Notre Dame eyes a third consecutive Elite Eight berth; begins 2016-2017 with exhibition vs. Mercy
Alex Carson | Tuesday, November 1, 2016
A few years ago, Notre Dame had not been to the Elite Eight since 1979. Now, the program has done it twice in as many years, making deep tournament runs in 2015 and 2016.
As his Irish are set to make their 2016-17 debut Tuesday night by hosting Mercy in an exhibition contest at Purcell Pavilion, head coach Mike Brey doesn’t necessarily need to set goals for the squad.
“There’s no question in that locker room, I don’t have to talk about any goals,” Brey said at the team’s media day on Oct. 18. “This group of guys talks about playing past the Elite Eight. That’s awesome when your culture kind of generates that kind of leadership and tone without me getting involved.”
While his players are thinking big, Brey is concerned with his team doing the basic thing that makes an NCAA tournament run possible: qualifying for it.
“I always like to take a step back from that because I know how hard it is to just earn an NCAA bid,” Brey said. “You gotta get access to the thing before you can have fun in March like we have the last two years. And it will be harder for us to get a bid this year than it was the previous two years, given what we’ve lost and that the league is amazingly deep.”
Notre Dame enters the season playing a tough schedule; Brey thinks 10 of the ACC’s 15 teams could be tournament-bound at the end of the season, one that will see the Irish play eight regular season games against teams ranked in the AP’s preseason top 20, including showdowns with No. 1 Duke, No. 4 (and defending national champion) Villanova, No. 6 North Carolina and No. 8 Virginia.
For Brey and the Irish, that tough schedule could be a blessing or a curse.
“Bad news is, man, we play in the ACC and it’s deep and there’s 10 [NCAA tournament teams],” Brey said. “Good news is, there’s a number of games in your 18-game schedule that can be resume wins. And you don’t have to get all of them.”
When the offseason started in the spring, Irish fans could point to three players who’d be sure starters in November; seniors V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia would start on the wings, while junior forward Bonzie Colson would be the third shoo-in for the Irish starting five. Brey, however, wanted to settle those other two spots early on, giving starting roles to junior Matt Farrell, running the point, and junior Martinas Geben, who’ll be Notre Dame’s starting big man.
Geben’s first two years at Notre Dame were “tough,” Brey said — the Lithuanian was stuck behind Zach Auguste — and at the start of the offseason, Brey’s first meeting was with Geben to give him the job.
“We’re going to start workouts next week, white shirts are our starters,” Brey recounted telling Geben in the spring. “If I see you in anything other than a white shirt the rest of the way — spring and summer through the fall — I’m going to kick you out of the gym. You’re our starting big guy.”
Brey left Geben, who contemplated transferring, with the thought that “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”
“He came back two days later and goes, ‘That’s a real good one, coach. Let’s keep moving forward,’” Brey said.
Farrell burst onto the scene for Notre Dame last March, when he started games in the NCAA tournament, playing a key role in the team’s NCAA tournament success. Despite the arrival of freshman point guard Temple Gibbs, a consensus top-100 recruit, Brey wanted to make sure the starting point guard slot was settled with Farrell in the role.
“Like Martin Geben, we gave him the ball,” Brey said. “ … Man, did he deliver for us in March. He’s a more confident guy because we’ve said, ‘It’s your team. Run the team.’”
While the Irish preach sharing the ball, Brey said, he wants to see Farrell among the team’s leading scorers this season.
“The one thing I want him to do, and I got on him [in practice], he should not turn down shots,” Brey said. “The guy is a heck of a shooter. … We need him to score the ball for us and I think he can.”
The summer’s loss of Auguste, A.J. Burgett and Demetrius Jackson wasn’t the only big change at Notre Dame, though, as Brey brought two former Irish players, Ryan Ayers and Ryan Humphrey, on staff to fill assistant coach vacancies.
Humphrey, a 2002 grad and first-round NBA pick, made an impact with the Irish squad from his first day on the job.
“He’s got great energy and he connected with our big guys right away,” Brey said. “Here’s a guy who played in the [NBA], played here. The upmost respect was there from day one. But he delivered. … He’s out there playing post defense on ‘em. He’s still physical enough to demonstrate anything.”
For years, Brey said he has felt Ayers, who graduated in 2009, would make a good coach, even when the guard was still playing for him in the Irish program..
“I remember him sitting in my office when he was a junior and me saying to him, ‘You ever think about coaching? You’d be really good,’” Brey said. “ … I love what he’s done with the individual workouts with our perimeter guys. He really has brought some new stuff, some different stuff to our individual workouts that I think has freshened up some things in our program.”
After Jackson, who’s now with the Boston Celtics, declared for the NBA Draft in the spring, the leadership of the Irish fell into Beachem’s hands, after the now-senior’s breakout March. While Beachem hadn’t been a consistent voice in the past, he will be now heading into the new season.
“I think I just need to have a consistent voice every day, no matter what’s going on, and let other guys bring the energy if we need a boost or a bolt,” Beachem said.
It’s led to Beachem becoming, in some ways, the face of Notre Dame’s program.
“It’s something that you dream about growing up, being the face of your team and the face of your program,” Beachem said. “So I’m just trying to embrace it and not add any extra pressure to myself and just having fun with it, honestly.”
And despite the Irish losing four players to the professional game in two years — three in the NBA, one in Europe — this isn’t a young Notre Dame team.
“We’ve got a heck of a lot to work with and we’re still old,” Brey said. “‘Get old and stay old’ has kind of been a theme around here, so we’ve still got experience.”
That experience will be on display for the first time since March on Tuesday, when the Irish host Mercy at 7 p.m. in an exhibition contest at Purcell Pavilion.