With 14 points each, Bonzie Colson and Matt Ryan led the Irish to an 81-61 victory over Loyola Chicago, improving Notre Dame's record to 7-2 on the season. After some ugly basketball in Orlando and for the first twenty minutes in Champaign, Notre Dame has now strung together five really nice halves against Illinois, Stony Brook and Loyola Chicago and has been rewarded with three wins for the effort.
The Ramblers got the game within two points in the early moments of the second half, but the Irish switched to a 2-3 zone mixed with some backcourt pressure that befuddled their guests, ripping off a 19-3 run to put the game away. Ryan did the damage from the outside (4 for 6 from 3, the 14 points a career high) while Colson was a force in the paint and at getting to the line, scoring his 14 points on just five field goal attempts. Colson also chipped in seven boards, three assists, a block and a steal. The sophomore needed to adjust to a host of new things this season (starting, more minutes, playing alongside Zach Auguste instead of in relief of him), and I think after his last couple games things are trending in a very positive direction.
There were a lot of fun stat lines in this game. V.J. Beachem continued his really nice junior season, tying for the team lead with seven rebounds but also adding two smooth threes, four assists, a steal and two blocks. He also helped set up the first points of that 19-3 run with a post-up and added a bucket from the block later, a fun wrinkle that could make him even more dominant. A team with Ryan and Beachem slithering around the perimeter while you try to contend with post-ups from Colson and Auguste and drives by Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia is going to be very, very difficult to defend.
It was a quiet day for Auguste, who continued to flash some strong offensive moves but was the victim of some unkind rolls at the rim. Colson's effectiveness combined with a dumb behind-the-back pass attempt in the second half limited his minutes, but it was a fine effort. Jackson was in facilitator mode most of the game, but he still worked his way into the highlight reel with a steal (three on the day) deep in the backcourt and dunk. Vasturia did the usual Vasturia things, with 10 points, a pair of threes, three boards, two assists a steal and a block. He remains very good at basketball.
I also loved seeing Rex Pflueger getting some brief run with the starters in the second half before the bench emptied. The freshman guard was a highly rated prospect but hasn't been able to find a role in the rotation yet, but despite the limited minutes he played within the offense and made some really nice passes. Reserve guard Matt Farrell has done fine in his time off the bench, but I don't think it would hurt to try Pflueger in some of those minutes because the potential upside is very, very high.
It's also possible the Irish have their own version of the Warriors' small-ball Death Lineup, as the combination of Jackson, Vasturia, Ryan, Beachem and Colson worked really well together. With that lineup on the floor you have four guys shooting over 40% from three, four guys 6'5" for taller with freakish arm lengths and a whole lot of Swiss Army knife versatility. (Turns out when you have a lot of athletic guys with length and shooting range, you can put some pretty cool lineups together.)
Overall this was a good effort against a decent but by no means great Loyola Chicago team (164th in KenPom, coming off a good win against Creighton). The Irish had a size advantage they exploited (36 to 23 on the glass, five blocks) and leveraged the athleticism gap for nine steals. It's a shame this team still hadn't figured things out over Thanksgiving weekend, but the post-Grant and Connaughton rotation is starting to take shape and the level of intensity has picked up nicely in the three games since leaving Florida. We'll have a much better idea of where the Irish stand going into ACC play Saturday after they face Indiana, their toughest opponent to date.