Mike Brey’s Irish basketball squad finished up their exhibition season with two easy wins over Bethel and Cardinal Stritch. On Friday night, despite help from new assistant coach LaPhonso Ellis, the Irish beat crosstown Bethel 88-59. They followed it up with a 90-46 blowout of Cardinal Stritch on Tuesday. These two wins were in addition to the hurricane relief (#BeatCanes) victory over Holy Cross. While neither game was competitive, there’s some interesting takeaways leading into the regular season.
As expected, Matt Farrell, TJ Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, Bonzie Colson, and Martinas Geben started both games for the Irish. Questions lingered through the offseason, however, regarding the rest of the rotation. In both games, redshirt sophomore Elijah Burns was the first man up off the bench. He entered for Geben around the under 16:00 timeout in each game. Mooney was the second big off the bench usually entering around the under 12:00 TO.
For the guards, freshman DJ Harvey was the first guy up, usually entering shortly after Burns. Lastly, Nikola Djogo played a few minutes in non-garbage time situations, but looks to be a tier below the rest of the bench guys. Austin Torres seems slated to play a similar role to last year. He wore street clothes during the Bethel game, but did play limited minutes against Cardinal Stritch. Regardless of his health, Torres will likely only play single digit minutes each game. In my opinion, Burns and Harvey separated themselves a bit from the rest of the pack. If Brey tightens up the rotation, I’d expect Mooney and Djogo to be on teh outside looking in.
Strong Play in the Post
While Coach Brey’s “culture of passing” is more easily seen among the guards, Bonzie, Burns, and Geben all picked up nice assists during the two contests. Bonzie’s passing chops were on display last season, but Geben and Burns’ ball movement were surprise revelations. Burns in particular made two highlight worthy dishes in the Cardinal Stritch game (one made the highlight reel below). Bonzie looks to be his old self. Any concern of him going “senior year Harangody” should be disregarded. He was his normal, Junkyard-Bonz self in each game.
We heard all summer and fall about Geben’s improvements, and based on exhibitions, it’s not just hot air. Geben notched double-doubles in two of the three games, and missed just two field goals on 18 attempts. While finishing at the rim will get tougher against DI competition, his ability to pass out of the post could be a weapon against stouter front lines. Marty also finished well in the PnR including a nice alley-oop from Farrell that definitely wasn’t part of his game last year.
Burns’s play really stood out, especially considering he was a bit below the radar coming into the year. While he was a little hesitant finishing around the hoop at times, his defense and rebounding were excellent. He also had a few nice put-backs and offensive boards to extend possessions. He looks to be a clear step ahead of Mooney, and will get first crack at the sixth-man role.
Four ACC-Ready Guards
While Matt Farrell was pretty much a known quantity, there were some question marks regarding the rest of the guards. Rex Pflueger and TJ Gibbs were both solid contributors last year, but they will both need to take a heavier offensive load. Both looked comfortable doing so in exhibition play. Gibbs played as a second ball handler frequently with Farrell, and ran the point when the senior went to the bench. He also occasionally, ran the show with Farrell playing off the ball when they shared the court. His outside shot was one of the few that was falling during the three exhibitions as well. Lastly, his finishing at the rim was fantastic, perhaps due to his new, slimmed down physique. He didn’t “wow” me with any passes, but picked up a few assists in each game. Lastly, his defense, especially on the ball, remains as good as ever.
Pflueger looks much improved at taking the ball to the rack. While he’s still a threat to shoot the three, he’s actually attacking closeouts and getting to the rim. We always heard about Rex dunking in practice, but rarely saw it in games. He had a nice alley-oop slam against Cardinal Stritch which will hopefully be a sign of things to come. Like Gibbs, his defense remains as intense as ever.
Freshman DJ Harvey looks like he’s ready to contribute right away. Harvey possesses an excellent mid-range pull-up game (see the Bethel highlights) that, while a bit anachronistic in today’s game, can be a great release valve late in the shot clock. His stroke on catch-and-shoot threes looks good, and had a couple nice finishes at the rim. Harvey made a few mistakes on defense, but for the most part played well on that end as well. Lastly, he’s not afraid to mix it up on the glass on the defensive end. Harvey’s size unlocks some really big lineups for the Irish. If Farrell is resting, a back-court of Gibbs, Harvey, and Pflueger can give opposing guards fits. Nikola Djogo looks to be a step behind Harvey, but may get a look in some of the low-major non-conference games. That said, I’d be surprised if he’s a contributor in ACC play.
Outside Shooting Concerns
If there’s any negatives to take away from the exhibition season, it’s the shooting. The Irish generated tons of open looks from three, but only shot 22% from deep (14/64). They were particularly bad against Bethel shooting just 10% (2/20). The silver lining is that most of the misses were good looks in the flow of the offense that just rimmed out instead of forced, contested bricks. That said, outside shooting was a question mark coming into the season after the departures of Steve Vasturia and VJ Beachem. I don’t think the shooting is a cause for concern yet, but it might be something to keep an eye on early in the season.
My other concern watching the team was some laziness on defense in transition. While they generally played fantastic defense in the half court, they lost shooters a few too many times on the break. Other times, bigs were slow to get back to contest shots at the rim. A lot of this happened while leading by 20+ against overmatched opponents. That said, it’s something that needs to be cleaned up against better opponents.
Onto the Regular Season
The Irish kickoff the the regular season on Saturday at DePaul. The Blue Demons rank 119th in KenPom’s initial rankings (ND is 22nd). The game will be the opening of the Demons’ new Wintrust Arena in downtown Chicago. Although it’s a road game, there should be a number of Irish fans in attendance. If you’ve been focused (understandably) on the success of the football team, check out our 18Stripes round tables to get ready for the season. Part 1 focuses on the FBI investigations and recruiting; part two covers the current Irish roster. Part three will be a season preview, and should drop on Saturday.