Monardo: Season has quickly gotten away from Notre Dame (Jan. 28)
Joseph Monardo | Monday, January 27, 2014
At about 9 p.m. on Dec. 21, things were looking pretty good for the Irish. By 9:30 on the same night, however, the outlook was decidedly less rosy. After blowing an eight-point lead in the final minute against then-No. 3 Ohio State in Madison Square Garden, things have only continued to get worse for the Irish.
One day after the defeat at the hands of the Buckeyes, the team announced the suspension of senior guard Jerian Grant due to an “academic matter.” Soon thereafter, news broke that sophomore forward Cam Biedscheid intended to transfer.
Notre Dame held things together for an overtime win over Canisius the following week at Purcell Pavilion and even pulled off a home upset of then-No. 7 Duke in its inaugural ACC contest to begin the new year.
But the wheels fell off after that.
The Irish have lost five of their last six outings, none by more than eight points and most being decided in the final minute. The Irish had six wins within reach and came away with only one of them.
That is an especially shocking figure for a team with a core of experienced leaders as strong as Notre Dame’s. Senior center Garrick Sherman, senior guard Eric Atkins and junior forward Pat Connaughton form about as steady a backbone as any coach could hope for.
And while the team’s successes and failures understandably lie most immediately on those three players, it is hard to point to areas in which they have been deficient. Sherman is putting up 15.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Atkins is scoring 14.2 and dishing out 5.0 assists per game, and Connaughton is doing it all with averages of 13.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists. And they have all performed even better in conference play.
But a large part of those increases is due to the departure of Grant. Notre Dame’s veterans have stepped up their play, but it clearly has not been enough to fill the void. The team’s scoring average is a paltry 69.4 in ACC games, well below the overall average of 76.3 points per game.
Grant’s suspension has not been the only impediment to Notre Dame’s success this season. Injuries have chased graduate student forward Tom Knight and sophomore forwards Zach Auguste and Austin Burgett at various times.
Freshmen have found themselves logging huge minutes against tough matchups and in crunch time. What Irish coach Mike Brey had referred to before the season as one of his deepest squads in memory has often had nowhere to turn. Notre Dame has not been able to figure out a consistent starting five due to injuries and underwhelming performances.
And yet Brey persists in touting the merits of his team. For every close loss he endures, Brey delivers at least one rendition of “I love my team” in the postgame press conference. And that is not to say he is wrong, or that he should not express the sentiment.
The truth is, despite their 11th-place standing in the conference rankings the Irish still have a few bright spots. Sherman, Atkins and Connaughton all rank in the top 17 of the ACC in scoring. Sherman is second in rebounding in the conference and leads the league in field-goal percentage, Connaughton is sixth in rebounding and Atkins has the third-most assists of anyone in the ACC.
For a number of reasons, Notre Dame is about as far away from the team it was five weeks ago, the team poised to improve to 9-3 with a marquee win over Ohio State. Just like in each of Notre Dame’s most recent five losses, if things had gone slightly different the team could be looking at different results. There is still plenty of season left to play, but for the Irish every loss from here on out is another step away from the promising team they were and another step closer to the bottom of their new conference.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.