I had to wait a few days for the dust to settle before trying to hash out how I'd represent the state of the Irish basketball program. This year's run to the Elite Eight felt so different than last year's and the way the final Irish game wrapped up leaves a very different taste in Notre Dame fans' mouths. There are certainly similarities between this year's exit and the last:
- First, we put the fear in a basketball blue blood. Tell me there weren't Tar Heel fans with their hearts in their throats when the very Greensboro-like 12-0 run gave the Irish the lead. Just like we were thinking, "here we go," so were they. For all the grief UNC fans gave their team, and Roy Williams, the mental toughness Carolina demonstrated to put away ND was impressive.
- Second, this represented the last game in an Irish uniform for two giants of the program. Like Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson's next basketball action will be in an NBA Summer League with the eyes of a franchise watching to see what their #1 draft pick can do. Like Pat Connaughton, Zach Auguste has his doubters, but he'd be remiss not to give it a go.
- Third, Irish fans are left with an aching sense of "What's next?" looming about the program and uncertainty about how to set expectations for next year.
In an offseason filled with potential question marks, let's focus on a few things we know for certain. First, Demetrius Jackson is truly gone. Hiring an agent and trying to maximize his upside in the most important job interview of his life only accelerated what was certain to be true anyway. Second, Thon Maker won't be coming to South Bend. The prep star already had questions about his NCAA eligibility and his declaration for the NBA draft won't make that any easier to deal with. Mike Brey has talked about the importance of recruiting kids with good parents and you have to wonder about Maker's guardian/agent making decisions for him. You also have to ask legitimate questions about whether a program with such a solid reputation for player development and valuing academics is well served by breaking the one-and-done seal.
Another certainty is that Irish fans will start to freak out about uncertainty. The top of the list of concerns will be the future of V.J. Beachem. The Fort Wayne native's breakout tournament performance has created whispers of his NBA potential. In an interview with Fort Wayne's WANE, Beachem admits that he hasn't made up his mind regarding entering this year's NBA draft. Upon hearing that, I started to have flashbacks to Carleton Scott. However, if you take the time to watch Beachem's interview, you can see that he's more interested in a toe dip with the new rules that let him get a more complete evaluation before making a decision. He's not hiring an agent and speaks at length about enjoying his teammates and coach. Most importantly, he talks about his desire to complete his degree. While it is a concern, most signs seem to be pointing towards a return to South Bend for Beachem. Unless he's in a position to guarantee a first round selection, with guaranteed money, Beachem will be well served to put on a little more strength and put up a great showing as a featured threat in Notre Dame's offense.
For as big of a threat as Beachem can evolve in to, next year's Fighting Irish squad will be lacking that one guy who can thoroughly dominate a game. Demetrius Jackson had the athleticism and skill to exert his will on the game. If DJ made up his mind he wanted to get to the rim, or stroke a pull-up jumper, it really didn't matter who the college defender was, Notre Dame had a guy who could get it done. Next year's roster lacks that top end talent. However, just like last year, fans are left wondering if this could end up being the deepest roster Brey has had in his coaching career.
Steve Vasturia is set to return as a two-time captain. Despite his late-season struggles, the Philly native has given Irish fans more than enough evidence to build a case for an outstanding senior season. The man we call Onions has both the shooting touch and floor game to put together an All-ACC level performance his senior year. Of course, this will also be the first time Vasturia is going to have to take the floor without a sure-thing first round NBA guard beside him since his freshman campaign. Don't be surprised if you see Brey build some looks that feature Vasturia as the primary ball handler for the Irish. Vasturia frequently played the point for his AAU and high school teams, and he's more than capable of initiating offense for the Irish.
As was mentioned, Beachem will likely be the focal point of that Irish offense. He's a career 41% three-point shooter coming off of a season where he made 44% of his attempts from deep and 45% against KenPom's "Tier A" competition. That alone will force opposing defenses to account for Beachem on every trip down the floor. What gives Irish fans goose-bumps, however, is the prospect of the 6'8" swingman continuing to develop his game off the bounce. Beachem's name comes up frequently as one of the best dunkers on the Irish roster, and his athleticism was in full display in Philly. With a little more strength and some polish in his defensive and rebounding games, Beachem will give Irish fans hope for 3 straight years of NBA first-rounders. It is a stretch, but not a massive one, particularly if he can break out in his senior season.
One of the keys to Irish success moving forward will be the continued development of Bonzie Colson. After splashing on to the scene late in his freshman campaign, the 6'5" "big man" owned several big moments for the Irish his sophomore year - none bigger than his 31 point explosion in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Bonzie played 63% of the available minutes for the Irish his sophomore year, and if he's able to manage his fitness and foul trouble, expect that number to go to 75% in his junior season. The big thing to watch with Colson is his two point FG percentage. After a remarkable 63% in his first campaign, Colson took an understandable step back to 54% under a much higher volume of playing time his sophomore year. Colson spent a good chunk of his sophomore season alongside Zach Auguste in the line-up. In fact, that's what caused the match-up nightmare for Duke. With a very thin stretch-4 in the game, Colson gave opponents match-up nightmares. If Colson is the primary big in the Irish line-up, he'll likely draw the opposition's 5 man as a defender. If that is the case, expect Colson to be very dangerous as a screener in the PnR game. Colson has shown an ability to put the ball on the floor against bigger defenders. He's also demonstrated he can back down a smaller defender. His ability to put opposing defenses in that catch-22 will be key to the Irish offense next season.
You can undoubtedly count on those 3 men being Brey's "key guys" in 2016-17. From there, the toss-ups begin. In a program built upon the value of experience and seniority, one has to imagine Matt Farrell's late season resurgence pencils him in as both a "main guy" and the primary PG next season. Many Irish fans began the season with high hopes for the 6'1" New Jersey native. After a few good performances in early non-conference play, Farrell didn't look like a guy who could contribute in ACC play. Despite whispers of frustration and a potential transfer, Farrell worked himself into a position to earn Mike Brey's trust. The 16 minutes Farrell saw in the blow-out loss to UNC in the ACC semi-final were the most he'd seen in an ACC game. Apparently, they were enough for Brey to make the stunning move to give the sophomore his first career start in Notre Dame's opening round victory over Michigan in the NCAA Tournament. It was a move that left a lot of Irish fans scratching their head and questioning Brey's wisdom, but in the end, it was largely positive. Farrell was a key contributor to the Irish run to the Elite Eight. Farrell obviously lacks Jackson's elite athleticism, but he plays the game with a toughness and swagger that Brey loves. The confidence of the tournament run is huge for a guy with Farrell's style of play, and he's the frontrunner to trigger the Irish offense next season.
Of course, he'll have a talented and touted newcomer nipping at his heels. Incoming freshman Temple (T.J.) Gibbs has the kind of game that our own Alstein predicted would push Farrell for the starting PG position from his first day on campus. Gibbs appears to have a game that should transition to the college level very quickly, but unless he has a monster summer, it is difficult to see him taking the starting role from Farrell on day one. More likely, Gibbs will be given ample opportunity to run the show in preseason and non-conference games, splitting time with Farrell. If the freshman can meet or exceed expectations, it is entirely possible he earns a starting nod later in the year. The Irish are in an excellent position to bring Gibbs along at the proper pace among their veteran back court.
One of those veterans will be rising sophomore Rex Pflueger. After the collapse against Indiana, Coach Brey started looking to the 6'6" Californian to give the Irish an athletic defensive presence, and Pflueger delivered. Despite an extraordinarily low utilization rate (around 10% of possessions) Pflueger made a number of big contributions on the season - none bigger than the tip in at the end of the Stephen F. Austin game to extend Notre Dame's season and send them to the Sweet Sixteen. Pflueger has off-the-charts athleticism that has yet to be revealed on the offensive end of the floor, but it is coming. On a team with Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste as scoring threats, Rex was easily the 5th offensive option when he stepped on the floor. While defense will remain his sophomore calling card, expect him to do more than simply take care of the ball in his second campaign. Brey was already getting after Rex to look for his shot and his offense by the end of the season. Hopefully, with a summer to work on his ball handling, Rex's sophomore year will be littered with highlight finishes at the rim to go along with his outstanding defensive work.
Pflueger's classmate Matt Ryan also got his fair share of seasoning in his first year in blue and gold. The native New Yorker gained admission into the Irish line-up with deadly three-point shooting, but was able to make a case for playing time by using his 6'8", 217 lb. frame to work the defensive glass. If you choose to look at Brey's potential line-up's for next season through a traditional lens, Ryan will make a strong case for playing the "stretch 4" alongside Colson at the 5. Ironically, Ryan is 3 inches taller than Colson, but don't let that define either guy's play. Ryan will be counted upon to stretch opposition defenses and space the floor to help get Beachem open looks. With Beachem over 40% from deep on one side of the floor and Ryan available as a 37% shooter on the other side, defenses will be forced to open up the lane. If Vasturia, Farrell or Gibbs is able to find a seam to force the defense to collapse and rotate, Ryan and Beachem will be available for kick-out threes. Of all the guys poised to make a big leap this off-season, I think Matt Ryan is near the top of the list.
With Vasturia, Beachem, Farrell, Pflueger, and possibly Gibbs contributing, it is easy to feel great about the Irish back court in 2016-17. Where questions remain is in the Irish front-court. Can you really go through the season with a 6'5" guy holding down the middle? Outside of Colson and Ryan, who can you count on up front? What remains on the roster from a front-court perspective is filled with intrigue. Could Austin Torres have one of those break-out senior seasons? At a listed 6'7" and 234 pounds, the Penn HS product brings a ton of energy and bounce into the line-up. What Torres lacks in refined offensive skill, he makes up for in effort. Asked only to provide defense in rebounding in his early years in the program, could Torres develop enough proficiency in the PnR game to contribute 6-8 points per game to go with about that many rebounds? Can Torres develop into an energy post defender against bigger opponents? Brey has had a history of coaxing late-career performances out of similar players. To that end, can rising junior Martinas Geben use his 6'10" 253 lb. frame to finally crack the Irish starting line-up? Word is Geben started to emerge as a strong presence in practice late in the season. Can the Lithuanian make the leap as an upperclassman, or will the game continue to look too fast for him? Injuries and roster realities left Elijah Burns preserving a year of eligibility while adjusting to campus life. At a listed 6'9" and 234 lbs, Burns will have an opportunity to get even stronger this offseason and make his case for a contributing role in the front-court. The small glimpses we've had of Burns make him the most intriguing option to me. With a little more size than Torres and a little more quickness and refined game than Geben, he's the one I'm hoping can jump in and provide another big to throw in to the mix. Expect Brey to employ a heavy rotation of bigs early in the season to sort this out.
Offensively, despite not having the dominant guard the last two Irish squads have featured, this looks to be a potent offensive team. If I'm on the Irish coaching staff, I'm highly encouraged by the number of pick-and-roll options available to me. Late in the season, Brey discovered putting Beachem into ball screens. That's going to be a primary option for the Irish heading in to next season. When Beachem sets a ball screen for Farrell, teams that switch perimeter screens are stuck in a match-up where at 6'8", Beachem can simply shoot over the smaller defender. As teams start to become overly concerned with he pick-and-pop three-point opportunity, Beachem can start to occasionally slip that screen and look to finish at the rim. A horns set for Farrell or Vasturia with Beachem and Colson as screeners and the Ryan and the other guard spreading the floor will be a potent offensive look for Notre Dame in 2016-17.
Defensively, the song remains the same for Irish fans. Concerns about defensive rebounding and post defense will abound. The Irish have big shoes to fill on the defensive glass again. Auguste's 27.5% defensive rebounding percentage was good for 18th in the country this past season. Bonzie Colson will, of course, be asked to step up, but rebounding for next year's Irish needs to be a group effort. The Irish aren't big down low, no team with a 6'5" starting 5 man will be called "big", but they're very long 2 through 4. Beachem, in particular, could become a double-double monster if he can crash the glass effectively. At 6'5" and 212 lbs, Vasturia is another guy who will certainly be asked to improve his rebounding numbers in his senior season. What will be more interesting is how Brey chooses to defend with this array of talent. In many ways, his roster looks a lot like a Syracuse roster with very long, athletic guys playing the wings. Despite the general ineffectiveness of the Irish 2-3 this past season, next year's squad could develop in to a very effective zone team. A line-up that leveraged Plfueger and Vasturia harassing up top, Beachem and Ryan using their 6'8" length to lock down the wings, and Bonzie's physical presence in the middle could be very effective. It will require a lot more energy and activity than the Irish showed in their zone looks this year, but it is entirely possible. In man-to-man looks, Bonzie Colson will be asked to do a lot of challenging work against opposition post men, but on the perimeter, having both Vasturia and Plfueger as shut-down options is huge for Notre Dame. The best case scenario for Irish fans would be NBA scouts informing V.J. Beachem during his exploration of his options that he needs to demonstrate more defensive proficiency to improve his value at the next level (seriously, can someone pay off a few GM's to do this). He has all the tools to be an outstanding defender and showed glimmers of it throughout this season. While it would be difficult to envision a team losing Demetrius Jackson improving on defense, there are very solid building blocks to work with.
Over all of this discussion about rosters and style of play hangs the question of expectations. Does the 2016-17 edition of the Fighting Irish play under the weight of expectations to continue this magical run of Elite Eights, or does the loss of Jackson and Auguste on the heels of Grant and Connaughton push Notre Dame back out of the spotlight? What might be the impact of the first staff shake-up in several seasons comes to pass with either Balanis or Inglesby getting head chair looks at other schools? You'd love to say that this off-season is filled with more uncertainty than most, but in reality, all off-seasons are filled with uncertainty. It is entirely fair to assume the high-ceiling/low-floor narrative we assigned to the 2015-16 Irish squad carries forward into the coming year. What the roster lacks in top-end talent to wow you, it makes up for in quality depth. The concerns about size in the front-court can be offset with the variety of potential options and the length of the swing men. Inexperience and uncertainty at the PG position can be mostly offset with steady experience of Vasturia. For each intriguing question, there seems to be an intriguing answer in the program. Perhaps the most intriguing question of all is whether or not the Irish continue to raise the bar of achievement and expectations as they've done each of the last two seasons.
As fans of the team, the program, and the institution, that remains the most challenging of evaluations to make. I'm of the mindset that a good Notre Dame basketball season results in an invitation to the big dance. Advancement of any sort is merely icing on that cake. A Final Four for Irish basketball remains uncharted territory in the modern era. The last time Notre Dame reached that level, the tournament had only 32 teams (and I was 4 years old). Here at OFD, we'll have plenty of time to preview next season in depth, but as we close the book on another wildly successful Notre Dame basketball season, there's reason for continued optimism.