The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are off to a red hot 16-2 start, including winning 4 of their first 5 in the ACC.
They are 12th in the Country in scoring at 82 points a clip, and have no shortage of firepower on the perimeter.
But their lone inside threat is a question mark at the time of this article for academic issues.
To learn more about the Irish' early season success, the precarious situation of their big man, and the outlook of this game as a whole, we enlisted Joe Schuller of SB Nation's Notre Dame site, One Foot Down.
His very thorough responses below:
SOTU: Let me start with the most important question of this segment. Will Notre Dame's only consistent inside threat, Zach Auguste, play against the 'Canes on Saturday?
OFD: I'm writing these Thursday morning, and Mike Brey canceled his Thursday AM press conference because of their late arrival home from Atlanta, so I'm writing this before he's addressed the media. In last night's post game comments, Brey characterized it as an "academic matter" that he wouldn't expand on. There's precedence with Brey leaving Demetrius Jackson off of a single trip last year to catch the freshman's attention, so it could be quick. However, Brey has indicated that Auguste's situation is "out of his hands" which sounds a lot more like the nightmare that plagued 5 football players over their season. The wheels of justice can turn a little slowly in South Bend, so we're all playing the waiting game. Right now, it feels like a coin flip if we'll have him by Saturday.
: If he is unable to go, how do the Fighting Irish make up for his lost production?
OFD:We had a pretty good conversation on that topic on OneFootDown (http://www.onefootdown.com/2015/1/14/7545191/report-zach-auguste-suspended). Auguste was playing about 60% of the team's overall minutes, and Brey has filled that time with 3-4 guys off the Irish roster. Brey has a knack for finding the right guy at the right time. Against MSU earlier this year, it was Austin Torres who filled in when Auguste was struggling and provided some great defensive presence. Last night vs. GT, it was freshman Bonzie Colson who chipped in 10 points while battling low against a very physical Yellow Jacket front line. Freshman Martinas Geben got the start in Auguste's place last night. He is a wide body with some experience playing with the Lithuanian national team, but looked a little slow footed in only 6 minutes of action. Surprisingly, 6'9" junior, Austin Burgett didn't even see the floor in Atlanta. He's a guy with good bounce and energy, but has struggled against physical interior players. None of these guys are even close to the scoring threat Auguste presented, but Colson is the closest. Brey's not going to ask these guys to put up huge numbers. Just defend in the post, work on the glass, and set good screens.
SOTU: I love Pat Connaughton's game. A 6'5 player who can get double doubles is not the most common occurrence. Can you describe his game on the hardwood? Also how good of a pitcher is he on the diamond?
OFD: Connaughton surprises a lot of people with his athleticism. The lazy narrative on Pat is that he's just a bomber from the three point line, and he has a great stroke (45% from 3 on the year). However, Pat sliced UNC apart off the dribble and has an excellent drive to the basket. If you question what he can do off the bounce and around the rim, watch this highlight from our home victory over Duke last season (link here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44yZu2P52qA). He's also been one of Brey's best inside/outside defenders in his time in the program and our only reliable defensive rebounder this season. He's started 100 straight games for Notre Dame and is their sole captain this season. That says a lot about the guy.
: Tell us about Jerian Grant
. Notre Dame really missed his presence last year. Is he an NBA prospect? How key is he to the Irish' great start to the season?
OFD: One of my fellow basketball writers on OFD likes to refer to Jerian Grant as a basketball mad genius. With his basketball pedigree - Dad: Harvey, Uncle: Horace, both brothers played big time D1 ball with Jerami now with the Sixers - he is a tremendous student of the game and is always looking to make a play. He also has incredible athleticism (evidence here: https://vine.co/v/Od5rX7TWDxg). He is, by far, the most promising NBA prospect to come out of Notre Dame in a long time. He's on the Wooden Award watch list and will almost certainly hear his name called in the NBA draft in spring.
The big question is where will he fall, and most of that depends on Jerian himself. He has a very good jumper and has been effective from distance in his career (35% from 3). Unfortunately, he's gone ice cold as we've entered ACC play. He's clearly a marked man and has shot 8-28 from the floor in ND's last 3 contests. We need Jerian's scoring to come around if the Irish are going to challenge for the top of the league and a deep run into March. To his credit, Grant has not let his shooting slump affect any other parts of his game. He's still the unquestioned floor leader and in those same 3 games, he doled out 20 assists. In particular against GT, Grant's perimeter defense helped set the tone and lift the team out of a double-digit deficit to win a conference game on the road.
If Grant returns to scoring 20'ish per game and still can keep his assist rate up, he'll come in as one of the nation's most efficient offensive players, playing big minutes, on a top team in the top conference. Execs and coaches at the next level will love his ability to turn the corner and make great decisions on the pick-and-roll. They'll value his defensive effort and likely pick him in the middle or later half of the first round. If the shooting slump drags on and he has many more 5 turnover games, he could easily see himself slipping in to the 2nd round. Either way, I think the NBA team that does pick him up is in for a very pleasant surprise. He's a way above average passer and a great teammate. Given unlimited time to work on his game, and his family understanding of NBA life, he'll be a tremendous pro.
: Who are the unsung players who have helped the Irish be so successful this year?
Sophomore Demetrius Jackson
has made the leap every Irish fan hoped he would this year. As a high school All-American
, Jackson was a very heralded recruit, but struggled to find his footing in his first year for the Irish. A combination of a poorly defined role and team struggles left him in a challenging spot last season. Mike Brey says the team's summer trip to Italy was critical in helping Jackson define his role and get more comfortable this year. While Grant has the ball in his hands often, DJ fits the mold of a college PG to a tee. He's Notre Dame's quickest on-ball defender and is very good at pressuring the ball and jumping passing lanes. He's also able to turn that disruption into instant offense for Notre Dame. Offensively, he takes great care of the ball, and has hit 44% of his 3's this season. Like Grant, he makes great decisions on the pick-and-roll, and has had some great finishes at the rim this year (link here: https://vine.co/v/OXjVuFJg1zb
: How many and which teams from the ACC do you see making the NCAA Tournament
OFD: In our pre-season predictions (link here: http://www.onefootdown.com/2014/12/12/7374729/ofd-staff-acc-hoops-preview), the OFD staff had Duke, Louisville, Virginia, UNC, ND and Miami as locks. Most of us also saw Syracuse and NCState as likely to gather bids. The evidence so far seems to support that theory with all of those teams in Ken Pomeroy's top 50. I'm curious to see if Duke and Louisville's losses actually hurt the overall case for the conference. Would you prefer to see a very dominant top end of the league, or is the overall league served better by a "meat grinder" perception? The top 8 are clearly going to beat up on one another. I hope that means that all 8 are rewarded by the selection committee.
SOTU: Which players/match-ups on Miami concern you the most?
OFD:It has to be Tonye Jekiri up front. Every Notre Dame fan is confident in our back court with Grant and Jackson. Without our best big, I worry what sort of defense we can put in front of the seven-footer to slow him down. Anybody shooting over 50% from the floor is dangerous, and I worry about him killing the Irish with offensive put-backs. He put up a double-double vs. Jahlil Okafor, and we can't provide that kind of resistance.
SOTU: Last but not least, who wins this contest and why?
OFD: It is very tempting to hedge this and say it depends on the Auguste situation, but I won't. When I look at a few of Miami's losses on the year, they've come at the hands of very efficient offensive teams. Offensive efficiency is Notre Dame's calling card. I don't think Miami can turn Notre Dame over 15 times like they did vs. Duke. That being said, momentum is a powerful thing and Miami is going to come in to South Bend full of confidence. I think whether or not Auguste plays, this is going to be a 1-2 possession game that will come down to the very end. If that's the case, I think Jerian Grant is the best player on the floor, and he makes the difference as he shakes off his shooting woes at home with a breakout performance. I think ND wins 82-80.
Thanks again to Joe for working with us.
Be sure to check out the game, tomorrow 1/17 at 2PM EST on ESPN2.