#20 Notre Dame by Ricky O'Donnell

Photo: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Brey came to Notre Dame in 2000 during a time when the program was mired in a 10-year NCAA Tournament drought. What he's been able to do since then has been pretty incredible: Notre Dame has finished in the top seven of offensive efficiency five times in the last 10 years, it has won 20+ games in eight of the last nine seasons and has reached the NCAA Tournament five times in the last six years.

Last season ended up being the best year of Notre Dame basketball since Digger Phelps, Bill Laimbeer and Orlando Woolridge led the Irish to the Final Four in 1978. Notre Dame fell one miracle shot short of pulling one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport against an undefeated Kentucky team in the Elite Eight, but proved along the way that Brey's cutting edge offensive system and ability to coax the best out of his players can't be discounted moving forward.

The first thing you're going to notice about Notre Dame in the new season is who's not there. Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton are off to the NBA after earning so much attention during the Irish's NCAA Tournament run, and rightfully so. Grant was one of the best guards in the country as a senior and Connaughton was a vital shooter and tough-as-nails rebounder and defender.

It's impossible to replace players as good as Grant and Connaughton in one year's time, but Notre Dame starts the year in our top 25 because Brey's system deserves the benefit of the doubt to figure it out. Having one of the best guards in America coming back to lead the team doesn't hurt, either.

It's going to be the Demetrius Jackson show this year in South Bend. The point guard thought about transferring as a freshman as he struggled to fit in with Notre Dame's high academic standards, but he persevered to turn himself into a possible NBA lottery pick. Jackson shot 43 percent from three last year and posted an impressive 61.6 percent true shooting percentage. Notre Dame will run through him all season.

The Irish will always face questions defensively, and it's tough to expect them to replicate last season's success without Grant and Connaughton. But there's still a lot of talent here and Brey has proven he knows how to coach them up. Even in a loaded ACC, discount Notre Dame at your own peril.

How the Irish can succeed: Keep the offensive machine pumping

Notre Dame rode a seven-man rotation all the way to the Elite Eight last season, and everyone is back with the exception of Grant and Connaughton. Jackson is going to receive most of the attention, but Brey's system has never been reliant on just one guy.

It takes a village of players with specific skill sets to build one of the most efficient offenses in the country, and Brey is banking on having the right pieces in place again this year. Jackson's co-star will be Zach Auguste, a 6'10 senior big man who made major strides last season.

Auguste was outstanding in the Elite Eight loss to Kentucky, finishing with 20 points and nine rebounds. He's the perfect fit for Brey's four-out system as an athletic big that can finish in space and has enough length to man the middle defensively. He's also terrific on the offensive glass, placing 85th in the country with a 12.5 offensive rebounding percentage.

Steve Vasturia returns for his junior season, where he's set to replace Connaughton as Notre Dame's top wing. He was great in the NCAA Tournament last season, scoring 20 in Notre Dame's round of 32 overtime win against Butler, and following it up with 15 points vs. Wichita State and 16 points vs. UK. He's a tough defender and a knockdown three-point shooter (41 percent on nearly four attempts per game), making him another ideal fit for Brey.

The two new starters are Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beachem. Colson is undersized for a power forward at 6'6, but he's a tough rebounder and defender. The question is whether he can shoot well enough to keep Notre Dame's pristine spacing in order, as he only made one of his seven three-point attempts last year as a freshman. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Brey go to freshman Rex Pflueger for additional shooting when the offense needs a boost.

Beachem is a former top-100 recruit who looks the part: He's a skinny, 6'8 forward with range out to the three-point line. Beachem hit 41.6 percent of his threes last season and could be a major asset if he's added enough strength over the summer to compete on the glass.

How Notre Dame can go home early: Defense, defense, defense

Eight years have passed since the last time Notre Dame posted a top-50 defense, according to KenPom. In fact, the defense has finished outside of the top 100 four times in the last seven years. That's just a fact of life for a program that emphasizes shooting and spacing over size, and it's always something Brey's teams will have to deal with.

Last season's offense-defense trade off was pretty much Notre Dame's ideal scenario: No. 2 in offense and No. 102 in defense. It helped that Grant and Connaughton were both good defenders, so perhaps their departure puts even more stress on the defense than it does the offense.

Either way, Notre Dame will need to find a way to get stops to compete in an ACC that is as stacked as ever. It's not easy to defend against UNC's size and experience, Virginia's meticulous sets or Duke's spread attack. For Notre Dame, it might just come back to an adage as old as the game: If you can't stop 'em, just try to outscore 'em.

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