Notre Dame men's basketball looks to rebound after tough season
By BRIAN HARTNETT
College Contributor Network
It's no secret that last year was a difficult season for Notre Dame.
In fact, it marked the only time in Irish head coach Mike Brey's now 15-year tenure that Notre Dame finished below .500, as the Irish ended the season with a 15-17 record.
It is convenient to pin the struggles of last season on the team's transition to the ACC or the loss of leading scorer Jerian Grant due to an "academic matter" not handled properly, but there were warning signs of a bad season even before those events occurred -- the Irish dropped home games to Indiana State and North Dakota State while Grant was still playing.
Whatever the reasons, last season culminated in a 6-12 conference record for Notre Dame and a quick first-round ACC tournament exit.
But, as disappointing as last season was for the Irish, Notre Dame fans can take solace in one fact: it was almost definitely an outlier year.
Therefore, Irish fans should expect a return to the mean this season.
And what is that mean?
Well, for a Mike Brey-coached team, the mean usually looks like the following: a team that can score plenty of points (don't expect to see much of the "burn" offense anymore), struggles a bit on defense, plays up to top competition and earns a few upset wins (particularly at home), and peaks a few weeks before playoff competition -- witness Brey's 6-11 career NCAA tournament record as evidence of this.
This outlook might sound a bit cynical and admittedly, it is. But it also fails to take into account the fact that this year's Notre Dame team has the potential to be the deepest and most athletic squad to play at Purcell Pavilion in quite some time.
Brey has mentioned on several occasions that he did his best recruiting in getting the team's two seniors, Grant and Pat Connaughton, to return. The two were on the fence for different reasons -- Grant had to decide whether to return after academic issues, while the multi-sport-playing Connaughton had to decide whether he'd stick to baseball full-time or play out his final basketball season (he reached a compromise, playing for the Baltimore Orioles' single-A affiliate over the summer and coming back for one more year).
The impact of bringing these two players back cannot be understated. Grant was playing the best basketball of his career in the 12 games he appeared in last year, averaging 19 points and 6.2 assists per game. And the versatile Connaughton, who splits time at guard and forward, averaged 13.8 points per game and 7.1 rebounds per game, making him the team's top returning rebounder this season.
The two seniors bring different leadership styles -- Grant is a quiet, consistent presence, while Connaughton takes a more fiery, aggressive approach. But this yin and yang of leadership styles will be necessary to help develop Notre Dame's younger players.
And that development will be a crucial step for the Irish, given that three of its starters are still largely inexperienced.
Junior forward Zach Auguste will be counted upon to be Notre Dame's primary post presence, given the team's propensity to start four guards and the loss of Garrick Sherman. At 6-foot-10, Auguste is one of Notre Dame's most athletic low-post players in Brey's tenure, but struggles with rebounding and free-throw shooting have kept him off the floor in the past.
In terms of talent and recruiting rankings, sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson might be Notre Dame's best player in over a decade. Jackson, who went to high school minutes away from Purcell Pavilion, is the fourth McDonald's All-American in Brey's tenure, but the first since Luke Zeller in 2005. Jackson didn't have a breakout freshman year, averaging six points per game in an average of 22 minutes of action, but he will take on an increased role in Notre Dame's ball movement, especially with Eric Atkins no longer manning the point guard position.
Another sophomore guard, Steve Vasturia, looks to be one of Notre Dame's top perimeter presences, both on offense and defense. Vasturia, who started 12 games last season, has earned praise from the coaching staff for his defense, but he only made 32.9 percent of his attempts from three-point range last season.
The development of these younger players, along with that of steady contributors Austin Burgett and V.J. Beachem, will be an ongoing process, but an early sample size shows that it may be further along than previously thought.
Notre Dame has won four of its first five games this year, defeating a Massachusetts team coming off an NCAA tournament bid before losing by one point to Providence on Sunday.
In that small sample size, Notre Dame has seen Grant continue his strong play from last season, averaging 18 points and 7.4 assists per game. Auguste has averaged 17.2 points per game and perhaps more surprisingly, hit over 71 percent of his free throws. While Connaughton has maintained his level of play from last year, Jackson has lifted his scoring average to 11 points per game, and Vasturia has hit 50 percent of his three-point attempts.
Additionally, Beachem has provided eight points per game off the bench and freshmen Martinas Geben and Bonzie Colson have each averaged double-digit minutes thus far.
Again, Notre Dame's sample size is too small, and its early competition is not strong enough to draw any adequate conclusions about the team. And even with upcoming games against Michigan State, Florida State and Purdue, those conclusions probably can't be drawn until Notre Dame is in the heart of its ACC schedule.
But considering the makeup of this season's team, it seems safe to say that this year won't be as difficult a season for Notre Dame.
Brian Hartnett is a senior at the University of Notre Dame with a major in Marketing and a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Originally from central New Jersey, he's also a fan of the Yankees, Nets and New York Giants. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianGHartnett