These are the best of times for Notre Dame basketball. After missing the 2014 NCAA tournament entirely, the Fighting Irish have been seeded in between No. 3 and No. 6 in each of the past three brackets.
True, last season ended abruptly with a loss to West Virginia in the round of 32. Still, this three-year run has included two trips to the Elite Eight. Not bad for a program once routinely dismissed as lacking what it takes in the postseason.
Now, with Bonzie Colson's announcement that he'll return to South Bend for his senior season, Mike Brey would seem to have all the pieces in place for another shot at the ACC title and a deep run in the tournament. In fact, this might all feel quite familiar to Brey.
One year ago, the Notre Dame head coach was looking at having to replace two mainstays. Zach Auguste had graduated, Demetrius Jackson had left to pursue opportunities in the professional ranks and the Irish plugged in Matt Farrell and bettered their previous ACC result by one win.
That should be good preparation for what ND is confronting now. Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem have graduated, and together the seniors accounted for almost 2,500 minutes of playing time in 2016-17. Replacing that mountain of production will be no small task, but at this point Brey has surely earned our trust where grooming the next generation is concerned.
Over the past three seasons, eight players have averaged at least 28 minutes per game in a season at Notre Dame. Per kenpom.com, those eight players posted an average offensive rating of 116.3. Moreover, with all due respect to the likes of Jackson and Jerian Grant, the Irish have achieved those high-efficiency results consistently with players who did not necessarily go on to dominate subsequent draft lotteries. There is a system in place in South Bend.
That's good news for Colson, Farrell, Rex Pflueger and Martinas Geben, all of whom will be back to benefit from and enhance said system in 2017-18. At 6-foot-5, Colson has the long wingspan, proven rebounding chops and ability to hit 3s that give his coach the flexibility to put any number of looks on the floor.
Which lineup option Notre Dame pursues will depend in part on the readiness of fifth-year senior Austin Torres, the development of sophomores-to-be like T.J. Gibbs, Nikola Djogo and John Mooney and the ability of incoming freshman D.J. Harvey Jr. Whichever combination of all of the above proves to be optimal, it's likely Brey has sufficient talent and experience on hand for a fourth consecutive middle to high NCAA tournament seed.
Just how high that seed is will likely be determined by the supporting cast around Colson. Last season, for instance, the Irish were unusually deficient in the shot-making department, particularly inside the arc. Can non-Colson contributors like Farrell and Gibbs finish at the rim in 2017-18? Can Geben and/or Torres grab some offensive boards? Will the team be able to repeat last season's surprisingly good showing on defense?
It's a safe bet Notre Dame will once again excel at taking care of the ball next season. If Brey can find some production from Farrell and the rest of the roster beyond Colson, the Irish will have an excellent chance to meet or even exceed the expectations set by ND's last three teams. When and if that does come to pass, give equal shares of the credit to what Brey has built in South Bend and to Colson's decision to return for one more season. The coach and his star are both, in their own ways, indispensable.