College basketball preview: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson celebrates on the court late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida State. (Associated Press file photo)
Notre Dame's Matt Farrell looks to pass the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in March. (Associated Press file photo)

The Notre Dame men’s basketball program had its least successful season – in some regards – in the last three seasons.

Did the Fighting Irish make the NCAA Tournament?

Yes.

Did veteran coach Mike Brey’s team compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship game?

Yes.

Did Notre Dame finish second in the ACC in the regular season?

Yes

And did Brey’s guys win 26 games?

Yes.

Point being, that is how good the Notre Dame program has been in recent history. The Irish didn’t advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in three seasons, but they achieved a ton of impressive stuff, so was it a down year or not?

That is up for debate. But what isn’t debatable is that this program has been immensely successful under Brey over the past 18 seasons.

“Guys get better here,” Brey said recently. “It’s one of the things that we really sell in recruiting is that you’re going to get better here.”

“If you hang in there with us (and) invest with us.”

This is the third of seven college basketball preview stories that will be published at News-Sentinel.com this week. Thursday: Butler

FRONTCOURT

If Notre Dame fans are looking for a beast of a body to swoop in and dominate the paint this season at Purcell Pavilion, well … they’ll have to keep waiting. That is because 6-foot-6-inch Bonzie Colson is the best that the Fighting Irish have to offer in the post this season.

Is he good enough to lead this team?

Dumb question. Colson was recently named as the ACC Preseason Player of the Year and is good enough to lead any team in the entire country.

“He’s just a great story in college basketball,” Brey said of the senior forward. “He’s a throw back, a guy that’s gotten better every year. He’s added something to his game each year.”

Colson has already been a nightmare for opponents inside. He averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds as a junior. However, last season he expanded his game by becoming a perimeter threat, as well.

As a freshman, Colson made one more three-point shot than Brey did that season, and the coach didn’t attempt any. However, as Brey noted, “Guys get better here,” and Colson has.

Last season, Colson hit 26 of his 60 attempts (43 percent) from long range.

“Now he’s stepping out and stretching the floor,” Brey said.

After Colson, the post players with any experience include senior Austin Torres, sophomore Elijah Burns, sophomore John Mooney and senior Martinas Geben.

Of that group, Burns is showing some potential this preseason, according to Brey.

“He’s the second leading rebounder through (early) practices,” Brey said. “If there is one thing that has stood out, it’s been: Oh boy, he’s going and getting that with two hands in traffic.”

Burns is a 6-foot-8, 238-pound athlete that Brey said has a presence about him among his teammates.

“He gives us a great physical presence,” Brey said. “And he’s really a smart basketball player. We’ve recruited big guys that are good with the ball. (Burns) is really good with the ball.”

BACKCOURT

Like Colson, senior guard Matt Farrell has developed from nowhere to somewhere special.

As a freshman, the 6-foot-1 New Jersey native scored 14 points. Total.

That improved slightly to 72 points as a sophomore. Total.

He then exploded into a 14 point per game average last season.

“It helps that we recruit guys that are gym rats,” Brey said, “guys that want to be in the gym and work on their games. Matt is a great example of that.”

Farrell dished out 196 assists last season and only turned the ball over 91 times, but Brey sees his role evolving this year off of the ball, as much as on it.

Brey said that 6-foot-6 junior Rex Pflueger and sophomore T.J. Gibbs can get into the paint on drives, which will result in three-point shots from several players, Farrell included.

“Matt Farrell is a shooter,” Brey said. “He’s not always going to be the point guard, but once he does initiate the offense, if he’s in that role, then he’s got to think like a shooter.”

Pflueger and Gibbs gained a lot of experience last season, which should pay off in expanded roles this winter.

Pflueger started 11 games and played in 35, while Gibbs played in 36 games.

“I love what we’re doing defensively,” Brey said. “We’ve got a team that gets deflections. Bonzie has always been a guy that gets deflections with that wingspan, and then you have Rex and T.J. out there, who are all over the place defensively — they cover a lot of ground.”

NEWCOMERS

Brey has eight returning players that are going to play significant roles this season, so breaking into the rotation as one of the two new players (wing D.J. Harvey and guard Nikola Djogo) won’t be easy, but Brey is open to the concept.

“We have to get D.J. ready to play,” Brey said. “There is too much (talent) there to work with. Through osmosis, because he’s a sharp kid, and this happens a lot in our program, he’s learned how to move without the ball.”

“When you play with all veteran guys, and (Harvey) is playing with all veterans, you kind of learn how to play.”

Harvey is a 6-foot-6 athlete, while Djogo is 6-foot-7.

PREDICTION

You can almost set your watch to what the Notre Dame program will do each season.

Brey’s guys will have an early season loss that they have no business losing (think at DePaul on Nov. 11), but they’ll also have an ACC win that they have no business winning (think North Carolina on Jan. 13). In the end, Brey’s team will have won 20-plus games, finish in the top half of the league, Colson will be an All-American and the Irish will earn an NCAA Tournament bid.

That’s just what this program does.

“They’ve tasted the (ACC) championship game,” Brey said of his seniors, “and they’ve tasted getting deep in the (NCAA) tournament. They’re really driven and I think we would be disappointed if we didn’t have something to put in that trophy case.”

IRISH BITS

Bright spot for Irish Nation?

Bonzie Colson is a legit college All-American, and he’ll play like it all season long.

Player to watch?

Martinas Geben will do what a lot of Notre Dame seniors do, and that is have his best season.

Problem for Notre Dame?

Any type of injury to starting five. This team lacks depth after the first five.

Newcomer impact?

Not technically a “newcomer,” but after playing just 44 minutes last season, Elijah Burns really is. He will pass that amount of time by the Chicago State game on Nov. 16.

For more on college basketball, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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