While the sting of the 83-71 second-round loss to West Virginia lingers, it can be overlooked that Notre Dame men’s basketball has just experienced its greatest three-year run — in terms of combining rankings, national impact and NCAA Tournament action — since 1979-81.
Back then, head coach Digger Phelps’ Fighting Irish posted a 69-18 (.793) record and never fell below No. 14 in the Associated Press poll — although they ended up winning only three total NCAA Tournament games during that stretch.
In the last three years under Mike Brey, Notre Dame is 82-28 (.745) but has enjoyed much greater postseason success that has included a 2015 ACC Championship, league runner-up in 2017 and seven NCAA Tournament wins — a school record over three seasons.
Following that three-year run from 1979-81, Phelps and the Irish plummeted to 10-17 the ensuing season, or after graduating first-round NBA picks Kelly Tripucka and Orlando Woolridge and second-round selection Tracy Jackson.
There should be no such precipitous fall-off next season under Brey after graduating Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem. The 12-man scholarship roster next season can be demarcated as follows:
Matt Farrell 6-1, 178, Senior — ACC honorable mention point guard with 14.1 scoring average, impressive .420 percentage from three-point range and 196-to-91 in assists-to-turnover ratio.
T.J. Gibbs 6-3, 200, Sophomore — Could join Farrell as starter if or when Brey wants to go small. Averaged a notable 15 minutes, 4.7 points per game in a system tailored for older players.
Rex Pflueger 6-6, 202, Junior — Top defender on team will need to expand his game on offense (4.7 ppg). Started 11 games over the final month-and-a-half.
Matt Ryan 6-7, 228, Junior — Should have first shot at Beachem’s role (made 36-of-83 from three for .434 percentage) but has to improve overall game.
Nikola Djogo 6-7, 203, Sophomore — Redshirted at crowded position but now has an opening with Vasturia and Beachem graduating
D.J. Harvey 6-6, 185, Freshman — Top 50-ranked prospect should vie for action if basketball IQ merits it.
Bonzie Colson 6-5, 225, Senior — First-team All-ACC selection was a double-double machine with 17.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, pacing the league in the latter.
Martinas Geben 6-10, 255, Senior — Started 23 games but averaged only 12.4 minutes.
Austin Torres 6-7, 241, 5th — Saw 7.3 minutes per contest in relief role for Geben.
John Mooney 6-9, 245, Sophomore — Played in only 12 games (four in ACC) that totaled 46 minutes.
Elijah Burns 6-8, 235, Junior — Appeared in 11 games (also four in ACC) for 44 minutes.
With a 382-187 (.671) record through 17 years, Brey’s ledger is remarkably similar to Phelps’ 393-195 (.668) in his 20 seasons. A main difference is whereas Phelps reached his peak in his first 10 years, Brey (who turns 58 on Wednesday) has achieved his apex the longer he’s been around.
Here are some primary questions/storylines entering the 2017-18 season.
Where will Notre Dame be projected?
The usual 5-to-7 spot in the 15-team ACC, which generally translates to a top 15-to-40 ranking nationally among 351 squads.
Everything in the ACC begins with the “Big 3” basketball royalty of Duke, North Carolina and Louisville (the lone three surviving members in this year’s NCAA Tournament among ACC members). Notre Dame is not going to recruit at their level. Period. You can build a Taj Mahal for a practice facility, but that is not going to change who Notre Dame will attract or “fit.” The roster will not be replete with about a half dozen future NBA-projected players.
That’s not to say the Fighting Irish can’t vanquish the "Big 3" on given days on the court, especially at home. It has many times in recent years, a testament to the program’s stability and competitiveness under Brey. That’s why the ACC Championship in 2015 will probably 50 years from now still rank among the three-to-five greatest achievements in program annals.
The second tier in the ACC is usually rotational, beginning with Virginia, Syracuse and Notre Dame. A fourth or fifth team enters the mix for a given year, i.e., Florida State this year or Miami in previous ones to comprise the top half of the league, with one of the second tier falling a notch (i.e. Syracuse this year). Maybe in the future a Georgia Tech, North Carolina State or Wake Forest… sneaks in here or there
That is why for Notre Dame achieving a double-bye three straight years in the ACC Tournament — which requires a top 4 finish — is considered extraordinary. It would be again in 2018.
Can juniors Pflueger and Ryan become the next dynamic duo to continue the current pattern?
The best was Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton (both in the NBA) in their final season in 2014-15.
Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste followed in 2015-16, and this year it was Vasturia and Beachem.
Next year the Brey modus operandi of “staying old” with seniors and juniors continues with fourth-year players Colson and Farrell, one of the nation’s better frontcourt/backcourt duos.
However, the greater question is whether upperclassmen Pflueger and Ryan can establish themselves as the heirs apparent at that third and fourth spots — like Jackson/Auguste did behind Grant/Connaughton, Vasturia/Beachem complementing Jackson/Auguste or, Colson/Farrell did this year while even outshining Vasturia/Beachem.
This program is tailored to upperclassmen, and Pflueger will be entrusted to become a Vasturia-like figure with all-around play, while Ryan will be given the opportunity to take on Beachem’s role as a marksman from the perimeter to stretch defenses.
Brey has always hailed Pflueger’s leadership and basketball IQ, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he too is a captain next year as a junior. Like Vasturia, Pflueger is not a pure shooter, and for now not quite the drive-and-finisher Vasturia was.
Likewise, Ryan cannot afford to be pigeonholed as a one-trick pony beyond the arc. He showed in post-season action some ability to drive just so a defense must honor that, but he does not possess the same skill set for now as Beachem, who also played sparingly his first two seasons like Ryan.
At 6-8, Beachem averaged a modest 4.0 rebounds per game the past two years. Can the 6-7 Ryan post at least similar numbers while also upgrading his skills in team defense?
In each of the last three seasons, Notre Dame has had a minimum of four players average double-figure scoring in its basketball version of the “spread” offense.
Colson and Farrell will be there again in 2017-18. Pflueger and Ryan for now have to be the best bets to display the efficiency and consistency to be the third and fourth.
Who can take some of the inside load off Colson?
Geben and Torres are 5-to-15-minute role players with ceilings.
This leads to a clamor for younger players such as Mooney or Burns (both have three years of eligibility) to be inserted — but they have to earn Brey’s trust and confidence that they will not hurt the flow and rhythm on either end of the court.
Most of the stalwarts in this system often didn’t have their breakout until year 3 (Rob Kurz, Russell Carter, Tyrone Nash, Carleton Scott, Tim Abromaitis, Jack Cooley, Auguste, Beachem, etc.).
If it hasn’t happened by then, it usually won’t.
Who Is The X-Factor In 2017-18?
If Notre Dame is to repeat its Top 15/Top 5 seed level of this past season, somebody has to take the, “Whoa, I didn’t expect him to be that effective” baton from Farrell. It’s been an annual event under Brey.
Pflueger or Ryan seem most likely, but it would probably be of greater overall benefit if it were someone from the frontcourt this time.
Equally significant is for Colson and Farrell not to take a step back in their performance while “willing” the upgrade of the teammates around them.
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