The Notre Dame universe is alive with the buzz of a football team inside the playoff bubble and the promised return of one of the most dangerous receivers in the country. Amidst all that excitement, Mike Brey and his Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball team open their non-conference schedule vs. Saint Francis (of Pennsylvania this time) Friday evening at 7:30 Eastern. We gathered our basketball writing staff to weigh in on some pre-season questions and welcome your thoughts on how the Irish can follow up the amazing adventures of the 2014-2015 season. Let's dive in on the defending ACC Champions...
Most Exciting Non-Conference Match-Up
Joe (JoeSchu): I'm sure many of my colleagues will point to the potential rematch with Wichita State in the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, but for my money it is going in to the heart of the beast and playing Indiana in Indianapolis. Make no mistake, this is the least "neutral" neutral site game since playing UNC in Greensboro. The Hoosiers are 3 notches above the Irish in Ken Pomeroy's preseason ratings. Like the Irish, they're driven by a highly efficient offense led by a dynamic PG, and a so/so defense. This will be an early-season test to see if the road dawg mentality lives on.
alstein: Definitely Indiana, then hopefully Wichita State in the finals of the Orlando tournament. That said, games at Illinois, vs. Stony Brook, vs. Loyola, and against Iowa/Dayton in Orlando are the secretly crucial ones. Reasonably difficult games that we need to avoid tripping up for seeding purposes. The ACC is likely to be a bloodbath this year, so we need to notch all these types of wins we can get.
Eric (ndroyalsfan): It's gotta be Indiana. The non-Big Ten teams have been fantastic in the Crossroads Classic, but this season could change that. Tom Crean finally seems to have it together, and having been to the Fieldhouse for games in the past, the "neutral" venue will be 80% crimson. Other than that, the Orlando Tournament and game at Illinois should be fun. Sadly, the slate at the JACC is kind of lacking before conference play.
Patrick (PadRah): I'll go with the Advocare Invitational Championship, provided we make it that far. Wichita State comes into this season ranked 10th in the AP Poll, and they return their dynamic backcourt duo of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. The Irish offense went on a second-half tear against the Shockers in last year's Sweet Sixteen, which was for my money one of the most fun games of the year. If this matchup comes to be, Demetrius Jackson would get a chance to measure up against a couple of guards who are getting All-American hype. Xavier is another perennial tournament team that would be a solid matchup.
Most Anticipated ACC Game
Joe: Hosting UNC at the JACC on Saturday 2/6. If the Tar Heels live up to the pre-season hype, they could be getting off the plane in South Bend as the number one team in the country. The Irish love to host number one teams. The game could have significant seeding implications for both teams, and there's no doubt Roy Williams and his returning veterans want another shot at the defending ACC Champions.
alstein: At Virginia, right off the bat (Jan. 2). What better way to kick off ACC season than to steal an upset victory on the road against a coach that, frankly, has had Mike Brey's number? That could really set the tone for another helluva conference season.
Eric: The trip to Duke is circled on my calendar. The Irish took their only "bad" loss of the season last year in Cameron, and despite beating Duke both at the JACC and in Greensboro, that blowout loss still leaves a bad taste.
Patrick: I'll go with the UNC game at Purcell Pavilion. The last time the Tar Heels visited, they completely outclassed the Irish, throwing down alley-oop after alley-oop. Provided the Tar Heels come anywhere close to their preseason ranking, this will be the marquee home game for the Irish, and the JACC will be rocking. I can't wait.
Joe: I don't anticipate much controversy here. If the Irish are going to factor into the ACC regular and post-season picture, Demetrius Jackson needs to perform at an all-ACC level and be in the POY conversation. As a sophomore, Jackson emerged as a threat off the bounce and shot a blistering 43% from behind the arc. Now as the focal point of the Irish offense - and opposing defenses - can Jackson build upon last year's performance?
alstein: Demetrius Jackson is going to have the type of season that will earn him a spot in the ring of honor someday.
Eric: It's got to be DJ, right? Brey's handing him the keys to offense, and he'll have every chance to put up huge numbers this season. Many expect him to leave for the NBA after this year, and depending on his performance, he could be the highest Irish draft pick in years.
Patrick: Demetrius Jackson, hands down. After being one of the most overqualified third-or-fourth options in the country last year, Demetrius seems primed to take over this year. What in intrigues me most is how DJ will respond to late-game situations. He'll be taking the reins from legendary late-game closer Jerian Grant, and it really seems like DJ has the x-factor that will help us win tight ballgames.
Joe: The departures of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton leave two "main guy" rotation spots available, I'm going to presume that Bonzie Colson spends his sophomore year expanding his breakout freshman campaign. Colson, however, was already "main guy" last year. For the Irish to go 7 deep, 2 guys will enter this year's heavy rotation as Brey's "main guys." V.J. Beachem is the obvious candidate for the first slot, and the guy most observers will tag as the X-factor for Notre Dame. Poised to make a big junior-season leap, the lanky 6'8" wing will need to add finishing at the rim to his offensive repertoire while using his length and athleticism to contribute on the defensive end. Where ND will be asking DJ to simply build upon a good base of experience, fans will be crossing their fingers for the big leap from his classmate, Beachem. If you presume solid contributions from Jackson, Vasturia, and Auguste, then Beachem becomes the meter for just how far this team can go.
alstein: Steve Vasturia goes from guy that Notre Dame fans know and love to a guy with a legitimate national profile. I think he will be the second-leading scorer on this team, even with the lockdown defense on opponents' best backcourt player every night. Opposing ACC fans are really, really, really going to hate this guy this year.
Eric: I think Auguste, Colson, and Vasturia are kind of known quantities at this point. All will be major contributors, and will have games where they look like the best players on the court. The key player will be VJ Beachem. If he can be more than just a jump shooter, he'll give the Irish loads of options on offense. Ultimately, VJ's performance will determine how high the Irish ceiling will go.
Patrick: I'm hopping on with V.J. Beachem. His sheer athleticism is so enticing; I've spent too much time drooling over dunks he has thrown down in practice. We know he can hit the deep ball, but if he can start driving and using his jumping ability to finish at the rim, he can really be a special player. The Irish offense seems posed to be great regardless, but if Beachem can take the next step, they will be downright scary.
ACC Top Four & Where do the Irish Finish
Joe: It is hard to see anything other than Duke, Virginia, and UNC separating themselves from the ACC pack. This is pretty typical, and so the big question is who jumps in to that 4th spot by punching above their weight class? Last year, on the backs of two phenomenal senior leaders, it was Mike Brey's team. The homer in me absolutely wants to put the Irish in that spot again, and I think they can do it. The main competition to jump into that 4th spot is Miami, Louisville, Pitt, Syracuse, FSU and NCSt. The middle-tier of the ACC is crowded this year with strong teams. It could easily be a 10 bid season if the mid-tier teams perform well out of conference. With Notre Dame's favorable conference schedule (repeat dates with BC, Wake, GT, and Miami), there's a sound argument for them sitting atop that middle tier and claiming the double bye in Washington DC in March.
alstein: Tough question. I would order it UNC, Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia. I don't know what it is; I just think Virginia is due for a step back, even just a small one. I think NC State is being undervalued, but Gottfried has never really achieved consistency with the talent that he gets. I think Miami is overvalued. FSU easily has top 4 talent, but how on earth do they put it all together? Nothing would surprise me, but I just lean towards the incumbents, including Notre Dame with the friendliest schedule out of anyone.
Eric: I think the top three teams, UNC, Duke, and UVA, might be a step above the rest of the pack, but any of ND, Syracuse, Florida State, Miami, and Louisville could play spoiler. Ultimately, I'll slot the Irish fourth partially due to talent, and also due to a kind league schedule that doesn't include any repeat games against the top squads in the conference.
Patrick: I think this is the year UNC finds to consistency to win the ACC; they just look like far and away the best team on paper. I'll slot UVA second. I'm concerned about their scoring without Justin Anderson, but they always seem to find enough to win close games. Duke slots in at 3rd, and I like Notre Dame to grab 4th. There are a ton of middle-of-the-pack ACC teams that seem like they could make a leap, but would anyone really be scared of playing FSU or Miami right now? I get that they can improve, but until they demonstrate it, I'm sticking with the more proven Irish.
Pre-Season All ACC Team
Joe: In a guard-heavy league, I'm going to hope the media members do a good job balancing contribution in awarding these slots instead of adhering to positions. Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon will likely build on a great junior campaign, as will UNC's Marcus Paige. Veteran PG's with proven supporting casts will certainly stand out this season. Demetrius Jackson will certainly give both a run for the money, and if the media can see fit to put 3 PG's on the first team, DJ will join them. If the preseason reports on UNC's Kennedy Meeks are accurate, he's set for a monster junior season down low. I believe there's a contractual obligation in the ACC's bylaws that Coach K is allowed to place a minimum of one player on the all-ACC team, so I fear Grayson Allen or incoming freshman Brandon Ingram could snag that 5th spot, but I'm going to hope it doesn't come to that and FSU's Xavier Rathan-Mayes or our own Zach Auguste vault into that last spot.
alstein: Cat Barber, NC State; Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia; Brandon Ingram, Duke; Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame; Brice Johnson, North Carolina
Eric: Demetrius Jackson, ND; Malcolm Brogdon, UVA; Kennedy Meeks, UNC; Marcus Paige, UNC; Xavier Rathan-Mayes, FSU
Patrick: Demetrius Jackson, ND; Marcus Paige, UNC; Malcolm Brogdon, UVA; Brice Johnson, UNC; Xavier Rathan-Mayes, FSU
Joe: A year ago, I predicted the Irish would struggle in a deep ACC and miss the tournament, but win the NIT. We know how that turned out. The ACC wasn't as deep as I thought, and damn, the Irish were good. I guess that makes me a better observer than predictor. Best case scenario, DJ, Vasturia, and Auguste maintain their very high levels of play to end last season. Then, if Bonzie avoids the sophomore slump and Beachem makes the junior leap, we'll be cooking with gas. With a favorable schedule, going to DC with another double-bye would establish the Irish as a force to be reckoned with. However, that's a lot of if's and hope-for's. While the ACC conference schedule sets up favorably, the overall schedule is a step-up from last year. If both the Shockers and ND advance in Orlando, the Irish will face 5 schools rated higher than them in Ken Pomeroy's pre-season ranking, and will play 2 more within his top 25. I think the commitment to defending and overall athleticism of this team are its core strengths. This is the deepest Brey team ever, and that should offset many concerns. I think we're on the cusp of a top-4 finish in the ACC and comfortably make the tournament around a 4-seed.
alstein: I really think this team is good enough to replicate last year's postseason accomplishments, but I'm not sure they will maintain the consistency or come away with quite as many nail-biters as they were able to with Grant and Connaughton. The theme of this season will be "not quite last season", so I will predict Notre Dame to be ACC Tournament runners-up and bounced out of the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16.
Eric: I think the Irish regress a bit this season, but this team could still be one of Mike Brey's best. Every team in the country would have problems replacing two NBA players, but the cupboard is far from bare. I think the 2015/16 Irish to fall a bit short last year's team, but still have a great season finishing 4th in the ACC (down from 3rd), lose in the semis of the ACC Tournament. Instead of making the Elite Eight, the Irish will make second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but lose in the Sweet 16 as a four or five seed.
Patrick: I really believe this team has all the firepower it needs to replicate last season. The question will be whether this team's leaders can close out games like Grant and Connaughton did. I'm very excited to watch Demetrius Jackson in the role of late game closer, but there may be growing pains that result in a few close losses. I think we'll drop a tough non-conference game, not unlike last year's Providence defeat, but take care of business in the ACC season to finish 4th. Once we're in the tournament, I have a lot of confidence in these guys. Obviously it's early to project tournament performance, but these road warriors have all the tools they need to make it back to the Elite 8, and that's exactly what I think they'll do.
So there you have it Irish fans. Obviously, we have a pretty optimistic group this year. Do you share in our optimism? Have your eye on someone else? Let us know what you think.
In future weeks, we'll have a player-by-player look at the roster and we'll continue our world's-best game-by-game coverage of Fighting Irish basketball.