The defending ACC Champion Irish men's basketball team returned to action on Friday night, easily handling their first exhibition against NAIA school St. Francis (IL), 87-56.
The Irish trotted out their expected starting lineup, with returning starters Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, and Zach Auguste complemented by wing V.J. Beachem and forward Bonzie Colson. The unit got off to a sluggish start, allowing the Fighting Saints to grab an early 11-6 lead before the Irish quickly went to their bench. Backup point guard Matt Farrell, who received little playing time last year behind the extremely talented ball-handlers of Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson, made an immediate impact upon his entry in the game. Farrell immediately stole the ball on the defensive end and drained a 3 on his first offense possession. Over his first 5-minute shift, Farrell scored 7 points and added 2 assists, helping the Irish go on a 17-0 run to take command of the game.
Around halfway through the first half, Brey started to work the three freshmen (Matt Ryan, Rex Pflueger, and Elijah Burns) into the lineup. Matt Ryan made good on his shooting promise, connecting on a deep ball on his first shot attempt in Irish colors. Pflueger, while not having quite the shooting acclaim as Ryan, also hit on his first 3-point attempt.
The starting unit came back in to close the half, extending the lead to 42-19 heading into the break. With the game under control, Mike Brey utilized the exhibition to flash a couple unusual looks for the Irish. Defensively, they mixed things up, flashing the 2-3 zone look that they used for brief spurts last year. Brey also used some very odd lineups that we are very unlikely to ever see again, my favorite of which being the ultra-long lineup of Pflueger, Ryan, Austin Burgett, Austin Torres, and Martinas Geben. Although the Irish had extended their lead to as much as 36, they coasted for the last ten minutes to an 87-56 final.
The biggest positive out of the Irish tonight (besides perhaps the play of Matt Farrell) was the defensive intensity. Coach Brey had made comments before the season about how the Irish defense was actually ahead of the offense, quite the rarity for an Irish team that has prided itself on offensive efficiency. However, the Irish defense demonstrated what Brey was talking about in this matchup, hounding the opposition and causing a plethora of turnovers. The addition of the lanky V.J. Beachem and the long-armed Bonzie Colson to the lineup gives the Irish almost unprecedented length and athleticism on the defensive end, and it showed Friday night. Demetrius Jackson was also particularly impressive, absolutely hounding the opposition on the perimeter and coming up with 4 steals.
The main negative was the Irish's lack of care for the ball. Losing Jerian Grant, last year's primary ball-handler, won't be easy, but Demetrius Jackson is no slacker running point guard. However, Jackson was forcing some things on Friday and lost the ball uncharacteristically on a few occasions. Zach Auguste also made some questionable decisions with the ball, turning it over 3 times. Against an NAIA opponent, these mistakes obviously aren't a big deal, but it would be nice to see the Irish tighten up the screws and reduce that 15 turnover number.
The main purpose of an exhibition, of course, is to take a look at individual players, so I'll give a brief summary of how everyone looked on Friday.
Demetrius Jackson—Played fantastic defense, but struggled shooting and handling the ball at times. Hopefully his Purcell Pavilion stats can improve this year.
Steve Vasturia—Played solid everywhere, adding an impressive 6 assists to his 10 points. Doesn't look like he will sit much this year.
V.J. Beachem—Had a quiet game, only shooting 1-5 from deep. He demonstrated his extreme athleticism, soaring for a dunk attempt that unfortunately got blocked. I'm still waiting for Beachem to throw down the highlight dunk he's capable of.
Bonzie Colson—Led the Irish with 12 points, and made good on the talk of extended range, swishing a corner 3.
Zach Auguste—Tried to do a bit too much ball-handling at times, and didn't dominate a lesser opponent. Not too concerning for an exhibition, but he didn't look great.
Matt Farrell—Probably the player of the game. He shot extremely well, going 4-5 from the field and 2-2 from deep. Most encouraging was his strength on the ball. He penetrated the defense and showed great vision with a few assists resulting in easy layups. He may not have the size to finish at the rim consistently, but his vision bodes well for capable minutes this year.
Rex Pflueger—Looked very strong on the ball with a good handle. He only attempted 3-point field goals, going 1-3 with a shot that had a bit of an odd release. I'd like to see him drive to the hole more in upcoming games.
Matt Ryan—Let it fly all night, putting up a team-leading 8 shots in only 13 minutes. After hitting his first 3, he struggled for the rest of the night, even airballing one 3 and yelling at himself on the court. Many think he'll be Brey's preferred bench wing, but that spot still looks to be up for grabs.
Austin Burgett—Played a quiet 11 minutes, hitting a baseline jumper in his only field goal attempt. It remains uncertain what role he'll play as a senior.
Elijah Burns—Solid in his debut, looking confident on the ball and scoring a nice tip-in. Managed to rack up 4 fouls in 10 minutes.
Martinas Geben—Was the first big off the bench, but struggled. He missed some easy finishes and didn't look much improved from last year.
Austin Torres—Played his typically energetic game, pulling down 3 offensive rebounds and almost injuring himself on a late dunk. Although he entered the game after Geben, he looks to be the better option to get backup minutes at the "5" this year.
The Irish will play their second and final warm-up game against Caldwell on Thursday night.