Fighting Irish Basketball: An Early Assessment


Notre Dame Basketball is back, and it’s not quite what we remembered- but it may be what we expected.

Normally, I would say that it’s far too early to start building a narrative around the 2015-2016 Fighting Irish, but the seeds were planted long ago by pundits nation-wide. Conventional wisdom has stated, early and often, that the Notre Dame basketball team would take a step back with the losses of NBA talents Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant. Hard to disagree with that bit of wisdom, but some optimism was still apparent with the return of guys like Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson, as well as the potential emergence of VJ Beachem.

With eight games in the books, here’s where we stand so far. At 6-2, Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish have looked good at times, with wins over B1G teams, and bad at times, namely in a loss to Alabama. The other loss, against Monmouth, may not turn out to be all that bad of a loss, but that doesn’t mean the Irish looked great in it, displaying a lack of toughness and an inability to hit free throws down the stretch.

Moving on From a Bad Loss

Nov 26, 2015; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Zach Auguste (30) and guard Demetrius Jackson (11) and guard Steve Vasturia (32) and teammates huddle up during the first half at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Consider this: last year, a very good team with an ACC championship under their belt could not land a two seed. I have my opinions as to why that was, and I think it had more to do with name recognition on the hardwood rather than resume. Especially when compared to the other two and three seeds in the tournament.

Considering that, where do you think a Notre Dame team with a loss to Alabama on a neutral floor lands, regardless of how they perform for the rest of the season? Is it too early for concern? This is the same Alabama team that lost big to Dayton and Xavier, the teams Notre Dame could have faced in the Advocare International, had they beat Monmouth. The Irish could, in theory, pick up some great wins and still find themselves in a 4-to-6 seed situation, depending on where they finish in the ACC. They could also lose the games that they are supposed to lose from here on out and find themselves, at the very least on the bubble, or out of the tournament completely.

Reasons for Optimism

It’s not like the Irish are losing big, though. Whether it’s the lack of Jerian Grant’s leadership or Pat Connaughton’s toughness, the Fighting Irish have simply been unable to close teams out. Whether its letting UW-Milwaukee hang around late, or giving up leads to Monmouth and Alabama in losses. The Irish lack a killer instinct thus far in the season.

In loss number one, the downfall of the Fighting Irish was, to a lesser extent, a lack of bench scoring, and to the greatest extent, the inability to hit free throws. Both seem to have been rectified since, with the Irish seeing significant contributions from guys like Matt Farrel and Matt Ryan, and free throws made in closing out wins like the one at Illinois. Both of these aspects of the team will need to be improved upon and carried through; hopefully the Matts can keep their play at their current level at the least, maybe even elevating it.

Additonally, you have to consider that Mike Brey is a guy who more often that not figures it out.We’ve seen past Fighting Irish teams come out with a number next to their name and expectations attached to it, only to underperform in the early season. We’ve also seen Mike Brey teams come out, experience early adversity, and thrive in the conference stretch of the season. The 2015-16 edition of the Fighting Irish, struggles and all, give Mike Brey and his squad another opportunity to do just that.

Getting More from VJ

From what I’ve seen on TV and in person, Zach Auguste’s aggression (14 points, 11 boards per game) in the paint is something that works for the Fighting Irish. Whether it means ending the “Bonzie Colson at the four” experiment and spreading the floor, which was Notre Dame’s most efficient look last year, or simply getting Auguste to look to score before looking to pass on a regular basis. On top of that, more aggression from Demetrius Jackson (18-4-4) can only be a good thing. DJ is the kind of guy that can take the game over. While watching all three of the Advocare Invitational games, it just kind of felt like DJ could have taken over and led the Irish to victory at any time. With a little more experience as the go-to guy, I think DJ will recognize his spots and start to build on his already outstanding output this season.

Nov 27, 2015; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Demetrius Jackson (11) drives to the basket as Iowa Hawkeyes guard Mike Gesell (10) defends during the first half at HP Field House. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The link that seems to be missing is VJ Beachem. You can’t help but feel like the Irish will need more than 12 points and five rebounds per game from the swingman.

Looking Forward

The Irish have a showdown with Indiana looming in the Crossroads Classic, one of four remaining OOC games before the ACC slate kicks off. The first ACC game is a tough one, too – at Virginia. The Irish have a ways to go if they hope to hang in that opener, but there are still plenty of reasons for optimism. Especially with the early season chaos that’s taken place around the country, Fighting Irish basketball faithful should not yet feel any panic. It is still early, and a good season seems easily attainable for this team.