by Kevin O'Neill
Disabuse yourself of any notion that criticizing the way a basketball player performed should be extrapolated to attitude and effort. If you don’t have the intellect to make that distinction, please stop reading now.
The Prophet, Part 1
If I heard Mike Brey say it once during the 2016-17 season, I heard it half a dozen times. “We aren’t going to be successful without our seniors.”
Unfortunately for the Fighting Irish, I always heard those words after a subpar performance by Steve Vasturia, VJ Beachem, or both. Also unfortunately for the Fighting Irish, Brey was right.
The two seniors have been major contributors to some of the great wins in the history of the Notre Dame basketball program, and they have been model citizens throughout their time in South Bend; but they weren’t able to put the NCAA Tournament exclamation point on their careers that their 2015 and 2016 predecessors had.
The duo combined to make 42.6% of their shots in ACC games and 37,5% of their three point attempts. Their make rates fell to 22.7% and 15.8% in the tournament. They averaged 28 points per ACC game but only 16 points in ND’s two tournament games.
With half of its “big four” under-performing, the Irish barely defeated Princeton and lost to West Virginia. Seniors performing to their averages would have Irish fans checking airfare prices to San Jose. However, averages don’t tell a complete story.
An average is merely a mathematical calculation, the numbers from each box score divided by the number of games. Variance tells a more important story. Variance tells us if we can rely on getting 15 points from a player because he always scores right around that number. It tells us not to rely on the 15 points if the player gets 5 points one game and 25 points the next. This was a season of significant variance for the Notre Dame seniors.
I selected two groups of seven games from the Notre Dame season, the most significant wins and the most disappointing losses. The first swipe at the numbers told me what I expected. Performance dropped in the losses.
In the seven victories, the seniors made 47.3% of their shots, connected on 37.1% of their three point attempts, and scored an average of 27.3 points per game.
In the seven losses, the seniors made 33.8% of their shots, connected on 23.3% of their three point attempts, and scored an average of 21.3 points per game.
There is at least a little irony in that variance. Brey has spoken about his seniors’ even keel throughout the season. Their leadership strength has been keeping their teammates calm in the most stressful moments. Yet when it comes to their own basketball performance, the keel has been most uneven.
But there’s more.
The Prophet, Part 2
As I transcribed the numbers from the 14 box scores, a significant phenomenon started to become obvious. Vasturia and Beachem almost never had good games at the same time, at least not in the sample of 14 significant games.
Neither senior played poorly in all of the losses. For example, Beachem made 10 of 16 shots and scored 23 points vs Georgia Tech, and he played pretty well in both Duke Losses. Vasturia had good stat lines in the Villanova, Virginia, and West Virginia losses.
The phenomenon wasn’t limited to the losses. When Beachem played poorly in the Northwestern, Louisville, Miami, and last two FSU games, Vasturia played well; and when Vasturia struggled against Syracuse, Beachem scored 30 points. The duo played well at the same time in exactly one of the seven significant victories – the Virginia game in the ACC Tournament; and in both cases, their statistical success was moderate.
Meshing the two players’ games actually was a topic in Brey’s media day press conference last October. Asked about Vasturia’s 2016 tournament scoring struggles, Brey shared his view of the situation.
“All of a sudden, VJ Beachem just took off and took a little bit of (Vasturia’s) role. It’s interesting in the dynamics of a group sometimes, Steve… I give him credit. He didn’t want to force anything, but it was like, ‘We’re kind of rolling doing this, and I’ll defend, and I’ll play my secondary role.’”
Is it possible? Were two smart, talented, unselfish basketball players unable to make their games work together over the course of four seasons, or is their inability to play well at the same time a strange coincidence? Whatever the answer is, Irish fans will lament what could have been with consistent play from its seniors.
The Prophet, Part 3
The juniors had no such problems with consistency. Brey told us what to expect back in October.
Asked about replacing Demetrius Jackson’s and Zach Auguste’s points, Brey said, “I think we need to do that more as a group, but what’s been neat about our program is sometime during the year a guy has stepped forward and all of a sudden has been a key guy. A guy that’s on my mind a lot is Bonzie Colson with his career to date and his play in big games. He could be one of those guys.
“He’s playing facing the bucket more, and he seems to be more comfortable facing the bucket. He can make a jump shot. His three point shot is something we want him to take.
“I think Bonzie is going to be up there around double figure rebounds. He’s going to play those minutes, and he certainly has a great nose for the ball.”
Indeed, Colson averaged 17.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in ACC contests. He scored and rebounded in double digits 19 times over the course of the season.
Brey also talked about using his smaller lineup on media day. “For me, the challenge always is where are we using Bonzie at this point in the game. Will we downshift and play him as our only big? We’ll certainly come back to that. Does Pfleuger come in for Geben? Does Ryan come in for Geben? That has been really good for us.”
So good that Brey made small his primary lineup in early February.
The Prophet, Part 4
Talking about Matt Farrell’s 2016 postseason performance on media day, Brey said, “His decision making and his assist to turnover were things he needed to improve, and I think he’s made really good strides off of that. One thing I want him to do, and I got on him yesterday (in practice), he should not turn down shots. The guy is a heck of a shooter.”
Heck of a shooter? How about 45.3% three point shooting in conference games. Decision making needed to improve? Yes, that too. It still needs to improve.
The Prophet, Part 5
Clearly Brey knew his team’s strengths and challenges before it had its first official practice last season. Starting on media day and continuing throughout the non-conference schedule, he also indicated that he expected his team to be substantially better than the seventh and eighth place finishes that pundits projected.
That leads us to the 2017-18 season. Speculate all spring and summer, but if you want early information on the 2017-18 season that is accurate, the prophet will speak at media day in mid-October.