The disappointment will wear off. I suspect everyone will realize this was a pretty good season. This year's team was probably just as good as last year's team. It's just that the tournament match-ups broke a little differently and this year's team did not have the same luck as last year's team. Whoever in the Round of 32 played WVU yesterday was going to lose. They played that well. I doubt WVU will be able to replicate that result against Gonzaga, so this loss might end up looking worse than it really was. I would hate for history to judge this year's team more harshly than last year's team. They were much closer in ability than tournament results would otherwise suggest.
If you look back at the conventional wisdom at the start of the year, no one would have predicted how this season turned out. Vasturia was a known quantity and probably performed as expected. Beachem was sort of a known quantity, but his ceiling turned out to be lower than what last year's tournament performance might have suggested. Colson was a known quantity, but it turns out his ceiling was much higher than most expected. Colson ended the season as a true college-level superstar. He and Beachem probably evened each other out in terms of expectations versus results. Farrell pretty much came out of nowhere. If we had known what he would have become, I think we all would have had expectations that came closer to matching the ultimate results.
What about next year? Four of the five starters for game one next year will be Colson, Pflueger, Gibbs and Farrell. I honestly think those are carved in stone. Those are the four guys who pretty clearly fell within the circle of trust. The fifth starter depends on a number of things.
One of those things is that Ryan needs to understand that his competition for playing time is Geben, Burns and Mooney, not Gibbs, Djogo and Harvey. Ryan needs to be able to defend the interior reasonably well and rebound reasonably well. If so, he will get plenty of minutes and we will be much better for it. At the end of the year, Ryan looked more like what he needs to become, so there is hope in that regard.
Here is why I think we can be better next year. For one, we will have all world-level Bonzie Colson for the whole year. He was good last year and earlier this year, but he really improved as the year went on and he is now one of the ten best players in college. That can take a team a long way.
Second, I agree that playing two PGs will help Farrell. He is probably our best three point shooter, especially in a catch and shoot situation. It is important to help him get good looks next year, because opponents are really going to focus on him. I figure they will realize they can't stop Colson, but they can survive Colson if they can control Farrell. It will be more difficult for him to get to the rim. It will be easier to get him looks from the arc and he will always be able to get a mid-range shot.
Third (and admittedly this is an intangible one), our two leaders next year are badasses. They play with a serious edge. Frankly, there is a greater risk they will burn the team out emotionally (like Hansbrough supposedly did) than that we will ever come out flat for a game. Vasturia and Beachem are great kids, very good basketball players and I suspect strong team leaders, but Colson and Farrell burn a little hotter (probably a lot hotter). Gibbs and Pflueger also have a fire and I think Colson and Farrell will stoke that.
Fourth, next year our depth really will come into play. By that, I don't mean we will play a 10 man rotation with minutes spread evenly. We will still play 7-8 guys 95% of the minutes. However, our depth will allow Brey to award playing time based on production. Someone asked how we replace VJ and Vasturia. The answer is "I don't know, but there are at least six realistic possibilities."
No one who hasn't watched practice has any real basis to conclude that Burns is going to be any good. We just haven't seen him play enough to judge one way or the other. Mooney showed a couple of flashes, but again he got so few minutes that you can't say for sure (I really wish we had redshirted him and I'll bet Brey does, too). In brief appearances, Djogo looked like a real athlete with energy to burn, but who knows how strong his basketball skills are. Harvey is very highly rated and comes from an elite program that makes it likely he can contribute right away, but he will be a freshman. Will he be a special freshman? Who knows. Ryan has proven he can shoot lights out. Can he defend and rebound? What can Geben do to improve?
The good news is we don't need all six of those guys to take a huge step forward, so we have lots of "room for error." If one or two of those guys can contribute meaningfully, we will really be in business. That is perhaps the biggest reason for optimism.
Admittedly, I have no idea where the offense will come from next year. Gibbs and Pflueger are far better on the defensive end than the offensive end. Having said that, I am pretty convinced that Brey could take just about any five guys and turn them into the 75th most efficient offense, so that will probably work itself out. Our defensive efficiency has been trending in the right direction and our improved athleticism should only enhance that.
Over the last three years there has been a natural progression. In 2014-2015, our two best players (Grant and Connaughton) left and we thought the world would end. In 2015-2016, our third and fourth best players from the previous year (Jackson and Auguste) became our two best players and then left and again we thought the world was coming to an end. This year, the third and fourth best players from the prior year (Vasturia and Beachem) become (at least for the beginning of the year) our two best players and then left. We should have learned by now that the world doesn't come to an end. Our third and fourth best players at the beginning of this year (one of whom became our best player during the year and the other of whom became at least our third best player) will be our two best players next year. And the cycle goes one. We'll be fine.
This may seem strange, but I think the entire key to next year is John Mooney (at least what I think John Mooney can be). It is no secret we really need a big for rebounding and post defense purposes. Colson needs help on that end of the floor. However, given Colson's unique offensive skill set, I think what we really need is a true stretch four who can spread the defense. Geben's presence doesn't allow Colson to maximize his ability on offense. If you keep Geben down low, it clogs things up. If you move him to the perimeter, it makes it easier for the opponent to double team Colson in the post. Ryan could serve the stretch four role on offense, but does he have the size and strength to handle the post defense and rebounding roles? For all I know, Mooney doesn't have those abilities or won't be ready. I don't mean to put pressure on Mooney, and perhaps it would be fairer to say that the key to next year is finding a legit stretch four. Having one of those would really raise our ceiling.
The bottom line for next year is anyone who slots us below fourth place in the ACC does so at their own peril. We may not finish that high, but the smart money wouldn't bet against it.
About recruiting. It was suggested below that we need better, more athletic players. And that we need big men. No shit.
As Kayo has consistently noted, the biggest recent failure of Brey's recruiting is bigs. Just look at the gap in time between Auguste and what I hope Mooney becomes. If we had recruited someone better than Geben, it would have made a huge difference both this year and next (giving Mooney time to develop), but sometimes the plan doesn't work perfectly.
Having said that, the strategy of recruiting 3 and 4 stars is the right one (preferably more 4's than 3's, but a lot of our 3 star guys have developed nicely, thank you very much). People have short memories, but Brey recruited three McDonald's AAs (5 star guys) during his first few years-- Thomas, Francis and Zeller. How did that work out? I'm not so sure that 5 star guys who are not one and done's are any better bets than well scouted 3 and 4 stars who fit your system.
I think Brey now knows exactly what he is looking for. He and the staff appear to have an eye for talent and there is no question Brey can develop talent. I agree that 2018 is a key year for recruiting and I'd love to have a 6'10" athletic big man, but they don't grow on trees and everyone else wants them, too. I'll live with a bunch of highly rated wings and point guards, with three star development-type bigs. That will work. We just can't miss on the bigs like I think we did with Geben. In that regard, Mooney's and Burns' development may be the most important factor in our future success.
In summary, we are going the right direction. Not every top recruit is going to buy into our program. The ones who want immediate playing time will likely end up somewhere else. I'd rather settle for a lesser rated recruit than change a system that pretty clearly is working.
I hope people don't take this the wrong way, but we have become an "elite mid-major program" playing in a major conference. Our raw talent level isn't even in the top half of major conference talent. Academic requirements, lack of support from the administration and the absence of a rabid fan base really, really hamstring recruiting. No matter how good Mike Brey is, that's a reality we have to deal with. In 17 years, we have never, not once, beaten Duke for a recruit. As long as K is there, that will continue to be true. Similarly, when you see a kid list ND and then any combination of schools like Arizona, Michigan State or Kentucky, you can cross them of the list because it is really unlikely the kid is willing to deal with the academic rigors of ND. We are Butler. We are Gonzaga. But so what. So are Villanova and Virginia. It can work. We can eventually reach the Final Four. We just need to keep chopping wood.
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