Oct. 29, 2015
Notre Dame will kick off its exhibition slate Friday against the University of Saint Francis Fighting Saints. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. (ET) inside Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center.
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Three days in Greensboro, North Carolina last March always will evoke special memories for the University of Notre Dame’s men’s basketball team. In just its second season as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Fighting Irish earned the program’s first ACC crown by winning the conference tournament in 2015.
The title also ignited Notre Dame’s run through the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, which culminated with an appearance in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979. The Irish finished off the season with a 32-6 record, the second 30-win season in program history and posted a 14-4 mark in ACC play during the regular season.
Nearly 10 months have passed and folks still talk about the magic surrounding the 2014-15 campaign. It still brings a big smile to the faces of Irish coaches, players and fans.
However, the 16-year head coach and his players know last season’s championship is old news. They’ve turned the page to a new season.
New challenges and goals await this year’s 2015-16 Irish squad as they hope to write a chapter of their own.
“We’re in very new territory this season after winning the ACC championship in March,” says head coach Mike Brey. “As coaches and as a team, we dealt with it during the offseason. We celebrated our championship and have kind of turned the page.
“Its been pretty easy to do that because we have a returning nucleus of guys who experienced it and were part of the championship, but they’ve set a higher bar for themselves this season. This year’s team has established new goals. I’ve seen a new focus emerge and leadership developing. They want to be special again.”
Focus never appeared to be a problem for the Irish last season. After a 15-17 finish in 2013-14, Brey’s squad was eager to make amends for the first losing season since 1998-99.
As Brey addresses the challenges for his team this year, he quickly points to the mindset of his squad a year ago.
“What I’ve talked to them about this season is that we’ve got to be poor again. We need to remember our mindset and what our frame of mind was. No one really cared about us at the start of last season and we had to earn that respect back.
“I think this year’s team knows that we can’t dwell on last season’s success. They’re ready to move on and forge their own identity.”
The leadership of Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant helped galvanize the identity of last year’s squad. Two of the most remarkable leaders in program history, their impact on the program will not soon be forgotten. During their four-year careers, the duo combined to produce some staggering numbers – 250 games played (240 starts made), 3,204 combined points, 1,166 rebounds, 947 assists, 268 steals and 8,821 minutes (34.2 minutes per game).
It won’t be easy to replace their numbers or, more importantly, their leadership. However, Brey is confident the experience of his three returning starters – senior Zach Auguste as well as juniors Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia – will provide a new mentality and identity for this year’s squad.
“One of our biggest challenges this year will be replacing the leadership Pat (Connaughton) and Jerian (Grant) provided for us each day in practice and in game,” Brey says. “But the competitive nature of our guys – especially Zach (Auguste), Demetrius (Jackson) and Steve (Vasturia) – will be that they want to take ownership of this group. They love Jerian and Pat, but the competitor in them wants to show that we have the layers and ingredients to be a special team too.
“That’s what is neat about college basketball as kids grow up in your program. I am anxious to see how these three guys, who played such key roles for us last season and during our postseason run, will assume the leadership mantle for this year’s team.”
“We have a track record within our program of players stepping up within our program as they get older,” Brey says. “Our program has a history that as players move up in our system, we’ve asked more of them and they’ve been able to deliver for us.”
“Matt and Martinas have a chance to become factors for us this season off the bench,” Brey says. “I love how they approached the offseason and the strides they have made. They understand what they need to do to get better in order to compete for playing time this season. I look for both of them to push our returning veterans.”
Notre Dame had all five of its starters average double figures in 2014-15 as the Irish netted 78.0 ppg. a year ago. Once again, scoring will not be a problem, as Brey’s squad will boast a strong inside and outside scoring attack. Look for Augste, Colson and Geben to handle the scoring duties inside, while Jackson, Vasturia and Beachem will cover the bulk of the scoring from the perimeter.
The freshman class of Elijah Burns, Rex Pflueger and Matt Ryan give the Irish added athleticism both inside and along the perimeter. Pflueger and Ryan both have displayed strong perimeter games, which could earn them significant playing time this season.
“I love the maturity of our freshman class and I love how they compete,” Brey says. “All three of them work extremely hard and are confident when they are on the court. They have helped set a tone for us and very much believe in themselves. I look for them to push for playing time. They are going to be out there competing for playing time and that is going to make us better.”
Forward – 6-10 – 245
Senior – Marlborough, Massachusetts
Zach Auguste proved dominant in the post-season for the Irish last season. Auguste emerged as Notre Dame’s second-leading scorer (12.9 ppg.) and rebounder (6.5 rpg.), and shot a team-best 61.9 percent from the field during the regular season. Yet, in Notre Dame’s four games during the NCAA championship, those numbers jumped dramatically as Auguste led the Irish both in scoring (16.8 ppg.) and rebounding (8.3), while shooting 70.0 percent from the field.
Named to the Midwest Region All-Tournament team, Auguste played with great confidence down the stretch for Irish. The formula for success last season was in his ability to keep it simple. Auguste is most effective when he plays within himself and asserts himself inside the post. The loss of Connaughton’s 7.4 rpg., will force Auguste to have a dominating presence on the backboards.
Brey on Auguste
“I loved how Zach Auguste finished last season. He was playing as well as any big man in the country. I look for Zach to play with the same confidence and consistency that he displayed at the end of last season. There’s no reason by he can’t be a double-double guy every night. We’re going to need him to be aggressive on the boards for us. Zach kept it simple last year and that is why he was so effective. He needs to keep it simple again and be a playmaker in the post. Zach is a good passer and very unselfish; he’s learned to play off of his teammates.”
Forward – 6-9 – 232
Senior – Avon, Indiana
Austin Burgett played in 20 game for the Irish last season and averaged 1.7 ppg. and 1.4 rpg. As a senior, he is hoping to play a bigger role in the lineup this season. Burgett moves the ball well and knows how to find his teammates for open shots. He knows and understands Brey’s system and style of play. He is an asset to the younger players in the program.
Brey is hoping that Burgett can develop more of a scorer’s mentality and to look for his shot more often. He needs to become more selfish on the court and take advantage of his athletic abilities. Burgett also needs to establish more of a rebounding presence when he is on the floor.
Brey on Burgett
“Our guys like to play with Austin on the court because he makes it easy for them. He moves the ball well and helps out with our spacing on the floor. Austin knows how to set screens and find the open teammate. I’m looking for him to have a good senior season. He’s been a player who has embraced our system and been someone who the younger players in our program respect.”
Forward – 6-8 – 200
Junior – For Wayne, Indiana
V.J. Beachem is primed to take the next step in his junior year and expand his role. He will begin the campaign as a starter for the Irish. Beachem played in 33 contests, averaging 5.9 ppg. and 1.4 rpg., while also shooting 45.5 percent from the field. Throughout the course of last season, Beachem emerged as one of the team’s most consistent shooters from the outside. In a number of contests, he knocked down critical shots that changed the course of the game.
Beachem, however, experienced a shooting slump in March and lost confidence in his ability to make shots. Most importantly, he lost his offensive aggressiveness and his willingness to take the open shot. Beachem is as talented a wing player as Notre Dame has on its team and Brey is hoping that the third-year player will establish himself at both ends of the floor.
Brey on Beachem
“I believe that is going to be there season where V.J. takes that next step for us. I think he’s ready to deliver in a big way and wants to be a main guy. He didn’t play particularly well during the month of March, but he was someone we counted on during the regular season. I want him to regain his confidence because he his going to be important to our success this season. I’m going to challenge him to become more of a rebounder and to play with a bit of an edge. We need V.J. to be a guy that we can count on every night.”
Guard – 6-1 – 201
Junior – Mishawaka, Indiana
Demetrius Jackson drew attention a year ago for his play both on offense and defense. He was one of the ACC’s most improved players a year ago after averaging 12.4 ppg., 3.6 rpg., 3.1 aspg., and 1.6 spg., and earning starts in all 38 contests for the Irish. Jackson embraced his role as Notre Dame’s floor leader and backcourt general.
Jackson is one of the team’s most versatile scorers, and Brey wants to make sure that his point guard stays in attack mode. There is the tendency for Jackson to get bogged down with quarterbacking and running the team and when that happens, he forgets about scoring. He’s most effective for the Irish when he is reactive on the court. Brey also doesn’t want Jackson to lose sight of his defensive presence on the floor. His defensive intensity on the court is something that Notre Dame has come to rely on each night.
Brey on Jackson
“We handed the ball to Demetrius Jackson last season and he did a fabulous job of running our team. I never want him to forget how important he is when he is in attack mode at both ends of the floor. I want him to continue to look for his stuff and not be just be a set-it-up point guard. I don’t want him to lose focus on defense because we need his toughness every night. I expect Demetrius to be one of the best backcourt players in the country this season.”
Forward – 6-6 – 234
Junior – Granger, Indiana
Austin Torres’ role is simple – be a high-energy player off the bench. Torres embraced that role a year ago when he played in 27 contests, averaging 2.0 ppg., and 1.6 rpg. After not seeing action during his freshman season, he became a key contributor for the Irish off the bench with the ability to make plays at both ends of the floor.
Torres is one of Notre Dame’s better defenders along the perimeter and one of the team’s most offensive and defensive rebounders. With the Irish looking to have more players share the rebounding responsibilities, Torres will be one of the players Brey will count on to protect the backboards. He is a versatile athlete with uncanny football speed and deceptive athleticism.
Brey on Torres
“I love that Austin Torres bring to the court when he is in the game. He knows and understands his role and has embraced what we are asking him to do. No one is more supportive of his teammates than Austin and his high-energy style of play is infectious. Our players love his unselfishness and what he brings to this team. Austin wants what is best for our team. I expect him to play a bigger”
Guard – 6-5 – 212
Junior – Medford, N.J.
One of the most underrated players in all of college basketball, Steve Vasturia is known for his quiet and business-like approach when he is on the court. He’s proven to be one of the most difficult players for Notre Dame opponents to guard on the floor. Most nights, he also has the responsibility of guarding the opponent’s top player. Vasturia displays an unflagging steadiness at both ends of the floor.
One of five Irish players to averaged double figures a year ago, Vasturia started all 38 contests and netted 10.1 ppg., while grabbing 3.0 rebounds. He has been an impact player at both ends of the floor and is as solid on defense as he is on offense. A veteran in the Irish lineup, Vasturia shot 49.1 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from three-point. He can knock down shots from anywhere on the court. He has shown the ability to be a difference-maker at any point during a game.
Brey on Vasturia
“I can’t emphasize enough the impact that Steve Vasturia can have on a game. He has been a rock-solid guy for us since he arrived on campus. I love his demeanor and what he brings to the table for us. I am hoping that Steve can be a little bit more vocal for us this season as we want him to be one of the players who helps set the tone. With the loss of Jerian Grant, we are going to need Steve to be more of a playmaker for us as we are going to need that from him. His steady demeanor on the court is a great balance to the energy Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste bring.”
Forward – 6-5 – 225
Sophomore – New Bedford, Mass.
Second-year player Bonzie Colson is ready to take that next step for the Irish. Notre Dame’s top rookie a year ago, Colson played in 32 contests and earned one start. He averaged 5.6 points and 2.7 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per game off the bench, demonstrating superior shooting efficiency as he connected on 59.5 percent of his shots from the field. Colson saw his role expand in the second half of the season and was a key during Notre Dame’s postseason run in terms of the energy he provided in games.
Brey loves Colson’s fearlessness in the post and the knack he has for always being around the basket. The spark he provides likely will earn him a spot in the starting rotation this season. Colson has great basketball instincts and feel for the game.
Brey on Colson
“I love how Bonzie Colson finished last season and I look forward to watching him develop his game. He has an amazing efficiency about him and his basketball instincts at both ends of the floor make us a better team. Bonzie is absolutely fearless and that is contagious. He is not afraid of the moment and plays with so much positive emotion. Bonzie is a confident guy; he gives us an edge and is ready for a bigger role this year. He’s got himself in better shape this year and that will allow him to play longer minutes.”
Guard – 6-1 – 175
Sophomore – Brigdewater, Mass.
With the loss of Jerian Grant to graduation, look for Matt Farrell to play a greater role off the bench this season as the backup point guard to Demetrius Jackson. Notre Dame’s experience at guard a year ago did not leave much playing time for the crafty and skilled player in his first season. This year, Farrell should see increased time on the floor after seeing action in just 15 contests and averaging 0.9 ppg. and 0.4 rpg.
Brey is impressed by Farrell’s intensity when he is in the game and his overall defensive toughness. His ability to make shots and score the basketball will earn him more minutes on the court. He’s one of the quickest players on the Irish squad and he uses that speed to his advantage. His greatest strengths are his passing ability and court vision. The one area of concern for Brey with respect to Farrell is his tendency for turnovers.
Brey on Farrell
“We’re going to look for Matt Farrell to come into games in order to give Demetrius (Jackson) a rest and to run the team. I love his toughness, his style of play and his tenacity. He’s one of the quicker players on our team and is an adept passer. Matt plays with great maturity and confidence. I am hoping that he begins to hunt his shot, because he knows how to score. I’ve talked to him about cutting down on turnovers. Matt is a shot maker and we need him in games. We just have to make sure that he takes care of the basketball.”
Forward – 6-10 – 253
Sophomore – Vilnius, Lithuania
Martinas Geben provides the Irish with depth upfront and a physical presence in the frontcourt. Geben experienced normal first-year struggles during his rookie season and averaged 1.6 ppg. and 1.6 rpg., while playing in 22 contests and earning one start.
Brey is looking for Geben to assert himself on the boards and to be a real factor for Notre Dame when he is in the lineup; he wants his big man to hit the boards and take advantage of the space he takes up on the floor. Displaying a toughness on the glass and becoming a defensive presence in the low post will earn Geben more playing time this season, as well as his defense in the low post.
Brey on Geben
“We need Martin to rebound, run, be physical and stop thinking too much. Simply, he just needs to play. His weight gain slowed him down last season, but now that his body fat is down, his bounce is back. I want him to be very active around the basket. I am looking for him to have a presence for us in the paint as he is one of our best low-post defenders. Martin knows how to play, is good with ball and has excellent footwork around the basket. He needs to stop thinking and just go out and play.”
Forward – 6-9 – 234
Freshman – Troy, N.Y.
Rookie Elijah Burns already has impressed Brey with his physical build, as he will give Notre Dame added depth in the frontcourt. He has the capability of being a factor for the Irish as both a scorer and rebounder. Similar to sophomore Bonzie Colson, Burns has a nose for the basketball and knows how to make plays around the basket. He has a keen awareness on the court, is extremely athletic and can play above the rim.
Burns missed postseason play in his final scholastic season after injuring his ankle and undergoing surgery. Prior to his injury, he was averaging 14.0 ppg., 9.0 rpg. and 5.9 aspg. Burns did not participate in summer workouts because of his injury, but is fully recovered and expects to see playing time this season.
Brey on Burns
“I love the maturity of all of our freshman and I love how they compete. Elijah already has the physical attributes of a college frontline player. He’s got a great feel for the game and an inherent toughness about him. Elijah goes out and competes every day and that is going to make our frontcourt play better.”
Guard – 6-6 – 198
Freshman – Dana Point, Calif.
A product of one of the most successful high school programs (Mater Dei), Rex Pflueger brings a wealth of skills and abilities to this year’s Irish squad that could earn him significant playing time this season and give the Irish tremendous depth the guard position. A gifted player with a host of athletic talents, Pflueger has a tremendous feel for the game and displays a great deal of energy when he is on the court. As a junior, he helped his prep squad to an undefeated 35-0 campaign. As a senior, he averaged 17.0 ppg., 3.0 aspg., and 3.0 spg.
Plueger has an all-around offensive game as both a shooter and passer. He’ll be able to score in a number of different ways and from all areas on the floor. Pflueger is a deceptively strong defender who plays with a great deal of passion.
Brey on Pflueger
“It is going to be difficult to keep Rex Pflueger off the court. His energy, activity, athletic ability, ability to defend and feel for the game are impressive. I love the passion and energy he plays with. He knows how to go out and compete. Rex is a confident in his abilities and is not afraid of the moment. He’ll help set the tone for us when he is on the floor. Rex can be very excitable and he will just need to channel those emotions sometimes.”
Forward – 6-8 – 217
Freshman – Cortland Manor, N.Y.
One of the most talented shooters in the high school ranks a year ago, Matt Ryan has all the skills to become one of the program’s special scorers. He will be a player that will flourish in Brey’s offensive system given his ability to hit shots from the perimeter. Ryan’s range knows no limits and he has shown the propensity to score from anywhere along the perimeter. He’ll provide another weapon in Notre Dame’s already loaded perimeter game.
As a senior, he averaged 20.0 ppg., 8.0 rpg. and 5.0 aspg. and ranked as one of New York’s state’s most prolific scorers a year ago. Ryan’s height and length allows him to shoot over opposing defenses. He’s an excellent passer with great court vision to find the open teammate. A multidimensional player, he adds versatility to the Irish lineup on the perimeter.
Brey on Ryan
“Matt Ryan is a competitor and a truly gifted shooter. I love how he goes out and competes every time he is on the floor. Matt is going to see playing time for us because of his ability to stretch the floor with his shooting range. Like Rex (Pflueger), he is a very confident individual who is going to compete for playing time with our veterans. I love what he brings to our team and how competitive he is when he is on the floor.”