Coming off an absolutely gutting loss to Indiana on Saturday, it would have been nice to see the Irish pummel a bad team as their nonconference schedule winds down. Unfortunately, the Irish did nothing to alleviate concerns about consistency in a lackadaisical 87-78 victory.
The Youngstown State Penguins headed into this one coming off a 59-point drubbing against Michigan. As the 3rd worst team on the Irish's schedule according to KenPom (ranked 263), the Penguins didn't figure to put up much of a fight at Purcell Pavilion on Monday night. However, they put forth an inspired effort, constantly pestering the Irish all the way to the final buzzer.
With students on Christmas break, the Purcell Pavilion was lightly populated for tip-off, and the Irish seemed to follow this lethargic cue early. The Youngstown State 2-3 zone stymied the Irish offense, which looked out of ideas throughout long possessions. Before the under-16 timeout, the Irish had already turned it over 3 times. Meanwhile, Youngstown State upped the tempo while on offense, firing up the first shot that looked decent and riding some hot shooting to an early 9-5 lead.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, their go-to post scorer Bobby Hain went down with a foot injury very early on. Without the lumbering Hain in the middle, they turned to 6'7" Sidney Umude, who was all over the place, attacking the rim and grabbing rebounds.
Despite the steady 3-point shooting of V.J. Beachem and nice bounceback performance from Demetrius Jackson, the Irish couldn't shake the inspired Youngstown State squad throughout the first half. A Sidney Umede jumper pulled the Penguins to within 1 with only 4:17 left in the half. The Irish were able to push the lead back to 8 headed into halftime, but the half certainly felt underwhelming against a cupcake opponent down a key player.
In the second half, the Irish starters finally began to put it all together, ripping off a 21-5 run in the first 8 minutes to extend the lead to 24 points. The Youngstown State shots stopped dropping, and Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson were able to exploit the lack of height in the Penguin interior defense.
Everything seemed set up for the Irish to coast to a methodical 20-point victory, as Mike Brey emptied his bench up 20 points with 5 minutes left. However, the bench struggled immensely, turning the ball over multiple times and conceding open threes, allowing the Penguins to cut the deficit to 11. Mike Brey was forced to bring his starting 5 back in, cementing the lead down to the 1-minute mark. Brey emptied the bench again, but they immediately allowed a 5-0 Youngstown State run, and Brey was forced to call on his starters to guide the Irish through the final seconds. While the Irish were never truly in danger of coughing up the lead, the end-of-game debacle was certainly embarrassing for the bench lineup.
Has the Pflueger Era Begun?
After the Irish collapse against the Hoosiers, Mike Brey was faced with some harsh criticism concerning his lack of bench minutes down the stretch. These final nonconference games tend to provide opportunities for Brey to look at the fringe guys in his rotation, and he did exactly that tonight. Perhaps most notably, he called on touted freshman Rex Pflueger in the first half, giving him some of his earliest run that he's seen.
Pflueger looked very solid in his career-high 12 minutes of action, especially on the defensive end. Inserted into a lineup that looked devoid of energy for long spurts throughout the night, Pflueger immediately sparked the Irish. He provided very active ball pressure, forcing a turnover right away. Mike Brey rewarded his effort by bringing him off the bench before Matt Farrell in the second half. Pflueger continued to defend strongly, and he ended up with a game-high 3 steals. On the offensive end, he looked under control and comfortable ball-handling on the perimeter, although he didn't connect on either of his three-point attempts on the night.
Very relevant to the #FreePflueger discussion is the play of Matt Farrell, who has been Mike Brey's preferred first guard off the bench to this point. Simply put, Farrell had a horrific game tonight on both sides of the ball. He continues to be a complete non-threat as a shooter, with his 30.8 FG% on the year dropping even further after a 1-5 performance. The Penguins completely sagged off of him on the perimeter, and he passed up on a wide-open corner 3 in the first half. Later in the game with the Irish up big, he started to jack up 3's to no avail, missing all four of his attempts. Throw in a turnover in which he seemed to dribble off his foot, and it was an altogether poor day for Farrell offensively.
On the other side, Farrell was abused defensively. Youngstown State's Cameron Morse consistently attacked him off the dribble, and Farrell had no answer. His size already sets him at a disadvantage, but if he cannot shut down Horizon League guards, that certainly doesn't bode well for ACC play.
Ultimately, I can see what Brey likes in Farrell. He provides confidence on the ball, some different looks for the Irish offense when he probes into the lane, energy and hustle for 50-50 balls, and a year of experience in the system. While he brings positives in these few areas, his deficiencies have proven to be too extensive to justify playing him meaningful minutes. While Pflueger hasn't shown any can't-miss offensive abilities, his defense alone should place him above Farrell in the rotation. Neither one of the two will be looked at for instant scoring off the bench, but Pflueger provides much better defense with a seemingly comparable offensive game.
Miscellaneous Thoughts On Other Irish Players
It was great to see Demetrius Jackson turn in a great all-around performance after one of his worst games in Indianapolis. Whatever Purcell Pavilion troubles he dealt with last year seem to be a thing of the past. Seeing a 6'0" guy get multiple tip-ins will always be fun.
Steve Vasturia is mired in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, clanking all 3 of his attempts from deep (even one of his usually automatic corner 3's) and struggling with his finishes in the lane. He managed to set a career high with 8 assists, but it would be nice to see Vasturia have an effective game against Liberty before ACC season.
V.J. Beachem continues to be lights-out from deep, going 4-6 tonight. His stroke is beautiful, and we are lucky to have him.
Bonzie Colson had another nice performance, going 14 and 9 and continuing to be mostly unstoppable down low. However, his 2-5 free throw shooting was a bit disappointing after he missed the two huge free throws against Indiana. If Colson can solidify his shot from 10 feet out, he becomes much more dangerous. Right now, his effectiveness seems mostly contained to the paint.
Zach Auguste attacked the smaller Youngstown State defenders all night, going to the free throw line 12 times. Despite this strong offensive performance, his defense was suspect against the smaller Penguins. One thing I've noticed is his tendency to give the opposition a slight lane to the rim, almost as if he's luring them in for some highlight blocks. I'd rather see him move his feet more and stay in front of guys.
Matt Ryan continues to fire away at every opportunity, going 1-6 from deep tonight. He's establishing himself early as a streaky shooter, which is fine but frustrating on off-nights like tonight. His range is clearly immense, but some of his NBA-range attempts should probably be curtailed.
Austin Torres had a great night. Any time he gets more than a couple minutes, you can pretty much pencil him in for a put-back tip-in. He has a reputation for being the "energy guy" off the bench, and he did that to a T tonight. He drew probably the two biggest crowd reactions of the nightâone on a very impressive close-out in which Torres showed off his hops to block a 3-pointer, the other in which he made a nice steal and threw it off the defender to retain possession. Brey knows exactly what he's getting with Torres at this point, and I hope he utilizes him a bit more.
The Irish close out their nonconference schedule against Liberty on the 26th, before heading to Virginia to kick off their 3rd ACC season.