As Juicy J blared out of a huge speaker on the scorer's table, the Irish got their 12th practice of the season underway in front of a couple hundred season ticket holders on Monday afternoon. The squad was a little short handed as freshman Elijah Burns and sophomore Austin Torres were both out with injuries, but the rest of the team was ready to go for their second practice of the day. After a warm up and some stretching, the practice began with the posts and guards splitting up for individual shooting and dribbling drills. Bonzie Colson, Zach Auguste, Martinas Geben, Matt Gregory, Matt Ryan, Austin Burgett, and Rex Pflueger started with the bigs, while the rest of the roster worked as a unit. After five minutes or so, Ryan, Burgett, and Pflueger joined the guards at the other end of the floor while the bigs practiced post moves.
After the individual work, the starters (wearing white practice jerseys) started working through plays without a defense. The first team was made up of Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, VJ Beachem, Colson, and Auguste. Starting with "circle" the Irish cranked up their offense. After a made basket in a half court possession, Auguste took the ball out, inbounded to Jackson, and the break was on. ND's famous ball movement was on display as no one held the ball for more than a couple dribbles. After the starters finished three possessions with buckets, the reserves had their go. Matt Farrell handled the point for the twos with Pflueger and Ryan on the wings, and Burgett and Geben inside. Each unit alternated after three possessions before the squad split up into a one-on-one ball handling and defense drill. After players took turns zig-zagging the ball up the court, they would go live into a one v. one possession across half court. Freshmen Ryan and Pflueger checked each other, Bonzie and Burgett faced off, DJ and Farrell matched up, Auguste marked Geben, while Vasturia picked up Beachem.
After the one-on-one drills, the team split back into bigs and guards. The guards worked on moving through screens and closing out shooters while the bigs worked on post-up defense. The team came back together to work on zone defense as a team. It sounded like talking while on defense was a point of emphasis by the coaching staff. Every player was engaged as the ball was swung around the perimeter or dropped into the post or short corner. After the work in zone, the twos faced off against the ones in a series of half court possessions. Both teams got their share of stops, but the set of possessions ended with the twos getting a kill (three straight stops) against the starters. During the half court possessions, the Irish used a 24 second shot clock. After some more individual shooting work, the team started a full court scrimmage.
The five-on-five started with the same units that faced off in the half court, but after a few possessions Brey started moving players around. Austin Burgett was the first to flip from the blue to the white squad when he spelled Auguste. Matt Gregory would enter for the blue team in Burgett's place. After a couple possessions, Auguste returned for Bonzie. Freshman Matt Ryan was the next player to switch teams when he replaced Burgett on the white team. Ryan spelled Beachem, Bonzie, and Auguste for a few possessions when he flipped jerseys. The last member of the blue squad to switch teams was Martinas Geben. The practice ended shortly after Geben's run with the starters roughly ninety minutes after it started. With it being fall break on campus, the team is practicing twice a day for the beginning of the week before the team is dismissed for a short vacation. The final practice of the week will be an extended scrimmage with referees brought into to call fouls. After finishing up the scrimmage, Coach Brey introduced the new freshman to the assembled crowd and showed off the new intro video. Then, both the team and fans were dismissed for dinner.
State of the Program and Q & A Period:
While both the players and fans were eating, Coach Brey gave a short "state of the program" speech. While the Irish coach acknowledged that Jerian and Pat were huge reasons for the program's success last year, he believes this group is good enough to compete for another conference title. With regard to the ACC, Brey thought that Virginia, UNC, and Duke were probably in the top tier of the conference. The next tier included teams like Syracuse, Louisville, NC State, Miami, Florida State, and ND. He thought that this year's ACC could be as deep as the Big East during some of the monster seasons that had as many as 11 NCAA Tournament teams. The Irish coach also mentioned that the team would raise the ACC Tournament Championship banner before the first game of the season (Friday, 11/13 vs. St. Francis). While the title was a fantastic accomplishment, the team wants to put last season in the rear-view mirror, and get started on this one. Instead of fielding questions himself, Brey brought Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste to the podium to help answer questions from the audience. There were some interesting responses, but the junior and senior mostly responded with standard "player-speak" answers.
DJ was asked "who has improved the most" at our MEET THE TEAM DINNER. See why Coach called him the future Mayor: pic.twitter.com/Ye27lcHhU0— Notre Dame MBB (@NDmbb) October 20, 2015
While Zach and Demetrius did their best to keep things as politically correct as possible, Brey had the line of the night when he responded to a question about how deep the bench might go. "We'll play every player in every game," replied the coach that usually runs a tight rotation. "Everyone will play at least seven minutes, and I'll talk to their dads after the game if they're upset about playing time." The coach went on to say that this group was working hard, and doing their best to keep him from shortening the bench. At the conclusion of the Q&A period, Brey said there were no plans for anyone to redshirt, but since the team has two weeks of practice until the first exhibition game, they haven't even started thinking about potential redshirts.
- Of the two scholarship freshman that participated in practice, I was more impressed with Matt Ryan. His shooting in the scrimmage was lights out draining multiple threes. Pflueger, on the other hand, struggled a bit with his shot. Pflueger did get the highest of anyone on the roster when dunking in layup lines, but he didn't bring athleticism to the scrimmage. He seemed content to settle for jumpers which frequently rimmed out. Of the two, only Ryan played with the starting group during the scrimmage
- Zach Auguste's post up game looked much better than last season. He battled Geben inside, and was able to finish a majority of his touches in the low post.
- Fellow post player Martinas Geben looked like a real contributor during the scrimmage. During one sequence in the half court scrimmage, Geben, while playing with the twos, drained a three, made a jump hook, and then made two free throws on back-to-back-to-back possessions. While it remains to be seen if he'll be able to do it against ACC competition, it's definitely a positive step.
- Matt Farrell has somewhat of a thankless job running the point for the twos. He looked good enough to run with the ones, but is sitting behind a potential lottery pick.
- The offense looked pretty similar to last year. Bonzie looked comfortable playing a similar role to Pat outside the arc at times, and he's definitely still being able to bang with the bigger guys in the post. While he missed his only three point attempt from the corner, his stroke looked good, and the ball only just rimmed out.
- When Burgett or Ryan played in place of Bonzie or Auguste, the Irish small ball offense looked just as lethal as last season. During one sequence when the white team went small, they knocked down three straight threes by Jackson, Vasturia, and Beachem on consecutive possessions.
- Although Burgett was the first member of the blue squad to flip to white, I didn't think he stood out much for either team. That's not necessarily a negative since he didn't make any obvious mistakes, but I don't remember any especially positive plays either.
- The pace of practice really stood out to me. Players were always in motion, and there was almost no standing time except a short water break. For players that genuinely love basketball, Brey's practices have to be a blast. The five on zero portions looked especially good, and were fun to watch. Every trip down the floor featured at least one "extra" pass.
- Austin Torres was on crutches when he arrived to the gym after practice had already started. Brey announced afterwards that he had a sprained MCL, but that it wouldn't require surgery. He's expected to be back to practicing in a couple weeks.
- When introducing Elijah Burns, Brey mentioned that he picked up an injury during a hustle play at an earlier practice. While he didn't come out and say it, it sounded like he might have had a concussion.
- While the team was definitely working hard, Mike Brey seems to foster a light-hearted atmosphere during practice. When someone (Geben?) threw a pass straight to Zach Auguste who was not in the scrimmage that possession and was standing by the bench, Brey immediately praised the pass since Auguste was definitely wide-open.
- In addition to Ryan, Pflueger, and Burns, the team added another freshman, walk-on Chad Holtz. And yes, he is the grandson of former football coach Lou Holtz.
- Former ND point guard Eric Atkins was sitting on the bench during the practice.