For the third straight season, Notre Dame loses two players who have been instrumental in the program’s rise among the nation’s upper echelon. After an Elite Eight run in 2015, Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton departed for the NBA. After another Elite Eight appearance in 2016, the Fighting Irish lost Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste.
Now, following a third-place finish in the ACC, a trip to the ACC Tournament championship game and an NCAA Tournament berth for the seventh time in eight years, gone are Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem, who combined for more than 2,600 career points.
“It seems to be a recurring theme for us,” says Irish coach Mike Brey, who enters his 18th season at Notre Dame. The difference this year is that expectations remain high for the Irish.
“With Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell, we have two of the 10 best returning players in the ACC,” Brey says. “With our track record, people now think we’re going to be able to replace them and be okay.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mike Brey
2016-17 RECORD (ACC): 26–10 (12–6)
2016-17 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to West Virginia 83–71 in the second round
F V.J. Beachem (14.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg)
G Steve Vasturia (13.1 ppg, 3.3 apg)
At 6'5", 225 pounds, Colson — a first-team All-ACC selection after averaging 17.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game — is in position to collect some national hardware.
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“Bonzie comes in with the chance to be the conference Player of the Year, the National Player of the Year, the Wooden Award winner,” Brey says. “When your best player wants to win as badly as he does, that helps everybody’s frame of mind.”
Outside of Beachem, the rest of the frontcourt returns in a system that excels in a four-around-one look, which means that minutes will be hard to come by beyond Colson. If Brey leans on his older big men, seniors Austin Torres and Martinas Geben will get the minutes. If he plays more to long-term potential, he’ll turn to sophomores John Mooney and Elijah Burns.
A strong candidate for the ACC’s Most Improved Player award last year, Farrell took the conference by storm in 2016-17, averaging 14.1 points and 5.4 assists while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range. “I thought he would be ready, but he was better than I thought,” Brey says of Farrell’s consistently clutch play.
Farrell will have to take more of a score-first approach following the departures of Vasturia and Beachem.
“Before, he could defer because we had V.J. and Steve,” Brey says. “This year, he’s going to have to hunt his shot a little earlier in the clock.”
Junior Rex Pflueger — Notre Dame’s top defender with Vasturia’s departure — will join Farrell in the backcourt, along with sophomore T.J. Gibbs. Their roles and their scoring duties should expand.
Redshirt freshman Nikola Djogo, a wiry 6'7" shooter with athleticism and run-all-day stamina, will help bridge the gap left by Beachem’s departure. Top-50 freshman D.J. Harvey figures into Notre Dame’s plans as well.
The Irish won’t sneak up on anyone in the ACC. Middle-of-the-pack-and-lower projections no longer apply to the Irish.
“We’ve got a lot of interchangeable parts,” Brey says. “We’ll play with some expectations now, which is what this team wants.”
The underdog role will be reserved for others in the ACC.
“Our players’ expectations for themselves are high, which is a sign of a great culture,” Brey says. “I’m going to have to keep this group loose, because they want it really, really bad. When your two best players have such an unbelievable edge and toughness about them, it permeates the entire team. My job is to help them get over disappointment and not be suicidal and thinking the world is ending every time we lose a game.”