Irish open exhibition season after Italy tour
Brian Hartnett | Thursday, October 30, 2014
Notre Dame tips off its short exhibition season with a matchup against Minnesota-Duluth on Saturday.The Irish have just two games in the coming week , but the team has already received its fair share of exhibition experience, as it traveled to Italy to play four games in August. The Irish went 4-0 against a schedule of Italian professional teams.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said the European tour provided a boost to an Irish team coming off a 15-17 season.
“Italy was such a key for us; it came at a strategic time for our program,” Brey said. “Now, we were scheduled to do it no matter what last year was like, but given the way last year went, it was very important for us to have a mini-season.”
The trip to Italy also allowed Brey to evaluate his team and set his starting lineup for the season. Brey said the starting lineup used in all four games in Italy — senior guard Jerian Grant, senior guard/forward Pat Connaughton, junior forward Zach Auguste, sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson and sophomore guard Steve Vasturia will remain intact for Saturday’s game and likely for the team’s season opener against Binghamton on Nov. 14.
Despite the solidified starting lineup, Saturday’s game will allow Notre Dame to rotate in different players, Brey said. The game will also likely mark the debut of the three Irish freshmen — guard Matt Farrell, forward Bonzie Colson and forward Martinas Geben, Brey said.
“My goal is to get everybody in the game, and get everybody in the game in the first half,” he said. “You’re still evaluating your rotation. Certainly, we have a little bit of a head start because we did this in Italy and that was a great advantage, but at some point, either by the second exhibition or the practices shortly thereafter, you’ve got to get a rotation that you’re kind of feeling comfortable with. That’s what’s great about the exhibition games — you get to experiment with how you substitute off the bench and what you like and what you don’t like.”
Saturday’s game will also mark the return for two senior leaders in Grant and Connaughton. Grant, who averaged 19 points per game in 12 appearances last season, was suspended due to an “academic matter” in December and reinstated in May. Grant will return as one of the team’s most experienced players, but Brey said he did not want to put too much pressure on the Bowie, Maryland native.
“He doesn’t have to carry us,” Brey said. “He’s got a lot of weapons around him, and I don’t want him to force anything, but I think that’s how he’s really practiced the last two weeks — he’s let the game come to him, and he’s kind of in a pretty good rhythm.”
Connaughton, meanwhile, spent much of the summer pitching for the Aberdeen Ironbirds, the Baltimore Orioles’ single-A affiliate. He rejoined the team shortly before the Italy trip and readjusted to playing basketball quickly, Brey said.“He came back from six weeks of [minor league] ball, and by the second practice for Italy, it looked like he was practicing basketball all summer,” he said. “It’s interesting to see and we’ve talked about this: How will he improve when he commits to one sport for seven months?
“He’s excited about it. I’m interested in it. Who is he as a basketball player, even by Christmas?”
The Irish will face a Minnesota-Duluth team coming off a 12-15 season. The Bulldogs return 11 letter-winners, including senior center Brett Ervin, who missed last season with a knee injury.
Brey said the Irish, who were ranked seventh in the ACC preseason poll released Wednesday, will use Saturday’s exhibition to continue their offseason development.
“We’re kind of a poor group with a chip on our shoulder, and we have no room to be thinking ahead,” Brey said. “We kind of need to sit on the same bench and use the exhibition game to evaluate ourselves and get better, and this group has understood that even when we started our workouts in the spring.”
Notre Dame and Minnesota-Duluth will meet Saturday at 2 p.m., at Purcell Pavilion.