Notre Dame 2014-15 Record: 32-6, 14-4
Key Players Lost: Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton and Eric Katenda.
Key Players Coming Back: Demetrius Jackson, Zach Auguste, Steve Vasturia, Austin Burgett, V.J. Beachem, Matt Farrell, Martinas Geben, Bonzie Colson and Austin Torres.
New Recruits/Transfers: Rex Pflueger, Matt Ryan and Elijah Burns
After a tough transition to the ACC in the 2013-14 season, where Notre Dame finished with just a 6-12 conference record (15-17 record overall), the Irish reversed course last year and are coming off one of the best basketball seasons they have had in decades.
A missed jumper by Jerian Grant in the waning seconds in their epic game against Kentucky in the Elite Eight almost got the Irish to their first Final Four since 1978. All told, the Irish really came alive last year under coach Mike Brey, as they had one more dynamic offenses in the country.
Notre Dame started the season on fire by winning 13 games in the non-conference portion of their schedule. Beating Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge definitely perked up some ears nationally. That win proved to be a great confidence boost and established the Irish as a rather formidable foe. The Irish also beat Purdue in easy fashion in late-December and headed into ACC play on a high.
From there the Irish would win their first two conference games, including a win over North Carolina. A hard-fought loss to Virginia would follow, but after that, the Irish really hit their stride by winning five games in a row. Included in those five wins was the knocking off of Duke, which really put the exclamation point on their season to date.
The Irish finished in third place in the ACC with a 14-4 record. Perhaps feeling dissatisfied by finishing third, Notre Dame caught fire in the ACC Tournament and took down Miami, Duke and North Carolina in succession to win their first ever conference tournament title (that includes their stint in the Big East).
With an ACC Tournament title in hand, the Irish would receive a No.3 seed in the Midwest region. The Irish would get by Northeastern to set up an in-state battle with No. 6 seed Butler in the Round of 32. In one of the better games of the tournament, it was Notre Dame who would make the clutch plays in overtime to advance to the Sweet 16.
Wichita State was next and after an offensive explosion in the second half, the Irish sprinted past the Shockers to set up a matchup with the undefeated and No.1 seed Kentucky Wildcats in the Elite Eight. In that game, the Irish threw everything at the Wildcats but the kitchen sink. Alas, Grant’s last-second jumper was just off and it was the Wildcats who went on to the Final Four.
Still, this was a season to remember for the people in South Bend.
Individually, seniors Grant and Pat Connaughton had great seasons to close their careers.
Grant, who had his 2013-14 season cut short by an academic suspension, left nothing on the table last season while going out in style. He was named to the All-ACC First Team after a averaging a team-high 16.5 points and 6.7 assists per game. Grant was recently drafted by the Washington Wizards with the 19th pick in the NBA draft, but was traded to the Knicks later in the night.
Connaughton, who is also a star pitching prospect in the Baltimore Orioles’ farm system, was named All-ACC Third Team after averaging 12.5 points and a team-high 7.4 rebounds per game, while shooting a robust .423 percent from three-point range. He will have to choose baseball or basketball on the next level, as he too, was selected in the NBA draft. Albeit, he was drafted in the second round, as Brooklyn selected him with the No. 41 pick. He, like Grant, was also traded on draft night, as the Blazers now own his rights.
2015-16 Look Ahead:
Granted the loss of Grant and Connaughton can’t be swept under the rug, Brey and the Irish do return three of the five players who scored in double figures in scoring last season.
Leading the way is under-appreciated big man Zach Auguste. Auguste is coming off a fine season in which he averaged 12.9 points (which is tops among returnees) and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting .619 percent from the field. Expect him to go out with a bang in his senior year.
However, the player to take on Grant’s playmaking and scoring load is the uber-talented Demetrius Jackson. The former McDonald’s All-American is coming off a fine sophomore season in which he averaged 12.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting a scorching .429 percent from three-point range. With Grant gone and the training wheels off, expect a huge season for Jackson as he contends for All-ACC honors.
Dead-eye shooter Steve Vasturia is the third member of the Irish who averaged in double-figures in scoring last season, as he averaged 10.1 points per game while shooting .411 percent from three-point range.
Role players from last season in V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson, Austin Burgett and Martinas Geben should get more minutes this year and will provide good balance for Brey’s team.
Brey also welcomes in a solid, but not spectacular recruiting class with the addition of three three-star recruits in wings Rex Pflueger, Matt Ryan and Elijah Burns. They will add nice depth off the bench, as it will take them some time to mature and develop.
With a veteran trio to rely and some good ancillary pieces surrounding them, Brey’s 2015-16 Irish team should be good for another NCAA run and be near the top of the ACC standings. Just don’t expect the greatness they had last season.