For the second straight season, Notre Dame has lost two vital pieces of an Elite Eight team. But the Fighting Irish — as they have done so often in the Mike Brey era — will identify new leading men.
“Outside, the expectations will rotate back to what they were going into (Jerian) Grant and (Pat) Connaughton’s last year,” says Brey, in his 17th season with the Irish. “People on the outside will be thinking, ‘They’re rebuilding. Maybe they’re an NIT team.’ When you lose four NBA guys in two years, that’s a big drain on the talent base. But these guys expect to just keep doing the same thing they’ve been doing.”
Also gone, in addition to 2015 first- and second-round draft choices Grant and Connaughton, are 2016 second-rounder Demetrius Jackson and free agent signee Zach Auguste. But a winning culture — and still plenty of talent, if not NBA-level — could carry the Irish back to the NCAA Tournament.
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mike Brey
2015-16 RECORD (ACC): 24–12 (11–7)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to North Carolina 88–74 in the Elite Eight
2016-17 PREDICTION: Seventh in ACC
F Zach Auguste (14.0 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 1.1 apg)
G Demetrius Jackson (15.8 ppg, 4.7 apg)
The Irish don’t have anyone to replace Auguste’s productivity up front — or do they?
It could be 6'5", 225-pound Bonzie Colson with his seven-foot wingspan. “(Colson) has to become a big-time rebounder for us,” says Brey of the Irish junior who averaged 6.7 rebounds in 25.3 minutes per game in 2015-16. “It’s time we start to talk to him about becoming an all-league player.”
The rest of the frontline is shadowed by uncertainty, although there are four players legitimately vying for meaningful minutes.
Martinas Geben, a 6'10", 255-pound junior, played sparingly behind Auguste. Yet the coaching staff insists that Geben provided some of the most consistent performances on the practice floor and that his time to shine has arrived.
Elijah Burns, a sturdy, athletic 6'9", 235-pounder with post-up and face-the-basket skills, will see his first collegiate action after missing the 2015-16 season following ankle surgery.
Freshman John Mooney, a 6'8" banger, looks to be one of Brey’s tough, high-IQ glue pieces. Austin Torres, a 6'7", 234-pound senior, helps the Irish tighten up on the defensive end.
No player improved as much in 2015-16 as willowy 6'8" V.J. Beachem, a shooter extraordinaire who made 44.4 percent from 3-point range on the year while averaging 16.6 points per game in the postseason.
Matt Ryan, a 6'8" sharp-shooting sophomore, may prove to be every bit the long-range sniper Beachem has become.
The Irish remain fortified in the backcourt, if not nearly as explosive and experienced.
Senior Steve Vasturia is a stabilizing influence, a lockdown defender and a cerebral contributor to Notre Dame’s team concept.
Junior Matt Farrell takes over at point guard after a postseason insertion into the starting lineup that helped propel the Irish to the Elite Eight. He’ll share point guard duties with freshman Temple “T.J.” Gibbs, who gives the Irish combo-guard skills and a ready-made college game. “We’re putting the ball in Matt Farrell’s hands,” Brey says. “He earned it and delivered for us. But T.J. Gibbs has to play that spot. We’ll play the two of them together like we have in the past.”
When the Irish are looking for a backcourt stopper to join Vasturia, Brey will turn to sophomore Rex Pflueger, whose buzzer-beating tip-in against Stephen F. Austin sent Notre Dame to the Sweet 16.
“What can help Beachem and Vasturia is getting our center spot to be a great screener,” Brey says. “Our big guys have to get those two guys open, get to the backboard and play post defense.”
Athletic Elijah Burns, a 6'9" redshirt freshman, will compete for playing time following Zach Auguste’s departure. Combo guard Temple “T.J.” Gibbs will be an immediate factor as a penetrator, distributor and shooter. John Mooney, a 6'8" power forward, has drawn comparisons to two-time Irish captain and stretch-4 Rob Kurz. Nikola Djogo, a 6'7" swingman, could be another in the long line of quality-shooting Mike Brey recruits.
This season, the Irish will find out if the foundation is in place to be a consistent upper-echelon ACC team. They’ll need a collective effort inside to replace Auguste’s productivity. If two or three of the young big men emerge, they’ll have more depth and fouls to give, which is a rarity in Brey’s system. There are plenty of shooters to make Brey’s preferred four-around-one look work. The backcourt won’t have an explosive athlete in the Grant-Jackson mold, but it will be deeper and more versatile. This team has the components to reach the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in the last eight seasons.