With the eyes of most college hoops focused on headlines with words like “FBI Investigations” and “NCAA Commission,” the Irish basketball squad kicked off preseason practice. After an open practice for season ticket holders last Wednesday night, Mike Brey’s squad finished up their tenth practice of the preseason. Fans visiting for the USC game had other chances to get a sneak peek at the squad as well. The NCAA granted teams a waiver to host an additional exhibition game so long as it was a fundraiser for hurricane relief.

For ND, this meant hastily inviting Holy Cross College across 933 Friday night. The Irish also had an open practice on Saturday afternoon for fans that wanted a break from tailgating before watching the beat down of USC. While there’s no doubt ND wasn’t showing everything to the assembled fans and media, there’s a few conclusions we can draw from the time observing the squad.

No surprises with the starters, some clarity with the bigs…

The Irish starting lineup of Matt Farrell, TJ Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, Bonzie Colson, and Martinas Geben surprised pretty much no one familiar the team. Farrell and Colson are both preseason All-ACC contenders who will rarely leave the floor. Martinas Geben started most of last season, and should expect to play quite a bit in two big lineups. Lastly, Pflueger and Gibbs were natural choices to move up from bench roles last season with the departures of VJ Beachem and Steve Vasturia. There is still some uncertainty, however, after the starting five.

Based on the practice, exhibition, and Brey’s words to the media, Elijah Burns looks to be the first big off the bench. He was first to flip from blue to white at practice, and played well with the starters. I was particularly impressed with how vocal he was on defense. Additionally, he was 2/2 from three point range including a nice trailing three in transition during the open practice. Many expected John Mooney to win this role because of his outside shot. While Mooney can definitely shoot it (he drained a long, buzzer beating three, during a game situation scrimmage), Burns development as a shooter is a big plus. All that said, Austin Torres will be out until November with a stress fracture. He’ll undoubtedly earn a few minutes off the bench upon his return.

And the guards

For the guards, freshman DJ Harvey was the first guy to flip and play with the starters. His game looks really smooth, and while he missed more shots than he’d have liked, all were within the flow of the offense. His shooting stroke looks really nice too. All in all, Harvey looks to be the most game-ready freshman since Demetrius Jackson stepped on campus.

I was actually more impressed with Nikola Djogo, however. Although he’s naturally a shooting guard, he ran the point for the blue squad almost the entire practice. He had a couple nice finishes at the rim as well as jumpers from deep. He played briefly with the white team late in practice after flipping with Gibbs. It’s tough to tell whether he’s actually behind Harvey in Brey’s pecking order, or if he’s staying with blue since he’s their only reliable ball handler. The two players’ minutes were almost identical in the Holy Cross exhibition. With that in mind, there’s probably not a ton of separation between the two.

There were only three players not to flip to white during practice. Transfer Juwan Durham who will be sitting out the season, former walk-on (but now on scholarship) Matt Gregory, and new walk-on Liam Nelligan.

Improved Passing from Marty Geben

Martinas Geben looked like a different player during scrimmages at practice. While the physical defense and rebounding look as strong as ever, he showed off fantastic touch around the rim finishing over Durham with both hands in the post. The biggest improvement looked to be with his passing, however. Early in the scrimmage, Farrell found a rolling Geben after a ball screen. Without taking a dribble, Geben hit Bonzie right in the hands with a diagonal pass from the block out to the three point line. Bonzie buried the shot before his man could recover.

Marty also moved the ball well from the elbow showing off a nice high-low connection with Colson. He was arguably the player of the game against Holy Cross. Geben had 20 points (7/8 FG, 6/6 FT), grabbed 11 boards, dished two assists, and added a block. With the shooting of Vasturia and Beachem leaving the program, Geben’s improvement could be a key to taking the Irish to the next level.

Not much to worry about from the FBI

In a short Q&A after the open practice, Coach Brey quickly brought up the cloud hanging over the sport. While he mentioned that you can never be 100% sure, Brey’s pretty sure the Irish have nothing to worry about. The NCAA named Father Jenkins to a commission tasked with cleaning up the sport. Brey gave him a crash course in hoops recruiting, and he didn’t love what he heard. Four (Jenkins, Condi Rice, Gene Smith, and David Robinson) of the 14 members of the committee have ties to ND, I think we have little to fear on this front. While it might be too soon to get popcorn and watch the hoops world burn, it’s a good time to be an Irish hoops fan.