It’s never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: Notre Dame.
Mike Brey had long since honed his defenses. For more than a decade, he had been building quality basketball teams in South Bend, and establishing a perennially solid program, without much hardware to show for it.
More often than not, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish would finish in or near the top half of an often-loaded Big East -- just not high enough to win even one regular-season or conference tournament title. More often than not, Brey's teams got in to the NCAA tournament as single-digit seeds -- but only once had they reached the tournament's second weekend. Every season, Brey hoped for a breakthrough. Every season, he fielded the same unanswerable questions: What makes the tournament different? Why is it so hard to get over the hump?
In his first news conference of the 2015 NCAA tournament, those well-honed defenses were called to action. It didn't matter that this was the best Notre Dame team of Brey's tenure, a brilliant offensive group that steadily churned through a 29-5 season to that point -- and had, four days prior, beaten Duke and UNC on back-to-back nights in Greensboro en route to an ACC tournament title. A reporter at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh -- beginning his question with "Mike, I don't have to tell you what the narrative of Notre Dame basketball in March is," -- asked whether the Irish's lack of tournament success was a "monkey" on the program's proverbial back.
"I don't lose a lot of sleep on it," Brey said. "Maybe because I'm an older coach now and I have a great contract."
See? Comedy chops perfected over the course of a half-decade of mostly inexplicable March letdowns. Reliable laugh lines always at the ready.
Now, finally, Notre Dame can put those defenses down.
The Irish's 2014-15 season ended in disappointment, sure, but of a far different flavor. Jerian Grant's last-second heave against Kentucky was the final moment for a team that had already shaken off every one of the presumptions that accompanied it just weeks before: That it couldn't guard or rebound; that it was too small; that it wasn't built for the postseason; that, come on, the Irish never win in March anyway. By that point, a trip to the Final Four was at stake. Brey's team, ACC title in hand, had already survived Northeastern and Butler in the rounds of 64 and 32, and throttled a very good Wichita State in the Sweet 16. Before Grant's shot was airborne, Notre Dame was one possession -- two, at most -- from beating the heretofore unbeaten.
The particulars of the loss were no less devastating to Brey and his players, but there was pride there, too, at having demolished the old Notre Dame narrative once and for all. Now, when Brey sleeps soundly, it won't be because of his contract buyout. Now, when Brey takes to the podium, he won't need to arm himself with cheery ripostes. Now, finally, that question -- why can't Notre Dame break through? -- is moot.
What the immediate future holds:
Which is not to say Notre Dame won't be taking another crack at things in 2015-16. It will. Which, given the personnel lost this spring, is a remarkable fact indeed.
Few, if any, senior duos were more broadly important to their teams than Grant, the All-American guard, and Pat Connaughton, the senior wing. Grant didn't always do everything on offense, but everything always started with him. Connaughton, a vocal leader, was also a major factor at both ends -- the team's best perimeter shooter and interior cutter on offense and its best, most important rebounder on defense.
But there's much to be said for the core that returns. Hyperathletic, rapidly developing guard Demetrius Jackson turned down a potential first-round draft position to come back for his junior season; Steve Vasturia emerged as a vital role player from the wing, especially down the stretch. forward Zach Auguste -- an underrated rebounder and interior finisher all season -- ended it with a 20-point, nine-rebound, 10-of-13 performance against Kentucky.
There is no replacing Grant and Connaughton, but Jackson and Vasturia could come stylistically close. Auguste is poised for a monster season. And the pieces around them (Bonzie Colson, V.J. Beachem, Austin Torres, et al) will surface, as Brey's gradually developing reserves always do, into a group with goals set no lower than an ACC title and a Final Four trip. And why not?