PITTSBURGH — If this is going to stick, if a new era of Notre Dame basketball has dawned, if the Irish program is going to follow its winningest season in modern history with something close to the same next year and beyond, the core of the future will have to come through.
That means big man Zach Auguste, who, from the beginning of his junior season, clearly was a much-improved player yet had several quiet afternoons and evenings during the course of the Atlantic Coast Conference action.
It means little big man Bonzie Colson, a 6-5 heavyweight wrestler in the paint who demonstrated down the stretch of his freshman campaign how capable he is of playing far above and beyond his size.
It certainly means shooter and perimeter defender Steve Vasturia and, even more so, fellow junior-to-be Demetrius Jackson, the former McDonald’s All-American who could ascend to Jerian Grant-type status as one of the conference’s most complete players at the guard position.
Playing alongside Grant in the Irish backcourt has been one of the truly formative experiences of Jackson’s basketball life. Jackson has learned from Grant’s timing, decision-making and feel for the nuances of the game. Meanwhile, the alpha dog in Jackson has come out and been given room to begin flourishing.
“I think Demetrius has kept Jerian’s edge up,” said coach Mike Brey prior to Saturday’s game, “because he is not afraid to confront him and get after him if he’s hanging his head on a missed shot or a mistake.”
The next step for Jackson will be to broaden his leadership as Grant and fellow senior Pat Connaughton did after a disappointing 2013-14 season. Grant and Connaughton — “best friends,” the latter player put it — worked in tandem in that department. Jackson intends to do the same with Auguste.
“Me and him have clicked since Day 1, so we kind of push each other,” he said. “Me and him will get on each other, and that’s what helps us elevate our game.”
Auguste hasn’t always responded well to ineffective games, missed shots, bad moments and the like. Connaughton experiences similar ups and downs earlier in his career and helped guide Auguste into a more consistent approach. For example: Busting up his hand by punching the basket support during a practice his sophomore season was not the greatest idea.
“That was kind of Zach back in his younger days,” Brey said. “He has controlled that better. He’s been able to recover from mistakes better. We’ve worked with him long and hard on that.”
And if Colson can find his way to more consistent success, who wouldn’t benefit? If there’s an Irish player built to inspire, it’s the guy who took on the likes of monstrous Duke center Jahlil Okafor — half a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier — with relish.
“I just want to battle as hard as I can,” Colson said. “It’s hard to do as well as we’ve done this season. We can’t take what we have for granted.”