Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2016-17 Preview
For the second straight season, Notre Dame Fighting Irish has lost two vital pieces of an Elite Eight team. But they will identify new leading men to replace Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. Coach Mike Brey will be at the helm of the team for his 17th season. Also gone are 2016 second-rounder Demetrius Jackson and free agent signee Zach Auguste. But a winning culture could carry the Irish back to the NCAA Tournament.(Play College Basketball)
The Irish don’t have anyone to replace Auguste’s productivity up front. At least not on paper. But 6’5″, 225-pound Bonzie Colson could be the guy to stand tall, with his seven-foot wingspan. The Irish junior who averaged 6.7 rebounds in 25.3 minutes per game in 2015-16. The rest of the frontline is shadowed by uncertainty, although there are four players legitimately vying for meaningful minutes. Martinas Geben, a 6’10”, 255-pound junior, played sparingly behind Auguste. Yet the coaching staff insists that Geben provided some of the most consistent performances on the practice floor and that his time to shine has arrived.
Elijah Burns, a sturdy, athletic 6’9″, 235-pounder with post-up and face-the-basket skills, will see his first collegiate action after missing the 2015-16 season following ankle surgery. Freshman John Mooney, a 6’8″ banger, looks to be one of Brey’s tough, high-IQ glue pieces. Austin Torres, a 6’7″, 234-pound senior, helps the Irish tighten up on the defensive end. No player improved as much in 2015-16 as willowy 6’8″ V.J. Beachem, a shooter extraordinaire who made 44.4 percent from 3-point range on the year while averaging 16.6 points per game in the postseason. Matt Ryan, a 6’8″ sharp-shooting sophomore, may prove to be every bit the long-range sniper Beachem has become.
The Irish remain fortified in the backcourt, if not nearly as explosive and experienced. Senior Steve Vasturia is a stabilizing influence, a lockdown defender and a cerebral contributor to Notre Dame’s team concept. Junior Matt Farrell takes over at point guard after a postseason insertion into the starting lineup that helped propel the Irish to the Elite Eight. He’ll share point guard duties with freshman Temple “T.J.” Gibbs, who gives the Irish combo-guard skills and a ready-made college game. When the Irish are looking for a backcourt stopper to join Vasturia, Brey will turn to sophomore Rex Pflueger, whose buzzer-beating tip-in against Stephen F. Austin sent Notre Dame to the Sweet 16.
Athletic Elijah Burns, a 6’9″ redshirt freshman, will compete for playing time following Zach Auguste’s departure. Combo guard Temple “T.J.” Gibbs will be an immediate factor as a penetrator, distributor and shooter. John Mooney, a 6’8″ power forward, has drawn comparisons to two-time Irish captain and stretch-4 Rob Kurz. Nikola Djogo, a 6’7″ swingman, could be another in the long line of quality-shooting Mike Brey recruits.
This season, the Irish will find out if the foundation is in place to be a consistent upper-echelon ACC team. They’ll need a collective effort inside to replace Auguste’s productivity. If two or three of the young big men emerge, they’ll have more depth and fouls to give, which is a rarity in Brey’s system. There are plenty of shooters to make Brey’s preferred four-around-one look work. The backcourt won’t have an explosive athlete in the Grant-Jackson mold, but it will be deeper and more versatile. This team has the components to reach the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in the last eight seasons.