania, is expected to push for heavy minutes as a true freshman. “He will be needed and he will be ready,” Brey says. “He’s a great position defender and rebounder.” Bonzie Colson is a small forward who also had offers form UConn and Pittsburgh.