Nov. 2, 2014
When the University of Notre Dame men's basketball gathered in July to start practicing for its trip to Italy and four exhibition games, Irish coach Mike Brey handed Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson white jerseys, which are only worn by starters.
"When you tell them before you go to Italy and have those practices, 'You guys are starting, you're my guys, and you don't mess around with the lineup in Italy' ... my goal was to make them feel really confident and be like veteran guys, almost," Brey said. "I didn't think there was any time in the summer to put them in a blue shirt (the jersey for reserves), much. Make them feel ... you're our main guys. That's how I've talked to them, that's how we've practiced them in the fall. I think we've seeing some rewards of that, of the light bulb going on with guys."
Brey's investment in faith paid big dividends Saturday at Purcell Pavilion in the first of two exhibition games before the 2014-2015 season officially tips off.
Jackson, a 6-foot-1 sophomore who played at Mishawaka (Indiana) Marian High School, scored 20 points in an 88-71 victory against Minnesota-Duluth. The dynamic point guard was six of 10 shooting, including two of three from three-point range. He was also six of seven shooting free throws. Jackson hustled for four rebounds and three steals. He dished out two assists, but had three first-half turnovers.
Auguste, a 6-10 junior from Marlborough, Massachusetts, scored 19 points and soared for eight rebounds, five of them at the offensive end, a critical area for Irish success this season. Auguste was eight of 10 from the field, but was three of nine on free-throw shooting. He also had one assist and two steals.
Last season, Jackson averaged 6.0 points and 1.8 assists a game. Auguste averaged 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds.
Brey's ability to develop Jackson and Auguste as a powerful one-two punch to go along with Jerian Grant, Steve Vasturia and Pat Connaughton would give the Irish plenty of firepower to take on the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference.
"If you look at the potential Demetrius and Zach have, both on offense and defense, you realize they are keys for us," Connaughton said. "If they play up to their potential, they both could be two of the top players in the ACC.
"Look at Demetrius, the way he's able to run the point guard position, the way he's able to pass, the way he's able to score, and the way he's able to defend. He's a nightmare on the defensive end if you're being guarded by him. And Zach, there's not many big guys in the country who can move like him. He's able to run the floor, he's able to jump, he's able to do things that you don't expect a big guy to do, because he has that kind of athleticism."
Brey's vision for Irish success includes a blueprint with Jackson and Auguste as key components in the foundation.
"The two guys we needed to get confident in Italy were Zach and Demetrius," Brey said. "If you watched (in the game against Minnesota-Duluth), they're feeling they belong with those other three (starters), who are really established guys."
Auguste thrilled Irish fans with a thunderous dunk over a Minnesota-Duluth defender. Opponents will be more concerned that Auguste's shooting included an extended range that features a jumper from 15 to 18 feet.
"It's a testament to all of the hard work I've put in," Auguste said. "I was a little bit upset that I didn't get the double-double. We did struggle at times to get the extra rebounds, and I think I could have gotten them. I want that responsibility. I'm looking forward to doing that more.
"My brothers on the team push me, and they challenge me every day in practice, and that's really helpful. I spent a lot of time in the gym, getting extra reps. I've been focused and determined. It's ingrained into my head that I have to rebound. Points will come. My main focus is playing defense and rebounding. That's the way I can help the team, and I'm all about the team."
Brey said Auguste is capable of turning in double-double production every game.
"Zach should be a double-double guy," Brey said. "He's going to get the minutes and the opportunity to do it. We need him to be. That's what I talked to him about in Italy. Can you do it? With his ability and his talent, the guys he's playing with, and the duration he's going to be on the floor, he should do that for us. I think it's realistic for him to do that."
Brey wants Jackson and Auguste to slow down and not force action. He has been especially impressed with Jackson's command of the Irish system.
"He's our quarterback," Brey said. "I think, for Demetrius, he couldn't wait to get the ball in his hands. He has a great feel for our system and our sets. I didn't know he had that good of feel, because I never had him at the throttle last year. We start practicing for Italy. He goes, `Coach, what about we look at five and we post Pat." Like, wow. Eric (Atkins) did all that last year. So Demetrius has got a great feel for our stuff, he talks in our huddles. His whole thing was, we have to get off to better starts."
Jackson also displayed the skills to make life miserable for opposing point guards trying to bring the ball down the court. Brey loves the sacrifice Jackson makes to help the Irish.
"When you pressure the ball like he does, that's an unbelievably unselfish act," Brey said. "It wears you out. So I'm trying to figure out how to sub for him to get him a rest, because he's got a heck of a workout the way he pressures the ball. He helps the rest of our defense. Teams have to start their offense out farther because of him. It was neat to know, he got creative. He's driving, he's playing, he's attacking, he's going for it."
Jackson wasn't pleased with his three turnovers in the first half, but he didn't commit any in the second half.
"I just want to continue to work on my ball-handling and continue to work on my decision-making, so I can cut those turnovers down and bring my assists up," Jackson said.
For Brey, the best sign from Jackson and Auguste was that they didn't look at the bench for direction or after they made a mistake. It's that sign of confidence that will be a huge asset as the Irish work to make the 2014-2015 campaign one to remember.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent