Expectations are growing for Notre Dame’s men’s basketball.
That’s what happens when a program averages 27 wins, advances to consecutive Elite Eights and wins an ACC tournament title in the span of three seasons.
The Irish will have to replace former stars V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia, but head coach Mike Brey is a little more confident heading into the 2017-2018 season compared to past seasons.
“I think maybe a little higher,” Brey said this afternoon about his confidence compared to previous campaigns. “I’m sure we’ll be picked that way in the ACC poll as opposed to other years. Then I look at our road games and go ‘my God I know we’ve got double byes here and had top four finishes, it’s going to be a dog fight to get into that territory.”
So, what gives Brey the additional belief in what his program can accomplish? The will and drive this team showed over the summer to take the Irish to another level.
“The guys that I’m going to be down on the floor with in about 45 minutes are thinking amazingly big and bigger than what we’ve thought of maybe my first 14 years,” Brey explained. “Driven by a senior class to play in a Final Four, get back to an ACC championship game. We’re really proud we’ve been in two of four of them since we’ve been in the league. And try to win the darn thing. We’ve kind of hit a new level of confidence. Our program I think is certainly been viewed that way now. When you have veterans back like I do there’s no need not think it’s not possible.”
Brey is encouraged by where this team is mentally and effort heading into the start of the season.
“We really are a pretty focused, driven group,” Brey stated. “The leadership that Bonzie [Colson], [Austin] Torres and even Rex Pflueger is emerging as a great voice for us as a junior, how they’ve handled their business with their strength training with Tony. I’ve been really impressed with that.
“We’ve had a great rotation of old teams and some are really, really good. I feel this group is as a good as any as far as getting it, understanding, working, wanting to do it together and again I think the maturity of the group really helps.”
The Irish may be in unfamiliar territory with higher expectations compared to normal, but it appears Brey and company are up for the challenge.
Colson has been a hot name this summer on preseason All-American lists and as a potential National Player of the Year candidate. Teams will likely look to neutralize Colson and force the Irish to find other ways to score, etc.
The senior’s hard work on his jump shot gives Brey the flexibility to move him around on the court offensively.
“Martin Geben gives us such a good post defensive body and Torres does too,” Brey said. “But I think [John] Mooney and [Elijah] Burns can do that too. They can take the pounding a little bit. You don’t want Bonzie to do that all the time even though as a veteran guy if we are downshifted and let’s say [D.J.] Harvey is in that role of [Pat] Connaughton or Beachem as the stretch-four, Bonzie’s just so smart about playing big guys now and using his length and not fouling.
“Maybe we play a little more zone sometimes too. I think we want to analyze that. We’ve most been man-to-man and we will be. I think that will be more of a strength of this team then some of my other teams … No question, I think for Bonzie, how you pace him, who he’s guarding.
"For me, where am I putting him on the floor offensively to take best advantage of him. Are we posting him? With the way he’s shooting the three there’s another element in some sets and different things and really having him spreading the floor. Through the summer, he’s very confident out there. It gives us another way of using him … he’s made himself that stretch four.”
BREY ON POST PLAYERS
With five post players and only two spots, sometimes just one, Brey is trying to figure out how to split time up between the likes of Torres, Geben, Mooney and Burns to go with the staple of the group in Colson.
Torres is dealing with a stress fracture in his leg which will keep him sideline for the next month to six weeks according to Brey. The injury is certainly not a welcomed one for Brey, but it does open up more opportunities in practice for guys to fight for minutes.
“While you never want to see a guy go down, obviously that solves a little bit of an issue for me here on the front end to really get Burns and Mooney more reps,” Brey said. “Austin Torres is a fifth year guy, knows who he is. When he comes back, he’ll come back to help us. But that is a dilemma, Mooney and Burns and how we play especially when we downshift and play small. That puts another big on the bench.
“If we play DePaul tonight, we’re committed to Geben and Colson starting up front. Do we play a little bigger more this year than downshifting? I think that’s the one thing on my mind. We’ve got a number of bigs and how do we work them all in and how do we have them all feel part of it. That’s a challenge for me this season.”
GEBEN GAINING CONFIDENCE
Over the summer, Geben accomplished a goal many athletes dream of in representing his home country.
Geben earned a spot on the Lithuanian Student National Team during an exhibition run preparing for the World University Games which were being held in Taipei, Taiwan.
The senior made the 12-man roster and became a key member of the team's run to win the gold medal. He notched 12 points and seven rebounds in the gold medal game against the U.S team (Purdue University).
Geben is using that experience has a springboard for his senior campaign in South Bend.
“I told my staff and I said he’s come back one confident guy and darn if I’m going to do anything to screw that up here in the preseason,” Brey laughed. “Martin I think has gone in and out of being a confident guy. We’ve always tried to help him with that. You can only say so much as a coach. To have that experience winning the gold medal and the impact he had as their kind of key big guy, he just comes back in a great frame of mind.
“The guy deserves a really good senior year. He just does. He’s a great kid and has done everything we’ve asked him to do. I think what’s going to help me keep him confident and even more important than me is Bonzie and Matt Farrell keeping him on board and believing. I think those guys understand how important he is to what we’d like to do.”
BREY TOUCHES ON COLLEGE HOOPS SCANDAL
College basketball was rocked recently by a multi-year FBI investigation which uncovered corruption in the sport along with bribery and wire fraud.
Several programs have already been named to be involved in the FBI’s findings and four assistant coaches were charged with crimes.
Brey touched on the subject and offered his thoughts.
“It’s disappointing,” Brey stated. “I don’t know if we can get any lower than the situation we’re in now. We’ve had kind of the underworld as part of the fabric for a long, long time. A long, long time. Now, that it’s a criminal investigation, this is a whole new territory. What I’ve tried to do, starting yesterday, I even told my staff today, to try not to be distracted by this so I can coach my team. Every day people want to talk about that and I don’t really have much more to comment on other than what I just said.
“… Again, we’ve had a template for 17 or 18 years on how we run things. I feel very, very good about it. There’s a lot of moving pieces in recruiting and everything. I think I know just about everything that goes on, but there may be things I don’t know. But, I’m confident in how we run it here and the way we’ve done it.”
BREY ON NFL PROTESTS
Another major national story recently has been the silent protests in the National Football League. Brey offered his thoughts on the issue and how his program would potentially approach it if the team decided to do so.
“We’ve kind of handled it collectively,” Brey said. “Last year, if you remember, in the midst of the protests, we got together as a group and my theme with them was how can we maybe part of the solution here. Remember we had that practice with the police in downtown police. I tried to get them to understand instead of protesting how about we do something constructive and try to bring the community and the police together.
“It was really, I thought, a really educational event for our guys. I thought it was good for the community. I think that’s a discussion as we get closer to the first exhibition game that we’ll have again and talk about it. I’m always open to hearing guys’ feedback and getting the vibe of things. I have not talked about with them and I don’t think I’ll bring it up the first two weeks of practice. As we get a week out from the exhibition game, if we need to have a discussion about it, it would be a group discussion. There’s no question about it. That’s what we talked about last year when we decided to let’s try and be part of some maybe solution and help South Bend police and community connect a little bit.”