by Kevin O'Neill
Each of the last three successful seasons had a different story of the season. Connaughton and Grant lead the way to an ACC Championship and an NCAA regional final. Demetrius Jackson emerged as a leader, the Fighting Irish hit their stride in February, and a repeat trip to a regional final followed.
The 2016-17 season has been a story of the even keel… until this week. This is the week that the Irish became Bonzie Colson’s team. This is the week that the Irish stood up to the always tough Virginia Cavaliers. This is the week the Irish developed an edginess that we hadn’t see before, and nothing epitomized that more than the words that Colson yelled as he blocked Kyle Guy’s layup attempt.
“Get that (poop) out of here!”
“It just shows his emotion and his passion each and every game,” Rex Pfleuger told me.
That isn’t to say that team has been under-led this season. Seniors Steve Vasturia and VJ Beachem have their teammates’ attention and respect.
“They aren’t as quiet as you guys (media) think,” Colson said after the final home game. “They talk, and we hear them.”
“Poise” is the word Matt Farrell used to describe Vasturia and Beachem. “No matter what’s going on around them, no matter if they’re not playing well or they’re playing good, they’re always the same. They play at the same (intensity) level, and that’s something that’s been really good for this team. We have guys who play with energy, and we have those two captains who are poised all the time, who keep us calm in big time situations.”
An emotional player, Farrell said the seniors help him re-focus after mistakes. “VJ has gotten ten times better vocally as the season progressed. He’s always talking to me, and Steve does too, saying ‘Next play, next play.’”
“From the day I met him, it’s been mutual respect between us,” Beachem said when asked about Vasturia. “It’s about winning no matter what it takes from either one of us. We’ve been able to do a lot of that for the past three years. It’s been a great run, and we don’t plan on being done any time soon.”
The seniors’ steadiness accounts for the team’s ability to recover from difficult December losses and start well in the ACC season. It explains how a four game losing streak didn’t turn into a death spiral. Instead, the Irish rallied to be in contention for a share of the regular season championship going into the final weekend.
Steadiness is a perfect prescription for success over the long haul, but tournaments are different. It’s win or go home every game. There is no bouncing back tomorrow. It’s time for intensity every game. It’s time for an edge.
“Get that (poop) out of here!”
But the words aren’t enough. Colson supported the attitude with actions – 21 points and 10 rebounds vs Virginia, 18 points and 6 rebounds vs Florida State, 29 points and 9 rebounds vs Duke. He made 52% of his shots from the field, dished out 5 assists in the FSU game, and had only a single turnover in each of the three tournament games.
“What he did – willing us, keeping us in it, making big plays, and chasing down loose balls… It was a great performance,” Mike Brey said after the Duke game.
“I think we got a little better in New York,” Brey said on Sunday. “We delivered in the bright lights and played well even though we couldn’t finish in the championship game. We had our March swagger. Everything was up a level.”
“It’s not just winning four games. It’s who we beat,” Mike Krzyzewski said after winning the championship. “We beat four terrific teams who could end up winning the national title. That’s how good our conference is.”
I don’t think Krzyzewski really meant to include Clemson in the national championship comment, but I believe he was sincere about Louisville, North Carolina, and Notre Dame. The man should know a contender when he sees one up close. He has seen more than a few.
There is room for the even keel in tournament games, but it’s better as a balance to emotion than it is as a substitute. Remember the ACC tournament as the week that the 2016-17 Notre Dame basketball team’s identity changed. It’s edgier. It’s Colson’s team now.
Shuffle Off To Buffalo
The Irish are the #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s West Regional with the first weekend’s pod playing in Buffalo. Their first round opponent is Princeton; and if they advance to the second round, West Virginia will be their likely opponent.
The Tigers are known for former coach Pete Carril’s offense, aptly called the Princeton Offense, which emphasizes constant motion, backdoor cuts, and crisp passing. The offense has given major conference teams fits over the years, but the Irish aren’t facing it cold.
“Coach has been talking about Princeton Offense all year,” Nikola Djogo told me after the selection show ended. “We’ve been talking about it because a lot of teams run different versions of it. Now we’re actually playing Princeton. We’re kind of used to playing against it.”
Brey said he told the team, “Now you get to guard the Princeton Offense run by Princeton.
“We even do some of it,” Brey continued. “We get some elbow hits and cuts. You’re guarding spacing; but of course, we guard spacing every day when we guard ourselves. You’re guarding shooting. We guard shooting every day because that’s our personnel. Back cutting? We cut a lot, so we guard cutting. We’re ‘Princeton-ish’ without the predictable movement. Ours is free flowing, but it’s a very Princeton-ish philosophy as far as spacing and cutting.”
The Last Word
Brey was asked about recent tournament success.
“When the lights have been brightest, we have been in a rhythm lately where we just love it, embrace it, deliver in it,” he said. “I think it’s gotten to be the tradition of the program where it’s handed down to the younger guys and they’re dragged along by the older guys.”
In other words, “Get that (poop) out of here!”