Notre Dame was able to survive its first test without suspended big man Zach Auguste, topping Georgia Tech on Wednesday. But how will the Fighting Irish adjust going forward?
In December 2013, Jerian Grant announced in a statement that he was no longer enrolled at Notre Dame due to an academic matter. The Irish were picked to finish fifth in the ACC preseason media poll, but without Grant, they stumbled to a 6-12 finish in conference play and missed the NCAA Tournament.
Grant, the team’s star point guard, returned this season and led Notre Dame to a 15-2 record entering Wednesday’s game at unranked Georgia Tech. Unfortunately for the Irish, starting center Zach Auguste missed the game because of an academic matter, and there is no timetable for his return to the lineup.
After the Irish held on to beat the Yellow Jackets 62-59 on Wednesday night, Mike Brey addressed Auguste’s situation. The Notre Dame coach said Auguste is still practicing with the team but that a decision on when Auguste can return is out of Brey’s control, according to Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune.
Reports say that Auguste is not suspended, remains enrolled at the school and did not commit an honor code violation. Though an Indiana TV station reported late Tuesday that Auguste would be suspended for the rest of the season, Brey said he is hopeful the 6-foot-10, 240-pound junior will be back.
There’s no question Notre Dame will be better off if/when Auguste rejoins the team, but against Georgia Tech the Irish played their first of an undetermined number of games without him. How did Notre Dame account for the absence of its second-leading scorer and rebounder in the frontcourt?
Freshman Martinas Geben took Auguste’s place in the starting lineup, but he logged just six minutes. Fellow freshman Bonzie Colson and sophomore Austin Torres played 22 and 11 minutes, respectively, with Colson scoring 10 points and grabbing four rebounds and Torres recording zero points and taking just one shot.
All told, the Irish scored 24 points in the paint compared to 28 for the Yellow Jackets. “We just went out there, played for (Auguste) and played our hearts out," Colson said afterward.
Not having Auguste on Wednesday hurt, but Notre Dame acquitted itself well in a tricky road game. That was thanks in large part to Grant, who scored a team-high 12 points and dished out six assists, and backcourt mate Demetrius Jackson, who scored nine points and grabbed eight rebounds to go with five assists.
But with more challenging games on tap over the next two months -- against teams featuring more imposing frontcourt players, such as Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell -- one should be skeptical about the Irish’s chances without their top big man.
It’s encouraging that Notre Dame won despite getting beaten on the glass by a team that ranks in the nation’s top 10 in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, but other squads could do a better job exploiting the Irish's deficiency on the boards. (Notre Dame is 231st and 128th in those categories, respectively.)
In addition, Notre Dame’s offense could slip now that it lacks a viable low block scoring threat. The Irish lead the nation in two-point shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage and Kenpom's adjusted offensive efficiency, and Auguste contributed to those team numbers with his scoring (14.3 points per game), rebounding (6.4 per game) and foul-drawing ability (5.7/40 minutes).
The hope for the Irish is that Grant, Jackson, Pat Connaughton and the rest of their perimeter corps can keep them afloat during Auguste's absence. Notre Dame has already beaten then-No. 18 North Carolina on the road and Georgia Tech twice, and its only conference loss has come against national title contender Virginia.
It will be interesting to see how the Irish move forward, though there’s reason for some optimism. With arguably the nation’s top offense and a strong backcourt, Notre Dame appears better equipped to handle the academics-related absence of one of its top players than it was last season.