The inroads made by Notre Dame during its ACC championship run and trip to the Elite Eight — where the Irish fell by just two points to then-undefeated Kentucky — planted seeds of production and confidence that should continue to sprout in 2015-16.
“The whole season was a statement,” says Irish head coach Mike Brey of the 32–6 campaign. “It was just so pure. I hope we can bottle it and keep it going.”
Gone are first-round draft choice Jerian Grant and second-rounder Pat Connaughton, the driving forces behind reaching the program’s highest victory total since 1908-09.
But budding leadership from senior big man Zach Auguste and junior guards Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia should sustain the winning atmosphere that permeated the program during its March run. The supporting cast appears capable of filling in the gaps.
“The expectations of the group coming back will be very high,” Brey says. “It’s a championship group. It’s certainly something to build on. We want to use that momentum.”
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Measuring the contributions of Connaughton based upon his 12.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, as well as his 93 3-pointers, does minor justice to the value the undersized but tenacious rebounder with long-range shooting prowess provided. “My concerns are not the basketball stuff we’re losing, and we know we’ve lost a lot,” Brey says. “It’s the leadership stuff.”
Emerging as a go-to guy in the postseason was Auguste, the 6’10” rangy athlete who spearheaded the charge in the victory over North Carolina in the ACC Tournament finals and again in the near-upset of Kentucky when he scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds against the Wildcats’ gargantuan frontline.
“(Auguste) really matured and came into his own,” Brey says. “We have footage to show him from March if he gets off the rails. We have footage of him keeping it simple and being amazingly productive.”
Filling Connaughton’s role will be bruising 6’5” sophomore Bonzie Colson, who played winning basketball in spurts during the ACC regular season. “Bonzie Colson with more minutes — which he will get — is a natural rebounder,” Brey says. “Not that he’s going to play like Pat, but he’s very good with the ball and can shoot some threes.”
Role players up front in Notre Dame’s three-to-four-guard offense include senior Austin Burgett, sophomores Martinas Geben and Austin Torres and freshman Matt Ryan.
Notre Dame Facts & Figures
Last season: 32-6, 14-4
Postseason: Elite Eight
Consecutive NCAAs: One
ACC Projection: Fifth
Postseason projection: Second Round
The do-everything Grant has no replacement when it comes to the complete game he offered offensively. But the Irish have a budding star in Jackson, who has NBA-level athleticism at the point. “He’s the guy I need to talk through,” Brey says. “We’ve already started to nurture that relationship. He was a strong voice for us in the postseason.”
Joining Jackson in the backcourt is Vasturia, who raised his game to another level in the postseason as well. “We’re going to ball screen for Steve now because he can come off, make a drive, and make a decision,” Brey says.
The most likely candidate to replace Grant in the starting lineup is junior V.J. Beachem, a willowy 6’8” shooting guard who may have the best long-range stroke on the team with Connaughton’s departure.
Offering minutes off the bench for Jackson at the point is sophomore Matt Farrell. Another candidate to get into the mix in the backcourt is freshman Rex Pflueger, whom Brey calls “a bouncy, more athletic Vasturia.”
Key Losses: G Jerian Grant, F Pat Connaughton
Top Players: G Demetrius Jackson, G Steve Vasturia, G/F V.J. Beachem, F Bonzie Colson, F Zach Auguste
Matt Ryan, a 6’8” shooter, and Rex Pflueger, an athletic 6'6" 2-guard, could provide an instant offensive spark for the Irish. “There’s no question Ryan and Pflueger will challenge for playing time,” coach Mike Brey says. “They believe they’re ready. They’re very confident guys. They have an edge about them. They love to compete.” Elijah Burns will have trouble cracking the rotation as a freshman.
The leadership and production lost with the departure of Grant and Connaughton won’t be known until the Irish get into the heat of conference play. But the coming of age of Auguste, Jackson and Vasturia during the stretch run was apparent, and having quality players/athletes to supplement the Big 3 has been addressed on the recruiting front.
After failing to make it as far as the Sweet 16 for 12 seasons, the Fighting Irish look to be a legitimate postseason threat for the second year in a row.
“This program has been built where we’ve lost really good, even great players and we’ve been able to figure it out the next year and be pretty successful,” says Brey, now entering his 16th season at Notre Dame. “The leadership and setting the tone lost with the departure of those two men is my biggest concern.”