Key Returners: Matt Farrell, Bonzie Colson, Rex Pflueger, Temple Gibbs, Martinas Geben
Key Losses: VJ Beachem, Steve Vasturia, Matt Ryan
Key Newcomers: DJ Harvey, Nikola Djogo
Outlook: An old basketball axiom says that the two most important positions on the court are point guard and center. If that’s truly the case, Notre Dame is in for a great year, anchored by two All-ACC (possibly All-American) talents in Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson, respectively. While that saying may have lost some luster now in the era of 3-and-D wings and multiple primary initiators, the Irish still have fantastic foundation on which to build this year. Mike Brey’s offenses are always a treat to watch – I often find myself grinning like an idiot due to my irrational love for the extra pass, which Notre Dame will make nearly every time, turning good shots into great ones.
After a shockingly effective run in the 2016 NCAA Tournament despite not playing much at all in ACC play, Farrell became a star last season taking charge of Brey’s pick-and-roll scheme. Along with being part of a feel good story, he displayed a mastery of the intricacies of the system’s assorted reads while also proving to be a deadeye shooter, even off the dribble. He was even more difficult to defend in part because of how much attention Colson drew as the roll man. The lanky (but also stocky?) senior racked up a double-double average, blocked a few shots, and even displayed a burgeoning three-point stroke (43% on 60 attempts). If his shooting range truly blossoms this year to go with his already-deft finishing in the paint, he will give opposing coaches nightmares and be a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate.
Mike Brey loses babyfaced wing Steve Vasturia and fellow perimeter threat VJ Beachem, two versatile talents who helped make the Irish’s spread pick-and-roll attack so deadly. Filling in the wing rotation will be vital; Brey needs to find a secondary initiator after Farrell to replace Vasturia as well as a ton of shooting to replace both players, each of whom shot over 36% from deep during decorated four-year careers in South Bend. While lacking the size of the Vasturia/Beachem duo, Temple “TJ” Gibbs (you don’t need a nickname if your name is Temple!) and Rex Pflueger (Captain Combover, General Gelled Hair) look capable of taking up those mantles.
Gibbs (younger brother of Pitt's Ashton and UConn's Sterling, not related to Creighton's Grant) will take over the Vasturia job of secondary pick-and-roll ballhandler, and he can also knock down an open three when given the opportunity. Pflueger has been a low-usage complementary player for two years, but he should also be capable of stepping into a larger role now that so many shots are available. Two other options may have the highest, upside, though: freshman DJ Harvey and redshirt freshman Nikola Djogo. Harvey will immediately step into the rotation, a top-50 recruit who is tailor-made for the Irish offense. He’s a lights-out shooter with some size; if all goes well, he’ll play a Beachem-esque role spacing the floor opposite the main PnR action. Djogo can also step in for Gibbs or Pflueger (he played point guard in high school), but he’s still trying to adapt to the speed of the game and obey the Brey mandate of avoiding turnovers.
The issue with Brey teams always seems to be the defense – as fun as they can be to watch on offense, they can also be a sieve defensively due to their conservative approach to turning teams over combined with a lack of size and athleticism. Last year’s Irish defense was actually the best Brey has had since 2012, per KenPom’s AdjDE rankings, prompted by an increased focus on forcing turnovers – very new for Irish squads. Farrell, Pflueger, and Gibbs all stepped up the ball pressure, and as long as they can avoid getting beat off the dribble too often, this is a positive shift for the Irish.
Despite forcing a few more turnovers, they continued to never foul (and haven’t for 15 years running), which prevented opponents from getting easy points at the line. Austin Torres and Martinas Geben, two senior bigs, offer a nice jolt of physicality and additional rebounding, but playing either of them with Colson removes the offense’s major advantage (spacing) – unless Bonzie becomes a true spot-up threat, as mentioned above. Harvey and Djogo have raw defensive abilities, but their lack of experience could be an issue.
Bottom Line: Notre Dame has as much returning star power as anyone in the country, plus a coach who has consistently produced potent offenses and winners. Duke, UNC, and Louisville all took some losses this offseason, so the Irish have some sneaky sleeper potential in the league if teams can’t deal with the lethal Farrell/Colson PnR attack. Defense will again be a question, but not enough of one to prevent the Irish from once again being a high-upside squad that makes sweet music on offense.