If you're one to enjoy repeated #narrative during Notre Dame basketball broadcasts, be prepared for the variety of color commentators and studio hosts to discuss the departure of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton to the NBA at every possible opportunity. Much like, "Did you know Pat pitches?" the running question of the 2015-16 Fighting Irish basketball season will be "Did you know Jerian and Pat graduated?" The normal attrition of college basketball rosters requires we say goodbye to contributors each year, and it has to be daunting for Mike Brey to face life without two amazing student-athletes. Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick called them once-in-a-generation leaders across all ND sports.
Expect every talking head to jump on this fact before, during, and after every Irish game this season. Of course, the first thing they'll point to is the loss of offensive production. Grant and Connaughton combined for 37% of the points scored in Notre Dame's 32-6 season that set a record for total wins and earned an ACC Championship banner. The 2014-15 season set a high water mark for the Notre Dame basketball program. The thrilling trip to the Elite Eight has Notre Dame's coaches, players, and fans hungering for more. Let's dig a layer deeper into the contributions of these two departed super stars in 2015 and how the 2016 Fighting Irish will look to fill those gaps.
The most basic place to start is minutes. It will surprise no one to hear that Brey allowed his two seniors to play nearly every available minute. Grant averaged 37.1 minutes per game and played over 91% of the available minutes. Connaughton wasn't far behind at 35.6 (87%). Coach Brey will need to explore combinations that fill in over 72 player-minutes per game. The first candidates to shoulder some of that load come from the returning "main guys." It is easy to see both Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia absorbing some of that time. DJ was right behind Pat at 34.7min/gm and Vasturia next at 32.5. I think you can expect both of those guys to hover around 37 in the upcoming season, accounting for about 7 of those 72 player-minutes. Next up, expect to see a leap from senior Zach Auguste. The big man from Massachusetts played 24.4 minutes per game last year. Precedent says that ND bigs will never go above 30 minutes per game (Cooley played 29.3 his senior year), but I think if Auguste is fit and can stay away from foul trouble, he could get close to 30. Adding Zach's 5 extra minutes, we still have 60 player-minutes to fill. In the front court, expect Sophomore Bonzie Colson to absorb many of Pat's minutes at the 4. Bonzie averaged 12.1 minutes per game across the entire season, but that number jumped to 14.3 in the ACC regular season. I think it is fair to assume that you'll see Colson jump to somewhere around 22 minutes per game in the season ahead, leaving 50 player-minutes to fill. The biggest jump is likely to come from junior V.J. Beachem, who logged 14.6 min/gm last season. If the junior can maintain a consistent shooting stroke and leverage his quickness and length in perimeter defense, it is fair to assume he could jump all the way up to 30 minutes per game as a key backcourt contributor. There are still 35 player-minutes out there for guys to step up in to. In the front court, you're looking at guys like Austin Torres (7.1 min/gm) or Martinas Geben (8.8). Both guys saw more time in the preseason than they did as ACC play transpired. Senior Austin Burgett (4.3) could also be a candidate for front-line minutes if he can avoid the injury bug and foul trouble that consistently plagued him early last season. Freshman Elijah Burns has the 6'9" 234 lb. frame required to bang with the bigs up front. Time will show if he's able to provide the defensive and rebounding presence necessary to crack the lineup his freshman year. In the back-court, sophomore guard Matt Farrell will have the first opportunity to take the few minutes DJ leaves behind at the point, and if the New Jersey native demonstrates a hot shooting stroke, he could possibly run alongside DJ. As Eric pointed out in his practice report, the leading candidate to absorb some additional back court run is freshman Matt Ryan. If Ryan's shooting stroke can translate to the college game, he could provide a valuable asset to spread the floor for DJ and Auguste. At 6'8", Ryan balances sweet shooting with a big frame that could fill in some of Connaughton's defensive and rebounding prowess.
Rotations are always a mystery for Brey and fluid at different parts of the year. It is safe to say Brey is projecting Jackson, Vasturia, Auguste, Colson, and Beachem to be his "main guys" with the balance of the scholarship roster competing to enter a 7 or 8 man mix.
As noted above, Connaughton and Grant contributed 37% of Notre Dame's scoring on the season. The seniors combined for 29 points per game over the season. According to Ken Pomeroy's calculations, Grant attempted 23% of the shots when he was in the game and Connaughton 20%. This tells you that the Irish had a fairly balanced offense. Neither guy took the preponderance of shots when they were in the ball game. The Irish offense, as it traditionally has been, was very balanced. Both were extremely efficient offensive performers with eFG%'s of 54 and 60. Interestingly, Grant's eFG% was lowest among 2015's "main guys," so it is believable that the Irish won't suffer a major drop in shooting in 2016. What's worrisome is how much of the offense ran through Grant's passing. As Knick fans are starting to learn, Grant is capable of energizing an offense without scoring. His 6.7 assists per game were double the next best on the team. According to Pomeroy, Grant assisted on 34% of the Irish FG's made when he was on the floor in 2015. It isn't reasonable to identify a single Irish player to pick up Grant's passing and ability to create offense. Much of that responsibility will fall on Jackson, but Brey's historical success of getting his teams to pass and move the ball effectively will be more of a shared responsibility in 2016.
Zach Auguste was a primary beneficiary of that ball movement in 2015, shooting 62% from the floor. Irish fans will hope that as Auguste's minutes increase, so can his scoring production. Expect to see the senior big man to get a variety of touches on the low block in addition to being a key screener in the Irish pick-and-roll game with Jackson - allowing him to build on 2015's 13 points/game.
Steve Vasturia will also be asked to be more aggressive in his shot selection. As a sophomore, Vasturia only accounted for 16% of the shots while he was on the floor, lowest among ND regulars. While this might cause a slight drop in his 60% eFG shooting, Vasturia will remain a critical, efficient cog in the ND offensive machine.
Bonzie Colson is being asked to expand his game out beyond the arc in 2016. One of the critical developments to track over the upcoming season will be the growth of the sophomore's game. Colson was effective scoring around the rim and provided points off of offensive rebounds. He was able to shoot a remarkable 63% from 2 point range in his first campaign with fairly high utilization rates and percent of shots taken. His ability to become a larger part of the flow of the Irish offense will determine his ability to grow his 5.6 points per game.
V.J. Beachem was slotted as a perimeter shooter after a few hot-shooting starts early in the season. His slight build and sweet stroke make it easy to peg him as only a shooter. However, in his sophomore season, Beachem showed glimmers of his strong handle and the ability to slip defenders on the bounce. He certainly has the springs to finish above the rim and if he starts to find the strength and aggression to match, his junior season could be a major breakthrough and a big leap from last year's 5.9 points per game.
Demetrius Jackson gets his first full season of being the straw that stirs the Irish drink. Over the course of a remarkable sophomore year, Jackson saw his role and importance grow and grow, highlighted by a maestro performance vs. UNC in the ACC Final and several highlight plays during ND's run to the Elite 8. For a sophomore point guard, Jackson was incredibly efficient. His steady 14.4 turnover rate (Pomeroy's measure of personal possessions used on turnovers) is outstanding for an underclassman, and he'll need to continue to maintain that efficiency as he absorbs the facilitation role he shared with Grant last year. Jackson's 59% eFG last year was a product of greatly improved finishing at the rim and 43% shooting from behind the arc. Irish fans will be hoping those numbers hold steady in the year ahead. Success for ND probably doesn't look like DJ averaging 20+ a night, but more like 16-18 points (up from last year's 12.4) and 4-5 assists (up from 3.1).
If you look at point distribution among Irish contributors last year, it is incredibly balanced. Here's a quick chart to illustrate that:
You can visualize Brey's seniority system at work. After Grant, scoring was incredibly balanced between Connaughton, Auguste and Jackson, with Vasturia close behind. It isn't hard to imagine Jackson and Auguste sliding into the majority roles next year with Vasturia, Colson, and Beachem filling in that next 45% of the scoring. Behind that, ND needs to find those 1-2 guys that take up that 13% of the offense that Beachem and Colson occasionally tossed in last year. This is where a guy like Matt Ryan can quickly find his niche, or perhaps Geben's post game has grown to the point where he can grow from 1.6ppg up to 5-6. If Burgett or Torres earn some run with their defending an hustle, either could find themselves throwing in something like 4-6 per game, which would nearly match Beachem and Colson's season long averages from 2014-15.
Your optimism for 2015-16 Notre Dame basketball largely hinges on two things. First, your trust in Mike Brey's system. If you look back through the years, Brey has never had an offense rated worse than 54th in KenPom's numbers. he's had a top-10 offense nearly half his years in South Bend. He's returning guys that demonstrated the ability to share the ball and produced very balanced season-long numbers. There's no reason to see that coming to a halt this season. Second, you're hanging your hopes on Jerian and Pat leaving behind a culture of...
Defense is a little harder to quantify, but that makes it no less critical. If you look at Brey's season's in South Bend, the correlation between number of wins and Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive ranking is nearly twice as strong as the adjusted offensive ranking. There's no denying Pat Connaughton was an outstanding defensive presence and rebounder. Pat was able to use his strength, leverage, and tremendous leaping ability to defend far beyond his size. Bonzie Colson is going to be asked to pick up where Pat left off defending and rebounding at the 4 position. On the perimeter, Demetrius Jackson is a one-man wrecking crew, and there's no reason to see a drop off in his defensive performance. Like Jackson, Steve Vasturia was a pillar of the perimeter defense with no reason to step backwards in that role. Jerian Grant was a very capable defender, as shown in his 1.7 steals per game, but there were certainly times where Irish fans questioned his total commitment to defending. Whether it is Beachem or one of the freshmen fighting for time at the wing, Brey will clearly be asking for a strong commitment to defend from that position. With Beachem's length and bounce, Irish fans have hope that the perimeter defense might be even more imposing in 2016. Notre Dame has the length and quickness to be a very dangerous defensive squad, and behind Jackson's fiery leadership, it is reasonable to hope the Irish improve on 2015's defensive performance.
Mike Brey has always run a seniority-driven culture of leadership in the Irish program. Continuity and player-leadership have been hallmarks of Brey's success at Notre Dame. While it is painful to be the first team in the Brey era to lose 2 key contributors to NBA rosters, the cupboard is far from bare. Demetrius Jackson showed flashes of his fiery leadership style in the ACC and NCAA tournament stretch runs. Zach Auguste made a massive leap in maturity and accountability in his junior season, and Austin Burgett has been able to set aside disappointment about playing time to remain a key cog to keep the Irish unified and organized. This is a proud, motivated group of young men who learned well under the tutelage of Grant and Connaughton. Irish fans have every reason to expect a tough-minded, committed squad to actively chase the success they tasted last season.