Key Departures: Juwan Durham (Grad); Nikola Djogo (Grad)
New In Town: Paul Atkinson (<–Yale); Blake Wesley (#117); J.R. Konieczny (#137)
State of the Program:
Longtime head man Mike Brey has had plenty of success at a football school, leading the Irish to 12 NCAA tournaments reaching the Elite 8 twice, but they are currently in a 4 year tournament drought. Brey has long relied on an efficient offensive system that largely ignores the defensive end of the floor. The Irish have only finished top-50 defensively 1 time in Brey’s 21 season’s as HC, and have been outside the top-100 9 times. That style leaves very little margin for error and requires elite offensive abilities to succeed at the highest level, and clearly hasn’t resulted in Final Four trips for Brey. I will steadfastly remain against this style, but Brey is one of the most well respected coaches in the game, and he has been able to hold onto his players and avoid the revolving door that is the transfer portal despite the lack of success a season ago. That puts the Irish in a unique position to be a team with a ton of chemistry and a lot of veteran players who have a chance to continue to get better. They get 4 starters back in Prentiss Hubb (SR), Nate Laszewski (SR), Dane Goodwin (SR) and Trey Wertz (SR), along with role player Cormac Ryan (JR) and Robby Carmody (JR) who is returning from a knee injury. The big loss from last year’s group is big man Durham, but Brey did nab one transfer to help fill that void, putting the Irish in perfect position to breakthrough and get back into the tournament.
One transfer is coming in to take over the starting 5 spot from Yale, the Ivy League POY Paul Atkinson (SR). Atkinson was an absolute stud his last season with Yale, putting up 17/7 as a more traditional big that excels at dominating the paint. He is the perfect replacement for Durham who was essential in the interior for the Irish. I expect Atkinson to have a great season and be a catalyst for the Irish’s ascent up the ACC standings. Two Freshman from South Bend also enter the program, led by G Blake Wesley (#117). Wesley is a lot like the prolific scoring wings that have come through recently including current G Prentiss Hubb, as he’s a good athlete that has solid length and a jump shot that will allow him to be a leading scorer for this team one day. He is good in transition, but needs to add strength to help his game around the rim. He may be called upon this season in a relief role, but with the massive SR group he will have a chance to be the lead man very quickly and this season will be important for his development and for the future of the program. The last newcomer is 6’6” wing J.R. Konieczny (#137) who has one of the best looking strokes in the class. His athleticism and strength need to improve, but his size combined with his quick trigger from deep will surely make him a key contributor down the road and potentially off the bench this season. Defense is not really a focal point of the program but that is his clear weakness, and he may have found the perfect system for him to just be able to fire away from deep and not be deprived of minutes despite his defensive deficiencies.
The Irish do have a real shot at improving on last season and making the tournament with so much returning talent and some really good newcomers, most notably Atkinson inside. If Brey can just get this group to improve even marginally defensively they could catapult up the ACC from where they were a season ago. They finished 2021 at 200th in defensive efficiency and 21st offensively. If they can even just crack the top-100 defensively with a little more effort and intensity then they can become a really tough team to beat with all of these weapons. Hubb, Laszewski, and Goodwin all averaged double figures and they have 5 returners who made >33 3’s and multiple guys who shot 40%+ from deep. Throw in the addition of Atkinson, the 2020 Ivy League POY who can draw attention inside and you have a dynamic offensive group who will be a nightmare to defend. Brey has to know this group is there offensively and just needs some push on defense to really be a dangerous team. I would monitor the Irish early on and see how well they play defensively and how consistently it happens, but if they start to look good I will be beating the drum for the Irish as a dark horse. If not, they will continue to struggle against the top teams in the ACC and lose a couple games they shouldn’t to the bottom feeders in the Conference. I’ll project the Irish to get back to the tournament purely on this elite offense and Brey’s history at getting his best teams to elevate at least somewhat defensively and get just enough stops. Proceed with caution early on but keep an eye on the Irish as a breakout candidate in a very deep ACC.