Doing previews for the ACC season has gotten more difficult than it used to be. There are fifteen teams now and it takes time and you don’t always know the players that well.
So from that perspective we can say, with all winking ironic intent: thank God for Notre Dame.
Mike Brey builds his teams the old-fashioned way, taking young players, seasoning them and turning to them when they are ready and not before.
One of the mysteries of Brey is how a guy who was famous (or infamous if you’re an Irish fan) for finishing in the middle of the pack in the old Big East managed to move to the ACC, which top to bottom is a tougher conference than the Big East was, and to not only finish in the Park Place and Boardwalk neighborhood, but to suddenly begin to excel in the NCAA tournament.
In the Big East, between 2000 and 2013, Brey’s Irish finished fifth or lower six times and never got past the Sweet Sixteen - which he did in his third season.
Toss out ACC season #1 which was wrecked by a key season-long academic suspension of Jerian Grant and what do you see?
Third place, fifth place and second place in the ACC, two Elite Eights and one upset in the second round.
The Irish have averaged 27 wins per season over the last three years, and that in a league that has had several Top Ten teams, two national champions and multiple final four teams in those years.
It’s impressive. Part of it has been that Brey’s offense has been very difficult to guard. He runs a variation of an offense Dick Bennett (Tony’s dad) developed at Wisconsin called the mover/blocker. Like many of Bennett’s ideas including the Pack Line defense, it was designed to help a theoretically less talented team overcome a more talented one. It relies on crisp ball movement with minimized turnovers, screens and three point shooting and Notre Dame runs it beautifully.
How often did you watch the Irish play and suddenly a guy is open for a deep shot?
Happens all the time.
And a lot of the time the screeners are also really good shooters. So you’ll see guys like Steve Vasturia or Pat Connaughton pick someone off and then step back and get an easy shot - or cut to the basket.
It’s a beautiful offense, it really is.
But why has Notre Dame been so stunningly effective in the ACC? Why has this team suddenly surged in NCAA play? Remember Kentucky’s brilliant team from 2015? The team that beat Kansas 72-40, UCLA 83-44 and West Virginia 78-39?
That team had everything but a great point guard. That team was one Tommy Amaker away from being the best team of all time.
Remember the Notre Dame game? The Irish were down two and got the ball inbounds with seconds left. Willie Cauley-Stein, all 7-0 of him, shadowed Grant down the court and made it next to impossible for him to score.
Still, it was a brilliant effort by the Irish.
It doesn’t explain how Notre Dame has gotten so much better over the last few seasons though. Part of it is the remarkable offense, but we think there’s another answer and he wears #35.
That would be Bonzie Colson, now a senior and possibly the most unique player in the country.
At just 6-5, Colson goes toe to toe with anyone inside. He’s fearless. He’s long armed and athletic enough to challenge most big men inside, but he can also pull them out.
Last year, VJ Beachem (241), Matt Farrell (193) and Steve Vasturia (162) took most of the team’s three pointers, but Colson was not far behind guards Matt Ryan (83) and Rex Pflueger (68)
Colson took 60 and hit 43%.
He’s just a great player and could be the most unique guy in the ACC since Wake Forest’s 5-3 Muggsy Bogues, 14 inches shorter than Colson, absolutely terrified the ACC.
From last year’s team, Notre Dame loses seniors Beachem and Vasturia and Matt Ryan, who will finish up at Vanderbilt.
Patrick Mazza also leaves but he only played in four games.
Brey returns Austin Torres, a 6-7 grad student. He’s never been a huge factor but he knows his role and he knows the system so he’s an asset.
Martinas Geben, a 6-10 Lithuanian senior, is also back. He’s not bad but he’s never been great. He averaged 3.1 ppg and 3.4 rpg last season.
Six-foot-one point guard Matt Farrell is also back and now a senior. Brey foolishly said last season that he was better than Duke legend Bobby Hurley.
We respect Brey as much as anyone but that’s still an amazingly stupid thing to say. Hurley was a brilliant point guard and a great, great clutch player. Farrell is a solid guard and exceedingly confident, but he’s nowhere near Bobby Hurley.
That said, he’s still pretty good and should have an outstanding senior season for Notre Dame.
Sophomore Elijah Burns is back but the 6-8 forward hasn’t really established a niche. Jury’s still out.
Junior Rex Pflueger is back and the 6-6 guard is a terrific defender with a chance to build a solid offensive role. We like him enough to have learned to spell his name.
Like most Notre Dame freshmen, John Mooney waited his turn last year, but solid three point shooting could help the 6-9 sophomore crack the rotation. The Irish, as they have been for a couple of years, are on the short side. They could use his size.
Here’s how Brey sums up 6-7 sophomore Nikola Djogo: “The mystery man. One of the things that makes Nik important is that we lost shooting with (the graduation) of (V.J.) Beachem and (Steve) Vasturia. He is a shot maker and has shot it well. He has to take better care of the ball and he has made improvement there. A little bit of an x-factor for us because of his shooting ability.”
He redshirted last season so he’s a mystery man for the rest of us too.
He nearly averaged a triple double as a high school junior which is intriguing.
Elijah Burns didn’t play as a freshman due to injury and barely played last year, but he’s 6-8 and 235 and Brey needs some frontcourt help. He’d need to step up but the Irish are pretty good at developing young players.
Sophomore guard Temple Gibbs, 6-3, is clearly in Brey’s plans. As a freshman, he averaged 15 mpg. His stats weren’t overwhelming but he put up 4.7 ppg, 1.5 rpg and 1.7 apg.
His minutes could double as could that production.
Juwan Durham is a 6-11 transfer from UConn. He’s skinny (215) and he had a serious knee injury at UConn, so what he has to offer this year isn’t really clear. At UConn, he averaged about 8 minutes and less than 2 ppg and 2rpg.
DJ Harvey comes to Notre Dame from Brey’s old stomping grounds of DeMatha, where he both played and coached under the legendary Morgan Wooten.
Harvey is 6-6 and Brey describes him as ACC ready. He can shoot and should be a great fit for the Irish offense.
Every year it seems the same thing is said about Notre Dame. They’ve had serious losses to graduation and it’s not clear who can step up.
Except that someone always does.
With Colson, Farrell, Gibbs and Harvey,