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Today’s U Top 25 Countdown: No. 18 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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Although Notre Dame fell short in the postseason in 2014-15, it was still a remarkable year for the Fighting Irish. In fact, it was not only the most successful season of head coach Mike Brey’s 15-year tenure with the program, but also likely Notre Dame’s best season since the late 1970s.

Non-conference play started with relatively mixed results, but ultimately came together quite nicely for the Irish. Overall, Notre Dame put together a 12-1 non-conference record with wins over Michigan State and Purdue and the only loss coming to Providence by one point in November.

This success continued into ACC play as Notre Dame put together a 14-4 conference record that included wins over Duke, Louisville, Miami (Fl), and Notre Carolina State. This was good enough for a third-place conference finish, well above the team’s seventh-place preseason projection.

The Irish’s success continued into the postseason as well. Notre Dame not only won the ACC Tournament with back-to-back wins over Duke and North Carolina, but also made it to the Elite Eight with wins over Northeastern, Butler, and Wichita State. Following Notre Dame’s win over the Shockers, it had an eight game winning streak that included wins over five top 20 KenPom teams.

Unfortunately, Notre Dame would fall short against Kentucky in the Elite Eight, which entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. The game was an instant classic with the Wildcats taking over late and moving on to the Final Four.

Many will remember last year’s Notre Dame team primarly for its incredible game (and loss) to Kentucky, but it was truly a remarkable year for the program with 32 overall wins, an ACC Tournament title, and an Elite Eight appearance. Now with several key returners and a talented incoming recruiting class, the Irish are looking to build on last year’s success.

26 March 2015: Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Demetrius Jackson (11) shoots the ball under pressure during the NCAA Division 1 Men's Basketball Championship Sweet Sixteen round game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Wichita State Shockers  at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, OH.

26 March 2015: Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Demetrius Jackson (11) shoots the ball under pressure during the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championship Sweet Sixteen round game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Wichita State Shockers at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, OH.

Key Offseason Departures: Pat Connaughton (forward), Jerian Grant (guard)

Notre Dame is losing a handful of players this season, but the most significant departures come from Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant. These two players were both in the top four on Notre Dame’s roster in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, field goal attempts, steals, blocks, and overall win shares.

There’s not much debating that Connaughton and Grant did a lot for Notre Dame last year.

Both players had diverse skillsets, but some of the areas that will take the biggest hits for Notre Dame last year are the team’s passing, rebounding, and perimeter shooting. Grant was pretty clearly the team’s best passer and Connaughton was Notre Dame’s leader in total rebounds and three point field goals.

Grant was Notre Dame’s best player last season and one of the best in the entire country. In fact, he earned All-American honors thanks to his excellent combination of scoring, passing, and ability to get to the free throw line. Connaughton didn’t have quite the same level of success, but his combination of perimeter shooting and rebounding was a dynamic addition to Notre Dame’s lineup.

Overall, Notre Dame will have a major challenge in finding replacements for Connaughton and Grant this upcoming season. The Irish may not be losing many players this offseason, but these two departures are very significant for the roster.

Key Additions: Rex Pflueger (guard), Matt Ryan (forward)

The Irish are set to add three players in the team’s 2015 recruiting class. This class includes several highly-rated prospects and 247Sports rates the recruiting class at No. 46 nationally.

The most heralded recruit in the class is likely ESPN100 prospect Rex Pflueger. He comes out of San Juan Capistrano, California and is listed at 6’5″ and 180 lbs. Pflueger is also rated as the No. 30 shooting guard in the recruiting class and as the No. 13 player in the state of California. He is considered to be a good outside shooter, which should help to reduce the impact of Connaughton’s departure.

Ryan is not as highly touted of a prospect as Pflueger, but is a player that could make an early impact on the wing for the Irish. He is another prospect that should bring solid shooting to South Bend and also add some solid passing. Notably, Ryan dealt with a hip issue in high school and spent much of his senior year getting back in playing shape.

Schedule Analysis

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This year’s schedule should be particularly interesting for the Irish. There are several key non-conference matchups and a loaded conference season to get fans and the team excited.

The highlights of non-conference play should be the Advocare Invitational featuring Alabama, Dayton, Iowa, USC, Wichita State, and Xavier, the neutral site game with Indiana, and the road trip to Illinois in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. With Indiana and Wichita State being ranked and Dayton and Xavier receiving votes in the Today’s U preseason top 25 rankings, there should be plenty of challenges.

Of course, given the fact that the rest of the non-conference schedule is pretty light, Notre Dame has a pretty good chance to go at least 10-2 to start the season.

However, conference play should be pose a much more difficult challenge. The ACC had five teams ranked in the Today’s U preseason top 25 rankings and with road trips to Duke, Florida State, Miami (Fl), Syracuse, and Virginia, matching last year’s 14-4 conference record will be very difficult. Still, with a talented lineup, Notre Dame should have plenty to get around 10 to 12 conference wins.

Preview and Prediction

Despite losing two of the team’s best players last season, this looks like a Notre Dame team that could make some serious noise in the ACC and on the national scene next year. It’s hard to imagine the team being as good as last year without do-it-all guard Jerian Grant, but there is talent on this roster.

The two biggest questions for Notre Dame will be whether Demetrius Jackson can take over the primary backcourt role and who emerges on the wing to join the starting lineup. Jackson was a really nice player last year and a lights out shooter, but without Grant, he will need to be the player that stirs Notre Dame’s proverbial drink this season. The Irish are also going to need to find two new starters this season and it will be up to players like VJ Beachem, Rex Pflueger, and Matt Ryan to emerge.

It’s tough to see Notre Dame having the same potential this season without Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, but this is still a talented team that will be a tough matchup for nearly anyone. Although winning the ACC is probably unrealistic this year, it’s not that hard to see Notre Dame finish near the top of the conference and make an NCAA Tournament run. It will just depend on whether Demetrius Jackson can expand his role and other wing options emerge.

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