Summer basketball is a wonderful thing. At nearly every level of the game, summer is regarded as the time to work on one's skills. You'll find guys tweaking and tuning over the summer and expanding their game (or in some cases, their off-speed pitches). Summer leagues add some competitive framework but are generally played as showcases for individual skills. Hence, summer is a time for offensive basketball. If you've been sweating in a gym or on a playground looking to improve your handle, add a few post moves to your repertoire, or integrate a mid-range game, you're going to use summer runs to test yourself. Conversely, you won't spend much of your summer hearing about weak side defensive rotations and getting over the top to front post men. Defense is something your coach yells about in preseason; it can wait until October.
The 2014-2015 edition of the Notre Dame Men's Basketball Team is taking advantage of the NCAA rule that allows teams a foreign trip once every four years. Mike Brey's squad is going to spend a nice chunk of their summer in Italy, and are already taking advantage of the extra practices afforded by this rule.
Coaches almost universally hail this foreign trip as a tremendous opportunity to build team unity and jump start their program. Aside from some incredible sightseeing, fantastic food, and a memorable trip to the Vatican, what can this Italian journey do for the Irish? Here are 5 things I hope Brey and his staff explore in the old world.
Establishing Jerian Grant's Leadership
Rather than bury the lede and build up to it, let's put it right on the table: Jerian Grant is back. In case you were wondering, FIDM had you more than covered. Coach Brey and Grant are saying all the right things, and Grant's lineage would indicate that he could find plenty of ways to work on his game during his extended absence from his team, but his long time running mate is now gone and he'll have to fill the leadership role that Eric Atkins played in the past.
Much of the focus will be on Grant's scoring ability. As proven by his 2014 Louisville outburst, Grant can score the ball on his own. The Irish will undoubtedly rely on Grant to create his own shots and carry a large offensive load. Notre Dame also needs Grant on the defensive end. Brey and his staff need Grant to be a leader on both ends of the floor and take advantage of his tremendous athleticism in their defensive schemes.
Can We Stop Anybody?
I know summer is a time for offense. No one can blame the Irish for focusing on their offensive skills this time of year. Summer pick-up lends itself to very open and free-flowing games that I'm sure highlight the tremendous basketball skills and offensive IQ of the Fighting Irish. However, in dissecting the 2013-14 season, we saw the dramatic drop off in Notre Dame's defensive statistics, particularly in opponent FG%. Someone needs to start talking about defense, and it would be great to see the leadership of this team start to set a tone in Italy. International ball tends to be pretty physical, and I presume the Irish may face some older, professional teams while overseas. Establishing a much tougher-minded defensive identity is crucial to success in 2014-15.
Leaps vs. Slumps
This team is laced with young talent. Who is ready to make the leap this year? Will we see the sophomore slump hit any of the three guys who saw major minutes last year? Is rising junior Zach Auguste ready to show some consistency and anchor the front line? Most Irish fans will have their eyes locked on rising sophomore Demetrius Jackson. Many felt DJ suffered a crisis of confidence late in the season, but I believe settling into the role of primary ball handler will help Jackson better define his contribution and let his impressive athletic talents shine through. Confidence was never an issue during Steve Vasturia's freshman campaign. Can his second season build off an impressive first run through the ACC? For me, V. J. Beachem remains the most intriguing member of this class. His length could be a tremendous asset in ACC play, particularly if he can find his way to the offensive and defensive glass.
Matt Farrell, Martin Gebben and Bonzie Colson all step out of northeast prep programs and in to South Bend. As alstein pointed out in Farrell's commitment post, he steps into a experienced, veteran backcourt. While DJ is the only other pure PG on the roster, Brey has shown confidence in Grant, Vasturia and rising senior Pat Connaughton playing the primary ball-handling role when needed. It is tough to see Farrell getting anything other than pre-season minutes unless ND suffers an injury somewhere in the backcourt.
It will be interesting to see if Martin Gebben is ready to contribute early as alstein predicted in Gebben's commitment post. At a listed 6'9" and 230 lbs. Gebben will likely be relied upon to provide front-court depth. Nearly identical in size to rising junior Austin Burgett, he'll likely be thrust in to a three man rotation along with Auguste.
Bonzie Colson, listed at 6'5" and 225 lbs is in a more crowded part of the roster. Coach Brey might be well served to send Colson over to Paul Longo and see if he projects out with some beef as a good inside/outside post man for the Irish as alstein predicted.
Combinations and Permutations
I keep searching for the right adjective to describe the current ND roster. The Irish aren't young, but they aren't old either - five of the twelve men are listed as either juniors or seniors. Of course, that includes Eric Katenda, who's star crossed time under the Dome hasn't included meaningful minutes. Of the four sophomores, three played big roles in the inaugural ACC season and should contribute as veterans in round two.
Notre Dame isn't big, but they aren't little either. Like many teams, the Irish don't list a traditional center. Auguste, at 6'10" and 242 lbs, fills out as the biggest body the Irish can put on the floor, and he will be called upon to match up at the 5 position most of the year. After that, you have a big cluster of guys in that 6'9" to 6'7" range with the slight V.J. Beachem at 187, to the more robust likes of Burgett, Colson and Geben all tipping the scales above 225 to form the Irish front court rotation. Rising sophomore Austin Torres is listed at 6'7" 218 lbs, but it remains to be seen where the Mishawaka product will fit in to the rotation. Presumably he'll see time up front if at all. While that feels like a smallish front court, the Irish back court could be considered big. With the aforementioned Beachem available at the 3, Connaughton, Grant, and Vasturia will all spend some time at the 3 and the 2, with the latter three all checking in at 6'5" and over 200 lbs. Only Jackson and Farrell come in under 6'5".
With this somewhat amorphous roster, Mike Brey and his staff have a myriad of options in terms of positional groupings and style of play. This Italian trip couldn't have come at a better time. The Irish will get a chance to try on various combinations and permutations while overseas. Understanding the offensive and defensive chemistry that different line-up's create will be the main mission for Notre Dame. If you squint hard enough, you can almost see an opportunity for Brey's staff to study some of Erik Spoelstra's "positionless" concepts. The Irish have been know to play a very free-flowing offensive style, which minimize the need to fit specific players into typical position roles. The more pressing need in Italy will be finding the defensive combinations that can match up, make stops, and clear rebounds. We know Notre Dame can create match up problems when they have the ball, but can the 2014-15 version also wreak some havoc on the defensive end of the floor?
It is hard to even guess at a first five, and it is entirely possible that the starters will change based on the opponent's size and style of play. The "big" line-up could be Jackson, Grant, Connaugton, Burgett, Auguste. You could envision that going even bigger with Grant and Connaughton handling the ball and Beachem sliding in. The Irish can also go "small" on you with Jackson, Vasturia, Grant, Connaughton and Burgett. In that line-up you could switch almost every screen, as Brey teams tend to do, and apply a ton of ball pressure at every position. My current best guess is that the "best five" line-up that would start if they were tipping today is: Jackson, Grant/Vasturia/Connaugton and Auguste. It is clear that Jackson is the 1 and Auguste in the 5 in that line-up, but the other 3 will likely divide up defensive responsibilities based on the opponent's foot-speed and propensity to post up. Offensively, Jackson and Grant will be able to attack off of Auguste screens while Vasturia and Connaughton keep defenses honest.
The timing of this whole thing is buona fortuna for Notre Dame fans. Mike Brey and his squad can use this tour of Italy as a tremendous bonding opportunity and a science lab to figure out the right mixture of talents on this roster to put the disappointments of their inaugural ACC season behind them.