Irish turn to Jackson for leadership this year
Alex Carson | Wednesday, October 14, 2015
A year after the program’s first ACC championship and first Elite Eight appearance in over 30 seasons, Irish head coach Mike Brey said his squad is ready to take the next step, building on last season’s success this campaign.
“I think there is a little bit of ‘Let’s try and go further; let’s see if we can go further next year,’” Brey said at his media day press conference Tuesday. “I think that was all from within them from the spring and in the summer. I didn’t have to go in and say a thing.
“ … There’s pressure on this group after last year, and that’s a good thing. There’s pressure of, ‘Wow, we have got to deliver again.’”
While the Irish lost just two rotation players from last year’s squad, guard Jerian Grant and guard/forward Pat Connaughton were both selected in June’s NBA Draft, they were arguably the two biggest cogs in the system that made the Irish click. Their departures force Notre Dame to re-tool its approach heading into this season.
Brey said junior guard Demetrius Jackson enters the season as the leader of this Irish squad, after averaging 12.4 points per game playing off the ball last season. A potential first-round NBA draft pick, Jackson said he’s still adjusting to his newfound leadership role.
“I feel like I’m still in that process [of becoming a leader],” Jackson said. “Guys are still getting more confident in me day-by-day; I’m just trying to develop my leadership skills every day, to get better.”
For Jackson, being the primary scorer means he’ll have to alter his decision-making when he drives to the basket.
“I need to be aggressive on every play, creating for others and myself,” Jackson said. “The coaches have really talked to me about when I get in the lane, taking those little short shots, which was a shot I would usually pass up last year.”
One of Jackson’s biggest roles on last year’s squad was defensive — pressuring the ball. Despite assuming the ball-handling duties offensively, he said he’ll still look to bring the same intensity defensively.
“I just want to lock in on both ends of the floor and do whatever it takes to help my team win,” Jackson said. “And I think ball pressure is something I can do to help our team.”
Joining Jackson as returning starters are a pair of fellow upperclassmen who each averaged north of 10 points per game last season: junior guard Steve Vasturia and senior forward Zach Auguste.
Brey said he expects Auguste to evolve into a double-double player this year, and Auguste said he shares his head coach’s expectations.
“[Averaging a double-double], that’s what I expect, and I know that’s what my teammates expect out of me,” Auguste said. “I just really want to do whatever it takes to help the team. No individual is better than the team.”
For Vasturia, he said stepping up is about attacking more than he has in the past as a complementary player.
“[I’m] being more aggressive, trying to find my spots offensively,” Vasturia said. “I think we have a lot of great weapons here on this team and that’s what makes this offense great. People know how to play, and they share; they move the ball. So it’s just finding how to pick your spots and playing the way you’ve grown up playing.”
With two starters gone, Notre Dame’s sixth and seventh men from the 2014-2015 season will slide into the starting lineup when the Irish open their season at the end of the month, Brey said. Sophomore forward Bonzie Colson and junior forward V.J. Beachem are expected to join the starting five, giving Notre Dame’s defense more length than in past seasons.
“The length obviously helps us out a lot,” Colson said. “We can deny, we can challenge shots — it definitely helps us out.”
His teammates tend to agree, and Auguste said he thinks it’s going to help on the offensive side of things as well.
“They have that length there to deflect balls, get their hands in passing lanes and that’s gonna be huge for us,” Vasturia said. “I think we have a great chance to be a really good defensive team.”
“We’re gonna be a real versatile team — it allows us to get out in transition,” Auguste said. “It gives us a threat both offensively and defensively.
I think it’s gonna be a good look for us and something that’s problematic for other teams.”
While the starting five for the exhibition opener against St. Francis (Illinois) on Oct. 30 appears set, Brey conceded he’s not sure of the rotation past that point, with sophomore guard Matt Farrell, senior forward Austin Burgett and sophomore forward Martinas Geben amongst the options.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘who’s the sixth and the seventh guy?,’” Brey said. “I have no idea. I’m still figuring that out but we certainly have a lot of candidates.”
A trio of scholarship freshmen entered the program — guard Rex Pflueger, forward Matt Ryan and forward Elijah Burns. Brey said he’s liked what he’s seen from the newcomers so far.
“They came in here very confident, very physically ready to do things, and they compete and go after the older guys,” Brey said. “I’ve loved how willing they are to learn.”
This will mark the third year for Notre Dame in the ACC, and Brey said the conference is starting to show depth similar to that of the Big East while the Irish were a member.
“I really believe this year is the year the ACC sees the Big East depth we left — you know eight or nine NCAA bids, maybe 10,” Brey said. “I believe this is the year it will play out.”
Notre Dame opens its exhibition slate Oct. 30 against St. Francis (Illinois) at Purcell Pavilion and will open its regular season against St. Francis (Pennsylvania) at home Nov. 13.