Carson: Supporting cast finally shows up for Notre Dame
Alex Carson | Monday, January 18, 2016
If Notre Dame was always a team ready for a breakout performance this season, it sure hadn’t shown too many glimpses of it.
While junior guard Demetrius Jackson had stepped up his play as one would expect in the absence of the graduated Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, most of his returning Irish teammates hadn’t really followed his lead. Throw in a lack of contributions from Notre Dame’s bench, and head coach Mike Brey’s team had the look of one tailing toward the NCAA tournament bubble, one in search of a signature win to impress the committee on Selection Sunday.
All that changed in two hours in Durham, North Carolina, on Saturday afternoon, as the Irish picked up the program’s first win at Cameron Indoor Stadium in their eighth try.
Sophomore forward Bonzie Colson, who was dropped Wednesday from the starting five against Georgia Tech for the first time this season, answered the bell with 31 points and 11 boards in what was easily the best performance of his collegiate career.
Steve Vasturia joined Colson in setting a career-high, dropping 22 points. When the junior guard has netted 20 or more in his career, it’s meant good things for the Irish: He had 20 in last year’s overtime tournament win over Butler and 21 in last month’s big road win at Illinois.
Senior forward Zach Auguste matched a career high with 14 rebounds to continue the upward trend.
The trio that Jackson and Brey were looking toward to step up all season long finally did Saturday. And it’s a huge step for these Irish on the pathway back to the promised land in college basketball.
Throw in good performances from a pair of freshmen, forward Matt Ryan and guard Rex Pflueger, the latter of whom is emerging like Colson did last January, and you’ve got a team that looks capable of making a push toward the top of the ACC for the first time this season.
The idea of Notre Dame continuing to have success this season was predicated on seeing more performances like we did Saturday at No. 9 Duke. Jackson was going to have to be a top player, which he was Saturday, and the rest of last year’s supporting cast would have to assume bigger roles.
And make no mistake — this was an Irish squad that didn’t necessarily have positive momentum headed into Saturday’s game. Sure, they won an ugly game against Georgia Tech on Wednesday, but opportunities for big wins had evaded them three times in the past month — against Indiana, Virginia and Pittsburgh.
They got that big win Saturday.
Now Notre Dame returns to Purcell Pavilion this week with a chance to further separate itself from the ACC’s bottom tier, with a visit from Virginia Tech on Wednesday night. If the Irish want to move forward, they can’t afford to lose games on their home court.
Of course, the Hokies — like everyone in the conference except Boston College — are a formidable opponent, boasting a 4-1 mark in ACC play with their own marquee win, one over No. 13 Virginia. They’re the exact type of team Notre Dame will be in direct competition with come March, either for a spot in the field or for a better seed. And Notre Dame will have a slew of those games coming later in the year, both at home and on the road.
But for the first time all year Saturday, Notre Dame looked like the team most thought it could be when the season started in November: A crew that’s ruthlessly efficient offensively, with a group of players that pose a matchup problem for opposition when they’re on; a team led by Jackson and backed by former role players who’ve moved into being highly-productive players in the ACC.
If that Irish team shows up Wednesday, Saturday and the rest of the season, the Irish will be comfortably into the NCAA field — and in perfect position to do some damage come March.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.