I think it is entirely fair to forgive any Irish basketball fan who felt a sinking sense of deja vu Saturday afternoon. Mike Brey's Notre Dame Fighting Irish squad took the floor at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and proceeded to dig a hole quickly. Coach Mike Krzyzewski's Duke Blue Devils looked poised to abuse the Irish defense again as they averaged 2.67 points per possession over their first three times with the ball. Despite last season's great performances in the state of North Carolina, Cameron was a house of horrors. Lacking a signature win or complete performance to fall back on this season, Brey's team hadn't provided a preponderance of evidence that they could overcome the 9th ranked team in the country playing in front of their vaunted crazies. Hell, last year's team fronted by 2 NBA draft picks went down by 30 in Durham. What hope would this squad have?
Think back to before tip-off Saturday, and let me pose a few hypotheticals to you:
- Zach Auguste will score in single figures on 3-12 shooting
- V.J. Beachem will score 2 points
- Demetrius Jackson, Beachem, and Matt Ryan combine to go 0-5 from deep
- Rex Pflueger will play 23 minutes
- Duke will get 55 points out of their freshmen
- Duke will shoot 50% from behind the arc
- Duke will shoot 30 free throws
Faced with these facts beforehand, Irish fans could have been forgiven for clicking the TV off and saving themselves the misery. What an incredible game of college basketball they would have missed. Demetrius Jackson was having none of it. He broke the ice with a lovely driving lay-up and went on to play one of the more complete 40-minute stretches of his stellar career. It turns out the 8 point lead was the biggest either team would see on the afternoon as the Irish go on to win 95-91.
In what will live on as one of the great ironies of this Irish basketball season, Mike Brey was forced to go away from his newly preferred 4-around-1 line-up's by some of the wonderful ACC mystery officiating in Durham. The Irish were whistled for 23 total fouls in the game to Duke's 16 (including their fouling at the end of the game). Every trip seemed to be a combination of an Irish player being bumped on offense, followed by a Duke player getting the benefit of a quick whistle. No sequence demonstrated that better than Marshall Plumlee going over Auguste's back as the Irish big attempted a lay-up, followed by Brandon Ingram drawing a quick 2nd foul on Beachem on the other end. Beachem was the frequent victim of what Brey called "mystery calls" at halftime. With Beachem saddled with foul trouble, Brey brought Bonzie Colson for Beachem instead of Zach Auguste at the first media stoppage in the first half.
Mike Brey wasn't thrilled with the officiating in the first half. pic.twitter.com/P1izl7zE4d— Jordan Wells (@BGI_JWells) January 16, 2016
Mystery calls!— Jerian Grant (@JerianGrant) January 16, 2016
Bonzie Alexander Colson II entered the game with 15:44 remaining in the first half, and had an immediate impact. The guy his teammates love to call Big Baby has made a habit of staring down touted Blue Devils, and Saturday was no exception. After initially coming off the bench, Colson only sat another 3 minutes, logging 33 total for the game. In that time, he was simply outstanding. He set a career high in points, going 10-16 from two point range, and showing off newfound confidence behind the arc with two critical triples as the game bounced back and forth in the second half. Colson scored 31 points in 33 minutes with 11 rebounds, 2 steals, and an assist with zero turnovers. Colson mixed his trademark junkyard dog mentality around the rim with a smooth, confident stroke on his jumper. It was an incredibly efficient afternoon for Bonzie. He went 5-5 from the charity stripe and shot 68% eFG from the floor. Importantly, he demonstrated the confidence and swagger that Notre Dame needed in a hostile environment. Here are 3 straight tweets from local ACC reporter Lauren Brownlow, who was at the game:
"THROW COLSON OUT OF THE GAME!" Duke fans behind me implore the officials. Just....because— Lauren Brownlow (@lebrownlow) January 16, 2016
Colson open. Colson hits a 3. That's a career-high 26 for him. Duke fans behind me have gone from friendly trash talk to...something else— Lauren Brownlow (@lebrownlow) January 16, 2016
Not all that often you see a guy come in here and have the kind of game Colson is having, though— Lauren Brownlow (@lebrownlow) January 16, 2016
His performance also drew the attention of some former Irish greats. I love that these guys are following so closely:
Big baby with the stare down! I see you @Bacolson35— Pat Connaughton (@PlanetPat5) January 16, 2016
That's what I'm talking about boys!!! Great win! Bonzie is a bad bad man.— Jack Ryan Cooley (@JackCooligan45) January 16, 2016
Colson wasn't the only one in Cameron having a career night, Duke's all-everything freshman duo of Luke Kennard and Brandon Ingram combined for 55 total points. Kennard started incredibly hot and went on to a career high 30 points and 8 rebounds. The Irish had few answers for the 6'5" guard out of Ohio. Kennard did, however, show some inexperience, turing it over 4 times. Despite being hampered by some foul trouble, lanky 6'9" forward Brandon Ingram was a single point off his career high with 25 points, driven largely by his 4-7 shooting from behind the arc and 7-9 effort from the FT line. Irish fans will wish Ingram continues his great performance throughout the season. Hopefully, it will be his one and only in Durham. He's the real deal.
The freshmen were great scoring the ball for Duke, but their 6 combined turnovers haunted the Blue Devils. In a game where each team was scoring 1.3 points per possession or better, each time with the ball was precious, and Notre Dame winning the turnover battle 6-10 proved critical. The other place the slight freshmen struggled was keeping the bulky Colson off the offensive glass. The Irish snagged 16 offensive rebounds to Duke's 11. Those additional attempts proved critical in a fast-paced, high scoring affair.
Matt Jones gave the Irish fits during their last trip to Durham, but the 6'5" junior struggled over 40 minutes to 8 points, 3 boards, 3 assists, and 2 turnovers on the afternoon. Grayson Allen and Marshall Plumlee also went most of the way. Allen was effective with 18 points, but not terribly efficient. Plumlee did his work patrolling the middle and chipped in 8 for the Blue Devils. It was painfully obvious Duke is missing senior Amile Jefferson down low. More on that in a bit.
Colson's performance will clearly steal the headlines on the afternoon, but Demetrius Jackson put on a show for the ESPN audience. Both ESPN analyst Jay Bilas and USA Basketball Head Coach Mike Krzyzweski had glowing praise for the Irish junior.
DJ's stat line was solid. Forty minutes, 24 points on 10-16 from the floor and 4-5 from the line, 2 defensive boards, 4 assists, 2 turnovers, and one fantastic block on a 7 footer. The stats don't do a great job providing a measure of DJ's confidence and skill in the frenzied Duke environment. Jackson looked so poised and in control over the course of the entire game. He ran the pick-and-roll well, distributed the ball masterfully, absorbed any Duke pressure, and flashed his prodigious athleticism when it was required. In the biggest moment his team faced this season, the Irish leader asserted himself and announced his arrival on the national scene.
Fellow junior Steve Vasturia also went the whole 40 minutes in Durham. Vasturia was the primary reason Allen was held below his season scoring average while Steve put up 22 points himself. Vasuria found his shooting touch at critical times in the game. His 4-6 performance from behind the arc opened up the floor for Jackson and Colson to work.
Notre Dame's own freshman duo of Matt Ryan and Rex Pfleuger made big contributions. Ryan couldn't find the scoring touch in his 2nd career start, but he was solid on the defensive end, and did good work in 17 minutes on the floor. Rex Pfleuger gained invaluable experience and demonstrated to his coaches, teammates and Irish fans that he can rise to the occasion. The 6'6" California freshman played 23 minutes and scored 7 points on the afternoon. Rex had 2 assists, 2 blocks, and a defensive rebound without a single turnover. He drained an insanely clutch 3 as the shot clock expired with a little over 3 minutes remaining and ND up 3. Most importantly, to borrow some coach-speak, Rex competed all day. If you're looking for evidence of why he needs more time on the floor, look to the defensive possession in the final minute with the Irish clinging to a 2 point lead. After Colson dropped 2 FT's, Duke gets a 3 point look for Matt Jones that miraculously comes off. Rex skies for the defensive rebound. He isn't able to come away with it, but most importantly, he keeps seven foot tall Marshall Plumlee from coming down with it. Rex knocks it loose, and Mr. Clutch, Steve Vasturia cleans it up. Huge play by Pflueger. It even drew a little dap from noted Duke alum Jay Bilas.
The bump in minutes for Pflueger came mostly at the expense of V.J. Beachem. Faced with a trio of challenging defensive match-ups in Allen, Ingram or Kennard, Beachem struggled to stay in front of his man. He made a great effort, but was the victim of many of those early "mystery calls" and was forced to the bench early with foul trouble. V.J. managed a very nice drive and finish in the first half for his only 2 points, but had an otherwise forgettable afternoon.
This is the part of this article that is the hardest to formulate. How does one evaluate Zach Auguste's afternoon at Cameron indoor stadium? The senior struggled mightily with his shooting touch, going only 3-12 from the floor. He shot only 50% from the line, accounting for 3 of ND's 4 FT misses. All that being said, I think it might have been a breakthrough game for Auguste. Despite struggling mightily with his touch, Auguste stayed engaged. He kept his composure, he kept working, he kept rolling hard to the rim, and he kept rebounding. In a game where every stop was precious, Auguste came away with 10 defensive rebounds and 14 boards overall. For all his struggles on the afternoon, he came away with the play that sealed the game. After DJ missed badly on a FT that would have pushed the lead to 3, Auguste used his quickness advantage over Plumlee to come up with the offensive board, and went on to ice the game with two ridiculously clutch FT's. It was a great opportunity for the ND staff to work with the often maligned big man and remind him that you don't need to score to have an impact. If the enigmatic Auguste can continue to compete and be engaged for 40 minutes, he makes the Irish a formidable force. Say what you want about his struggles finishing lay-up's, the most important thing was that Zach finished the game competing and performing.
What's perhaps most significant about this game is the resilience shown by this team. They didn't rely on hot shooting and bombing from deep. Notre Dame worked their collective tail off to get themselves a late lead, but a bad turnover and a Grayson Allen driving finish saw that lead disappear with only 1:26 remaining in the game. After some of the close game struggles the Irish have suffered this season, you had to wonder how they'd respond to being down one in that environment. With Rex still in the game, DJ takes control, goes hard to the elbow and drops a gorgeous pull-up jumper over Allen. With only 47 seconds left and down one, Brey inserts Ryan for Auguste and goes with both the freshmen for the critical offensive possession. It was the OFD dream line-up: DJ, Onions, Rex, Ryan, and Bonz. What do they do? Screen-and-roll with DJ and Bonzie. Colson finishes the huge and-1. Gorgeous Notre Dame basketball. Auguste comes back on the offense/defense sub with Ryan, and that's when they came down with the critical defensive board Rex knocked loose. Brey closed the game with 2 freshmen on the floor for big chunks of time. That's the kind of experience that pays massive dividends down the road. An outstanding program win.
Interesting 4-Factors look at yesterday’s win: pic.twitter.com/KITkI58Ks3— JoeSchu (@JoeSchuOFD) January 17, 2016
If you look at the four factors stats, you see evidence of how gritty this win was for ND. The Blue Devils outshot ND by a pretty good margin (63% to 55%) and obviously got to the line more often (I believe that's in the ACC bylaws), but the Irish forced the young Blue Devils in to many more turnovers, and did a much better job on the glass. Hustle plays and determination were the difference, and the Irish had just enough to pull out the victory.
From an X's and O's perspective, I'd love to tell you that Brey drew something new up this week and it'll be the hook we hang our hat upon for the rest of the season, but that wasn't the case. Offensively, there's building evidence that Bonzie and Zach are learning to space themselves better and that the two-big line-up's will become more effective over time. It was extremely rare that either of them camped on the block. They did a better job moving, and that's what's going to keep the middle of the floor open for DJ to penetrate and find them. Other than when Bonzie had the mismatch, ND didn't throw the ball down low to a guy that was standing still. Most interior touches were on the move. Some of that was helped by that absence of Amile Jefferson. As noted above, the Blue Devil senior has been sidelined by a broken bone in his foot, and it has caused Coach K to have to dig in to some challenging line-up's. Marshall Plumlee is playing as the lone traditional big and getting 39 minutes a night while very slight freshman Brandon Ingram gets minutes at the "4" spot. At 190 lbs, there was absolutely nothing Ingram could do with 225 pound powerhouse Bonzie Colson down low. While Colson struggled to check Ingram's considerable perimeter skills, Brey traded that off all afternoon for Colson's interior presence (and newfound 3 point stroke). Jefferson could have helped Duke mitigate that tradeoff and would have certainly reduced Notre Dame's advantage on the glass. By playing both bigs, Brey kept Plumlee, a very good interior defender (esp. with home whistles) defending Auguste. He put Bonzie in the game to occupy Ingram, which helped limit Ingram's contribution due to foul trouble.
Defensively, you could look at 1.3 points per possession for the Blue Devils and lament another poor effort from the Irish, but that would be somewhat unfair. Duke is a challenging perimeter match-up for any team. They don't play a traditional point guard and use a very skilled "stretch 4." Much like how Notre Dame's offense is dictated by having 4 guys on the floor who can light you up from deep, Duke relies on putting 4 guys out there who can go by you on the bounce or rain 3's. This wasn't Duke's most efficient performance of the season. Against Indiana, they scored a remarkable 1.53 points per possession. It would be hard to expect a stellar defensive performance from Notre Dame in Durham. What you got Saturday was a a very solid effort. They didn't fall back in to the zone more than a possession or two. For the most part, they made Kennard, Ingram and Allen work for their shots, and they hit a bunch of them. Thankfully, they also made some youthful mistakes. That trio turned it over seven times.
Notre Dame now emerges from the first 2 weeks of ACC play at 3-2. Most reasonable observers would call that holding serve against a schedule that included trips to Durham and Charlottesville. Of course, there's no rest during the ACC meat grinder. Thankfully, 3 of the next 4 will be played in South Bend, with the surprising Virginia Tech Hokies coming to town on Wednesday. It will take everything in Mike Brey's bag of tricks to ensure Buzz Williams' squad doesn't extend their surprising ACC start to 5-1. There can be no let-down. With the freshmen emerging and both Beachem and Auguste looking to get back on track, the Irish have plenty of motivation to build on Saturday's momentum. As Irish fans, we can take a little time to gloat on our 4-1 record over Duke in conference play, but the squad knows that win was the just the beginning and a chance to build something very special upon it.
GAME. IRISH. Go inside our locker room with our squad after our win at Cameron. ND 95 | #6 Duke 91 FINAL pic.twitter.com/CUzn6YFjM4— Notre Dame MBB (@NDmbb) January 16, 2016