After 22 seasons as a head coach, the last 17 at Notre Dame, Mike Brey has narrowed his manifesto to players heeding two items.
“Don’t skip class and don’t throw the ball away — and you and I are going to get along great,” Brey said. “You don’t have to get much more complicated than that for our program.”
The first part was fulfilled again this week when Notre Dame was one of 11 teams from this past year’s NCAA Tournament honored by the National Association of Basketball Coaches with a Team Academic Excellence Award.
The second part has been manifested by the Fighting Irish annually ranking among the nation’s leaders in offensive efficiency, including No. 2 this past season in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Sophomore wing Nikola Djogo, redshirted as a freshman last year, first needs to improve in the second department to break into this year what is usually a seven- and sometimes eight-man rotation.
“Nick is taking better care of the ball, so we have a better relationship,” Brey said with a smile of the southpaw shooter. “…With him, it’s just slowing down a little bit. He’s got the ability to shoot it, he’s athletic. I’d like for him to compete for some time where [Steve] Vasturia and [V.J.] Beachem have left holes.”
At a listed 6-7, 203 pounds, Djogo, whose parents escaped to Canada in the 1990s during the Civil War in the former Yugoslavia, is a hybrid of the 6-6, 212-pound Vasturia and the 6-8, 201-pound Beachem. He can play the 2 like Vasturia or the 3 like Beachem. In practice sessions this summer, Djogo has even played some at point guard, the position where he excelled in Ontario. As a junior at Saltfleet he averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, helping his team to the Triple A OFSAA Championship, which is equal to a state championship in the United States.
“I don’t know if we’d do that [play him at point] in a game, but overall it helps him because you have to make really good decisions with it and he’s gotten better each practice,” said Brey of Djogo, who also has competed in soccer and volleyball, playing at the point. “First practice [this summer] he had a hard time handling the ball against Matt [Farrell] and T.J [Gibbs]. He’s gotten much better.
“He’s more of a wing, run-the-floor, slashing, and his stroke is good too. He’s really athletic. He plays better defense than we realized. He’s learning how to get an edge playing around a bunch of edgy guys.”
The presence of Vasturia and Beachem last season and Djogo adapting to top competition in America made him a prime redshirt candidate. After a few preseason practices, Brey explained to both Djogo and his parents about the benefits of using the freshman year to adapt.
“He said, ‘If you’re not going to redshirt, you’re going to fight for minutes with Steve and V.J.’ ” Djogo recalled. “It’s either redshirt and know you’re not getting into the game, or sit while dressed in uniform and hope you get in — and most likely not getting a chance.
“It gave me peace of mind redshirting and it allowed me to really focus on developing myself and getting better as a player.”
Not that it took Djogo much convincing after the first few practices against Vasturia and Beachem.
“I’m not afraid to say it: They kicked my ass,” Djogo said. “I was a rookie and they were schooling me. I kind of adapted to what they were doing and I started to kind of take what they did in practice and apply it in my own game. I started scoring more, I started stopping them a little more. Around Christmas I was getting the hang of it, and as the year went on I started to get more confident in practice.
“It was just important for me to soak up as much information as I possibly could. I knew I wasn’t going to be playing, so I really tried to focus on seeing what makes Coach Brey tick, what he likes, and trying to apply it to this year.”
This year the top four nucleus is clear with seniors Bonzie Colson, a first-team All-American candidate, and Farrell, junior Rex Pflueger and sophomore Gibbs. Where the next four fit in is going to be the jigsaw puzzle that Brey anticipates will be fluid during at least the first couple months of the season.
Veteran big men Martin Geben and Austin Torres have roles specifically for low-post defense and rebounding, while 6-9 sophomore John Mooney could provide a different dimension with his perimeter shooting as a stretch 4.
Meanwhile, Brey has made it no secret that freshman 6-5 wing D.J. Harvey, who has been rated a top-50 recruit, is destined for immediate playing time in a supporting role.
Where Djogo would fit in will be contingent on whether he can complement his skill sets on offense as a shooter and slasher with rebounding, defense and, of course, limiting turnovers. Being a one-trick pony will make minutes more difficult, part of why 6-8 sophomore Matt Ryan, an excellent three-point shooter, transferred at the end of this season to Vanderbilt.
“One thing that Coach has keyed on is rebounding — that’s huge for him,” Djogo said. “I’m tall and long enough, so I really want to focus on getting to the glass and doing a lot on the defensive end for us. I really felt like I wanted to lock in defensively, and guarding Steve and V.J., it gave me great reps against two great players. Offensively, you just let it flow.
“With Steve, we lost a great scorer and defender. They did a little of everything, and that’s what I’m trying to do. Stay the course, stay confident in your game and don’t take redshirting as a step back in your game.”