Notre Dame aims to incorporate depth as season dawns
Marek Mazurek | Friday, November 3, 2017
Since mid-October, Irish head coach Mike Brey has told reporters that if Notre Dame’s season-opener against DePaul was tomorrow, his starting lineup would be: Martinas Geben, Bonzie Colson, Rex Pflueger, T.J. Gibbs and Matt Farrell.
Now, at the beginning of November, there is no indication that Brey will alter that lineup with the DePaul game less than two weeks away.
But while Notre Dame’s starting lineup yields no mysteries, how Brey’s bench players fit into the larger scheme, both now and come tournament time in March, is uncertain.
Notre Dame’s frontcourt — and the team as a whole — will undoubtedly be anchored by senior forward Bonzie Colson on offense. Colson has received considerable national buzz and was recently named the ACC’s preseason player of the year.
But behind Colson, the Irish frontcourt is fluid.
With graduate student forward Austin Torres recovering from a stress fracture and possibly out for the first few weeks of the season, the Irish will count on senior forward Martinas Geben to play an expanded role in 2017-18.
The Lithuanian native saw increased playing time last season, but was removed from Brey’s starting lineup in March. Over the summer, Geben competed in China and Taiwan as a member of the Lithuanian student’s men’s national team and said the experience boosted his confidence.
“I played a different role on the team — a bigger role, I’d say,” Geben said Oct. 19 of his national team experience. “I got a lot of touches and was able to capitalize when my teammates trusted me with the ball. It was great for my confidence. I played really well.”
So far, that confidence is showing results, as Geben racked up 20 points and 11 rebounds in Notre Dame’s first exhibition match against Holy Cross on Oct. 20.
Behind Geben and Colson, Brey will most likely look to sophomore forward John Mooney and junior forward Elijah Burns with Torres sidelined for the time being.
“We’re going to need both those guys — they’re our future after this year as well when we lose those three senior big guys, and I’m very mindful of that ” Brey said Oct. 19. “Elijah is easy to play with. He really understands who he is, [and] he rebounds at both ends at a huge clip. One of the reasons we recruited him was we loved how he talked and communicated. … That’s why he’s kind of emerged as a sixth guy.
“Johnny is also physical around the bucket, and he can stretch the floor and make shots. In a game situation yesterday, he made a 3 to beat [the starters] so both those guys figure big into our plans.”
While Colson is the undisputed leader of the frontcourt, senior guard Matt Farrell is the undisputed leader of the Irish backcourt. How far the Irish go in March will depend, to a large degree, on Farrell.
Brey likes playing with smaller lineups, and that means junior guard Rex Pflueger and sophomore T.J. Gibbs will start for the majority of the year and will take on a lot of minutes. When Gibbs and Pflueger need a rest, the next men in for Notre Dame will likely be freshman forward D.J. Harvey and sophomore guard Nikola Djogo.
Harvey is a consensus four-star recruit from DeMatha Catholic High School, the same high school as former Irish guard and current NBA player Jerian Grant. While Brey usually doesn’t give freshmen meaningful minutes, he has said Harvey is too talented not to get looks early on.
“I think we have to get D.J. Harvey ready to play,” Brey said. “There’s too much there to work with. He’s the lone rookie in there. Through osmosis, because he’s a sharp kid, he’s learned how to move without the ball. When you play with all veteran guys … you kind of learn how to play.
“The explosiveness, the ability to play in the mid-range area, he can defend and sit in stance, he rebounds for his size. When we substitute him, we become smaller, and he’s that so-called stretch-four, and that’s an interesting lineup we’ve played around with the first 10 practices.”
Harvey, at 6-foot-6, will likely play on the wing and as the four spot in smaller lineups, with Gibbs serving as the second point guard if Farrell is out of the game. That leaves Djogo, who redshirted his freshman season, as the biggest question mark on the team.
Brey is high on Djogo’s 3-point shooting ability, which may determine how much playing time he receives as the season progresses.
“I’ve been very impressed with Nik,” Brey said. “He can shoot the ball, and that’s something that’s interesting to me. He can stretch the floor. But I think both of them are competing, and you’re not afraid to put them in a game. With Nik, he’s older now, he’s been in our system a year, there’s an athletic ability … he gets up around the bucket, he gets fouled.”
The Irish will face their second local NAIA team in exhibition play Friday when Bethel College (Mishawaka, Indiana) visits Purcell Pavilion. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.