Philadelphia has the second-largest Irish-American population at just over 11 percent, behind only Boston among major American cities. Notre Dame regularly plucks players from the City of Brotherly Love as well. Was it the luck of the Irish that placed Notre Dame in the East region as a 6-seed?
If the Fighting Irish feel at home in Philly, that's okay with Wisconsin -- the seventh-seeded Badgers (22-12, 12-6 Big Ten) do better as underdogs anyway. Both Notre Dame (23-11, 11-7 ACC) and Wisconsin flashed poise in second-round victories last weekend and grit in the regular season, albeit in different ways. For the offensive-minded Irish, a redemptive 8-2 stretch in the heart of league play lifted the team from an uninspiring non-conference slate, scoring resume-boosting wins against North Carolina, Louisville and two over Duke away from home. Notre Dame is led by 6'10" senior forward Zach Auguste, who averages 14.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game and has shot over 70 percent in the NCAA tournament for his career. If Nigel Hayes' production can rise to Auguste's level, we'll have a nice ball game on our hands.
For the full breakdown on the Irish, I called on Eric Bens who writes for One Foot Down, SB Nation's Notre Dame community.
B5Q: Notre Dame is a stylistic opposite from Wisconsin from the standpoint of having a high-powered offense and a mediocre defense. Which do you think will be a bigger challenge for the Irish: scoring in a grinder against a top defense or stopping Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ inside without letting Bronson Koenig or Vitto Brown go off from the outside?
One Foot Down (Eric): Even against some of the best defenses in the country (UVA, Louisville, SFA, and UNC), the Irish have managed to score at a relatively efficient clip. Mike Brey’s teams have always had fantastic offenses, and this year was no different. The Irish did struggle down the stretch, but seem to have righted the ship in their last two games. I’m most concerned with limiting Wisconsin’s scoring, especially from the outside since the Irish three-point defense has been really poor this year (more on this below). While I think ND will be able to score on the Badgers, with both teams playing at a pretty slow tempo, giving up too many threes in a low possession game could put the Irish in a really tough spot.
B5Q: Where do you notice that the Irish miss last year's departed senior guards Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton the most? Who has filled those playmaker and go-to-scorer roles?
OFD: While they haven’t been perfect replacements, Demetrius Jackson has taken over Grant’s playmaking role while V.J. Beachem has stepped in admirably for Connaughton. Jackson takes most of the ball handling duties, and while he’s not quite the passer that Jerian was, he’s still effective running the pick-and-roll, and can get to any spot on the floor off the dribble. Beachem is as good a shooter as Connaughton, and while he’s not quite as good defensively or on the glass, he’s still grabbing four boards per game while playing passable defense.
The leadership the pair of guards provided has been harder to replace. According to AD Jack Swarbrick, Connaughton was one the best leaders ND Athletics has ever had. Jackson and Steve Vasturia were expected to be leaders on the team, have filled in admirably, but Irish fans have been pleasantly surprised by Zach Auguste maturing and becoming a steady voice in the locker room.
B5Q: Can you assess how well Mike Brey's switch in the starting lineup from bulldozer Bonzie Colson to little-used sophomore guard Matt Farrell is working so far? Do you expect him to stick with Farrell against Wisconsin, which starts three forwards?
OFD: While the decision to start Farrell drew a fair share of criticism among Irish hoops fans, it’s worked out better than many of us expected. The Irish generally like to play four around one with Auguste or Colson operating as the only post player. At times this season when both Auguste and Colson have played together, defenses had a much easier time clogging the lane, stopping the Irish pick and roll, and limiting Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia dribble drives to the hoop. While Bonzie has a pretty good jump shot, he doesn’t provide the spacing of a true perimeter player. Farrell’s inclusion also allows Demetrius Jackson to play off the ball more often which helps keep him fresher later in games, and gives the Irish another look on offense freeing up DJ, a good three point shooter, to get more catch and shoot looks coming off of screens.
Since SFA pressured the ball so far from the hoop, it made sense to have an extra ball handler in the game to help break the press and limit turnovers. The Lumberjacks weren’t as big as most high major opponents, so the Irish didn’t give up much inside with Farrell in the game. Wisconsin is obviously a different test. The Badgers play more true post players, and their defense while really good, it doesn’t pressure the ball 75 feet from the basket. That said, I still expect Farrell to get the start so the Irish can play they preferred style on offense. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if Bonzie plays significantly more minutes, especially if the Badgers start finding success inside.
B5Q: My father-in-law formed a man-crush on Zach Auguste after watching only one Notre Dame game this weekend. Auguste is an fluid, rebounding machine. I'm curious how much of his offense comes in an offensive set versus simply created by his rebounding. Beyond that, though, what have you enjoyed most about his growth at Notre Dame over these four years?
OFD: Last year’s Elite Eight game against Kentucky was a fantastic representation of how Auguste scores within the Irish offense. The Irish ran tons of spread pick-and-roll with Auguste setting the ball screen for Jerian Grant. Auguste picked up 20 points on 10/13 shooting that night by outrunning UK’s bigs down the lane both cutting without the ball and driving for dunks and layups at the rim. This season he’s improved his back to the basket game which is small but more reliable part of the 2016 Irish offense. The majority of his points, however, come as the roll man in PnR looks from Demetrius Jackson. Auguste can drag bigger, slower, defenders away from the hoop, and beat them with his speed. He’s also really good running the floor in transition, and like you mentioned, can clean up the glass at both ends.
Auguste had always been something of an enigma that Irish fans have had a love-hate relationship with. He was just as capable of going off for 20 points against a front court filled with NBA players as scoring six on 2-9 shooting with multiple turnovers, stupid fouls, sub 50% FT shooting, and visible defensive mistakes. Even while he was averaging a double-double during ACC play this season, Auguste was taking tons of criticism (some deserved, some not) from Irish hoops fans. That said, from the end of January until now, Zach has been ND’s most consistent performer. He’s developed into a vocal leader on the team, which is something few Irish fans would have expected after his freshman and sophomore seasons. One of my favorite plays from the SFA game was him picking Walkup’s pocket in the last few minutes which led to an ND bucket that cut the Lumberjack lead to three. If Auguste doesn’t make that play, his college career is likely over. It was also a play that he never would have made two years ago.
B5Q: Wisconsin and Notre Dame played against seven common opponents. The Badgers went 7-2 in their nine games while the Fighting Irish went 4-3. Notre Dame beat Milwaukee, but lost to Pitt, Syracuse and Indiana. What is this team's Achilles heel in your opinion?
OFD: The Indiana game was probably the most frustrating game for ND fans this season. The Irish had the Hoosiers on the ropes up 16 points before Indiana switched to a 1-3-1 zone that the Irish couldn’t figure out. Facing the Syracuse 2-3 was much the same story, but the Irish were missing Demetrius Jackson who was out with a hamstring injury that game. Unless Gard abandons the trademark Wisconsin pack-line, zone shouldn’t be a problem on Friday.
The team’s defense, particularly behind the arc, has been a constant source of frustration this season. Against Pitt, the Panthers shot lights out in the first half, and the Irish couldn’t dig their way out of the hole. ND allowed a Pitt team that shot 34% from three this season to make over 50% of their shots from behind the arc. While there’s obviously some bad luck associated with this, Pitt wasn’t the only team to shoot much better than their season average against ND. 20/32 teams shot above their season 3pt percentage against ND, and nine of those squads shot more than 10% above their season average. The concern in this game will be keeping Koenig and Brown from getting open looks early behind the arc so ND isn’t forced to play catch up against Wisconsin’s fantastic defense.
B5Q: Brey has enjoyed incredible success during his 16 seasons at Notre Dame. He's never had back-to-back losing records in conference and is on the verge of a second straight Elite Eight. One rumor I found interesting before Wisconsin hired Greg Gard full-time was that Barry Alvarez was somewhat enamored with Brey. I didn't put much stock into "Brey to Wisconsin," but it makes me wonder ... do you live in fear of Brey getting THE CALL when Coach K retires at Duke?
OFD: There have been quite a few "Brey to [school]" rumors during his time in South Bend, but none of them have proven to be accurate. Coach Brey is by far the most successful head coach of Coach K’s previous assistants, and Brey is the only former Krzyzewski assistant to beat the man himself. ND is 5-1 against Duke in the last three seasons since joining the ACC, and has been a thorn in Duke’s side knocking them out of the last two ACC Tournaments. When Coach K retires, Brey should be near the top of Duke’s list, and Irish hoops fans will be in for a nervous few weeks waiting for an announcement.
Even with all his success, however, I don’t think Duke would make Brey their first choice. He just turned 57, and unless Krzyzewski (69 years old) retires in the next few seasons, Brey would be in his 60s when the job opens up. The Duke job is much more forward facing than ND’s (one of the benefits of being a basketball coach at a football school), and Brey’s ultra-laid back style probably wouldn’t fit at Duke on the heels of the super serious Coach K. The "Loosest Coach in America" knows he’s got a pretty great gig in the Bend, and I don’t think he’ll want to give it up at this point in his career. Notre Dame Alumni waste far more breath complaining about the latest QB recruit being too short or the new offensive grad assistant not being qualified enough (FIRE KELLY!) than about any perceived shortcomings with the hoops program. Most fans are happy with the job Brey’s done, and are upset that the administration haven’t supported the program enough as we’re still waiting for a new hoops practice facility to replace The Pit that’s over 30 years old. Making things more interesting is the Athletic Director situation in Durham. Duke’s current AD is former Irish AD Kevin White. White famously hired Charlie Weis and then gave him a 10 year extension after the Bush Push Game (yes, Weis got a 10 year extension following a home loss). Despite firing Weis in 2009, the Irish only just finished paying that contract’s buyout a few months ago. If there’s anyone that can botch a coaching hire, it’s Dr. White. Get ready for future Duke Head Basketball Coach Quin Snyder!
B5Q: From Farrell's big minutes as a starter and freshman Matt Ryan raining threes in limited minutes to Rex Pflueger's game-winning tip-in to beat Stephen F. Austin, the Irish have gotten key contributions from the bench in the last five games. Yet, the Irish get an even lower percentage of minutes from their reserves than the Badgers. Do you think Notre Dame relies on its starters too heavily?
OFD: The short bench has been a staple of Brey’s Fighting Irish teams and a frequent source of fan criticism if the team struggles. Last season, the Irish played a seven man rotation for most of the year, and it dropped to just six when VJ Beachem struggled in the tournament. Connaughton and Grant frequently played all 40 minutes, and unless they were in foul trouble, they rarely played fewer than 35. This season is much the same with Steve Vasturia, Demetrius Jackson, and VJ Beachem rarely coming out of games. Irish fans have been hoping for more minutes from Rex Pflueger and Matt Ryan, but Brey believes having a small rotation drives offensive efficiency and limits turnovers. It’s hard to argue with that since the Irish have consistently been one of the best in the nation in these categories every season during Brey’s tenure. If a bench guy is having a big game (see Bonzie Colson vs. Duke at Cameron this year), he’s got no problem sticking with a hot hand, but Brey is much more comfortable using the underclassmen in limited roles. Ryan will come in as a spot up shooter and add size to a small lineup; Rex will play in offense/defense situations down the stretch or come in and help Vasturia with a tough defensive matchup on the perimeter. I personally wouldn’t mind seeing Rex getting a bit more run at the expense of Farrell, but Brey has his style, and it’s not going to change anytime soon.
B5Q: Care to make a prediction on which team advances to the Elite Eight?
OFD: Coming off very successful seasons and replacing multiple NBA players, the Irish and Badgers probably didn’t expect to be playing the second weekend of the tournament. Both know they’re playing with house money, and members of both rosters have played in high pressure games late in March. The two teams’ styles are very different, but they’ve both gotten results. I don’t see much separating the two squads, and expect a close game coming down to the last few possessions. Both Vegas (ND by 1) and KenPom (Wisconsin by 1) have the game as a tossup, and it’s hard to see a blowout by either team. I’ll take the Irish with their offense scoring just enough against the Badgers D, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go the other way.
Will that stop someone from sending me a case of New Glarus and some cheese curds before the game?
Yes, Eric, yes it will...
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