In a contest not nearly as close as the final score indicated, the Fighting Irish won their second game of the season with a 86-78 victory over Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Demetrius Jackson led Notre Dame in scoring with 20, but every starter notched at least a dozen points against the Panthers who were scorching hot from three, knocking down 14 of their 21 attempts to take an early lead and then make things look respectable late.
While Jackson led the team in scoring, I'd like to start by discussing how well V.J. Beachem played. Even before knocking in a pair of threes in the first half he was doing work on the other end, poking the ball out of the post for a steal to start a break, grabbing some boards and helping down on the block with his length. He finished the game with 19 points on just 12 attempts and grabbed eight boards. Beachem knocked down jumpers from all over the court and was just extremely consistent in an offense that is going to find him getting plenty of open shots.
THUNDERDUNK! VJ snags the steal & goes coast-to-coast for the slam to notch his 13th point. #18 ND 47 | UWM 35 2H pic.twitter.com/V3Cp3u4evh— Notre Dame MBB (@NDmbb) November 18, 2015
Why are those shots going to be open? Because Jackson and Steve Vasturia's ability to penetrate straight-up off the dribble or with the pick and roll are going to have defenses scrambling all season. Jackson made some beautiful music with Bonzie Colson in the first half and Zach Auguste in the second, dropping 7 dimes on the night and finishing at the rim with a delightful selection of moves. Colson also knocked in an open three from the corner on a smooth jumper, which is absolutely huge because it will allow him to space the floor as the four when Auguste is in at center.
The offense bogged down for a stretch in the first half with Matt Farrell in the game for Vasturia and Auguste getting too many post touches. I would just like to reiterate my position from last year: Auguste is so good at finishing the pick and roll and the Irish are so beautifully deadly when everyone is moving that slowing down to pound the ball in the post is just not an effective use of possessions. I will attempt to dig into data to prove this point, but both anecdotal and aesthetic evidence seem to back the position. This is not a knock on Auguste, who was efficient with 17 points on 11 shots to go with 6 boards, 2 steals and a block. He also tied a career high with three assists, including a pretty give to Jackson that led to a dunk.
If Auguste and Colson can effectively space the floor on offense (and I think they can if Colson continues to work on his corner threes), the Notre Dame defense has some serious potential. The cumulative length of the starters is almost oppressive, as Wisconsin-Milwaukee found out after going up 29-23. For the next 19 minutes of game time the Irish cranked up the defensive pressure and turned that deficit into a 65-45, forcing the issue on defense and turning that into opportunities on the other end. It was near-perfect Mike Brey hoops, with selfless play, opportunistic defense and guys knocking down shots behind the arc and at the rim. If you get some time and want to fire up ESPN3, skip to the 7-minute mark in the first half and zip through until the under-12 timeout in the second half. The Irish finished the game with just five turnovers, which equaled their steal total. Not bad.
After that timeout the Irish got sloppy and the Panthers cut the lead to nine, but Beachem knocked down a three, Auguste went coast-to-coast on his own steal and then Jackson found his big man for a dunk on three consecutive possessions to put things out of range. Notre Dame's perimeter defense was fine, as a lot of the Milwaukee shots bombed in from NBA range. A team shooting 30.1% from behind the arc hit 66% of their looks, but I wouldn't take too much from that.
All in all, a very nice effort from the Irish. I'm interested in seeing how the rotation plays out, but it looks as if Matt Ryan (five points, a board and an assist) is going to get a lot of burn off the bench due to his ability to play the three or the four, but my main question is about Matt Farrell. The back-up point guard played in a couple super-smallball sets along with DJ, Vasturia, VJ and Colson. Will that work in ACC play? Maybe, but this is the time to experiment with such things. Austin Torres, Austin Burgett, Martinas Geben and Rex Pflueger didn't get in until garbage time, so take from that what you will. The Panther big men were pretty adept at hanging on the perimeter and knocking in threes, so perhaps Brey felt that they'd be poor match ups for his back-up bigs, which seems correct. We'll see if they get more burn against traditional post players.
Overall, this team has the potential to claw at the heights of last season if A) Beachem continues to play like this B) Colson is able to effectively replace Pat Connaughton as a stretch four playing with Auguste. C) The bench can give them anything through the dog days of ACC play. I think we know what we're getting with DJ, Vasturia and Auguste and almost all of those things are very, very good. Going to be another fun one, gang.
The Irish's next game is against UMass Lowell on Saturday as Notre Dame attempts a clean sweep of The Bay State.