In what was I’m pretty sure the only hotly anticipated Fighting Irish matchup on Saturday, the hoops team secured a big road win over DePaul to start the 2017-18 season on the right foot.
The first half started out slowly as the Irish dealt with an excited crowd at the first ever game at the Winstrust Arena in downtown Chicago. The defense, which Mike Brey has consistently hyped as an improved aspect of this year’s team, was able to feed off of this energy, forcing the amped up Blue Demons into mostly difficult looks. However, the offense opened up with some out-of-character sloppiness. A number of careless turnovers from Matt Farrell and Rex Pflueger combined with some stagnant possessions to keep it close throughout the first.
Bonzie Colson, coming fresh off a preseason ACC Player of the Year recognition, carried the Irish offense through the period with 9 points and 6 rebounds. DePaul double-teamed Bonzie pretty much any time he received the ball within 15 feet of the hoop. Bonzie passed out to an open teammate a few times, but he mostly went right at the double teams, creating just enough room to get off his signature off-balance shots.
Despite this strong play from the Irish’s best player, the three ball would not fall early, extending what was a cold-shooting preseason for many of the Irish guards. Solid play on the defensive end was largely responsible for the modest 4-point lead the Irish carried into halftime.
The game’s turning point took place early in the second half. DePaul’s Devin Gage swatted a Colson three-point attempt, leading his teammate Max Strus on a 2-on-0 breakaway with a chance to take the lead. Trying to blow the roof off the Wintrust Arena, Gage lobbed it up for a Strus alley-oop, but Strus back-rimmed the wide-open attempt. TJ Gibbs answered with a 3 on the next possession before Strus missed yet another alley-oop attempt on a DePaul baseline inbound. A Matt Farrell 3 extended the lead to 7, and DePaul had missed their best chance for some much-needed momentum.
From that point on, the Irish offense kicked into gear for the first time this season, and it was beautiful. The Irish connected on an absurd 8 consecutive three-point attempts in the second half, many of which were wide open due to the ball movement that the Irish thrive on. The headliner was TJ Gibbs, whose slimmed-down frame showed immediate results. The sophomore looked supremely confident shooting from deep and driving to the hole as he put up a career high 21 points.
The Blue Demons were never able to cut the Irish lead to single digits in the last 8 minutes, as the Irish were able to hang on comfortably for a nice win to kick off the season.
As I stated earlier, TJ Gibbs was the most impressive Irish player in this one. When everyone else was struggling with their stroke early on, Gibbs was the only one knocking down open looks. This is especially reassuring after Gibbs suffered a long stretch of cold shooting to end last season. When DePaul started closing out on him at the three-point line, he started attacking the rim. On drives, Gibbs flashed everything you wanted to see – nice lay-ups, a couple of trips to the line, and some nice vision to get teammates easy looks. If TJ can maintain this level of performance, the Irish can sport an extremely dangerous two-point guard lineup that harkens back to the 2013-14 pairing of Demetrius Jackson and Jerian Grant.
Bonzie Colson had a very nice stat line to begin his season, with 18 points, 13 boards, and 5 assists. However, Bonzie was not at his absolute best on the offensive side of this one. After he successfully attacked the DePaul double team a few times, I feel that he fell a bit too much in love with his fadeaway jumper, putting up some very tough looks instead of cycling the ball back around. That being said, he was able to draw contact and get to the line on many of these attempts, and Bonzie is talented enough where I’m never going to complain too much about him being overaggressive. He also pulled down some big rebounds, which is something the Irish always need from him against athletic opposition.
Matt Farrell got off to a very slow start in the first half , as he didn’t look for his own shot very much and committed some odd turnovers. He completely turned it around in the second half, punishing DePaul for slipping under high screens by walking into some wide-open threes. I’m not sure if the numbers bear this out, but Farrell feels especially lethal when he dribbles into threes at the top of the key. It was a very solid performance from the Irish PG.
Martinas Geben was hugely helpful on the defensive side of the ball. He made life very tough for the DePaul bigs, really giving the Irish everything they want from him early on. He was a bit hesitant offensively around the rim at times, and he committed a few dumb fouls, but I came away from this one encouraged with Geben’s level of play.
The lone individual sore spot for the Irish was Rex Pflueger. Apart from some of his usual hard-nosed takeaways on defense and a career-high 9 rebounds, this wasn’t Rex’s night. He had a few missed shots and turnovers early on; after that, he seemed to lose confidence and handled the ball with uncertainty. Tonight was likely just an off-night, but it remains to be seen whether Rex can thrive in an expanded offensive role this year.
DJ Harvey was the big positive off the bench in his Irish debut. Harvey’s jumper looked very nice, going 3-4 from the field, and he seemed to have a very good sense of when to look to create his own shot within the flow of the offense. He impressed Brey so much that he replaced Geben with the starters for the stretch run of the game. A few of us kicked around that idea for Brey’s ultimate closing lineup, but I found it surprising that Brey was willing to ride with the freshman in his first career game.
Elijah Burns was the first man in off the bench, as expected, but he did not end up playing much. He only played 5 minutes, as Brey opted to use John Mooney as the bench big in the second half. Neither Burns nor Mooney did anything especially notable, with Mooney’s made three-pointer being the only real highlight. Nikola Djogo got a DNP, and it looks like he’ll have to impress against some of the cupcakes to work his way into the rotation.
DePaul’s new arena looked really nice, although this was a pretty tough matchup for them on its opening night. Tre’Darius McCallum was very impressive for the Blue Demons, scoring 14 points on 6-9 shooting, with 2-4 from deep. On the negative side, big man Marin Maric was completely shut down, going a horrific 1-8 from the field. Props to Geben on his work there. In addition to his pair of missed dunks, Max Strus had absolutely no conscience about shooting from deep, making only 3 of his 12 three-point attempts in a subpar performances.
I was a big fan of the alternate away jerseys the Irish broke out for this one. The gold lettering on the blue looked very classic and clean, and I found it to be a nice tweak to the usual white accents. The Main Building-inspired design on the shorts was also a neat touch.
The Irish have a quick turnaround as they travel home to take on Mount St. Mary’s on Monday. The Notre Dame women’s hoops team knocked off Mount St. Mary’s by 56 on Saturday, so a comparable performance from the men would be nice.