A year ago, nobody expected the Notre Dame men’s basketball team to make much of an impact in the ACC after it’s first season in the conference resulted in a record of 15-17.
All the Fighting Irish did between then and now was rack up 26 regular-season wins, add three more on route to an ACC Tournament title, and another three in the NCAA Tournament before narrowly falling to the Kentucky Wildcats in the Elite Eight. Despite their unforeseen success, the returning Irish players and head coach Mike Brey want to keep the same mentality and hunger that led to that success as they approach the 2015-16 season.
Brey addressed reporters on Tuesday at Notre Dame’s annual men’s basketball media day, where he raved about the tremendous drive that his athletes have this year after their epic post-season run.
“I haven’t had to do anything motivationally, which is great,” Brey said. “This group tasted some amazingly new territory last year, and they have been unbelievably focused.”
Brey added that his core of returning players, including three starters in Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia, are eager to prove that they can win games in March again even after losing their star seniors Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. Auguste is a senior now, and Jackson and Vasturia are both juniors, so their experience will be one of the strongest assets for the Irish. The three of them will likely account for most of the scoring and rarely see much time on the bench.
This group tasted some amazingly new territory last year, and they have been unbelievably focused
The two players who are most likely to round out the starting five are junior V.J. Beachem and sophomore Bonzie Colson. Although he didn’t see as many minutes during the post-season, Beachem was the sixth man for the Irish during the early part of the regular season last year. Colson was just the opposite, struggling to find minutes early in the season and then coming on strong to become a vital part of the late-season rotation. Junior Austin Torres also saw varied minutes last season, but figures to be a much bigger contributor this year as well.
While these veterans surely have the right attitude to have another impressive season, none have shown more growth than Jackson. His development from his freshman to sophomore years deserves admiration, but coach Brey says that he has made an even bigger leap forward into his junior year.
“He’s taken it to a whole other level and I couldn’t be prouder,” Brey said of Jackson. “What he’s done through the off-season, being really the main voice and kind of setting the tone and running things, I believe he’s taken yet another step.”
Without question, Brey reiterated, this is Jackson’s team now, and he took it upon himself to become that type of leader.
Auguste has also become more of leader as a senior after he jumped into the spotlight last year. Although it came in a loss, his most memorable performance came in the Elite Eight, when he threw down several put-back dunks against the almighty Kentucky big men. Coach Brey is looking for much more of that energy from his big man this year, believing that he can average a double-double for the Irish.
Mar 28, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Zach Auguste (30) dunks ahead of Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) during the first half in the finals of the midwest regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Colson is also a guy who will provide a lot of energy and toughness to this team, and it will be interesting to see if he can maintain the efficiency he played with last year when he is on the floor for more minutes.
“Even as a sophomore I think he can be a guy, when maybe some guys are doubting, he never doubts,” Brey said of Colson. “He just plays, and I love that about him, and I don’t want to screw that up by over coaching him.”
As far as the freshmen are concerned, Brey has been very happy with what he has seen from the three of them and says that they are all confident and physically ready to contribute. They have been competing all summer long with and against the older guys, and at least one of them is likely to emerge and earn some quality minutes as the season progresses.
There is no doubt that Notre Dame has the confidence, experience, and heart to have another unbelievable season. While it will be tough to overcome the loss of some of the most talented players in the country, there are plenty of young men on this team ready and willing to step up in their place. They will need to be mentally and physically tough to grind out big wins in arguably the best conference in the country, and they must dominate their non-conference opponents to start the year. As reflected in the first preseason USA Today coaches poll released on Thursday, the Irish are ranked 18, while three of their ACC opponents are ranked in the top 10.
Notre Dame will play its first regular season game on its home floor of Purcell Pavilion against St. Francis (Pa.) on November 13.