Brey welcomes seniors back
Brian Hartnett | Thursday, September 4, 2014
Last season, Notre Dame posted its first losing record since 1999, finished tied for 11th in its new conference and lost its leading scorer to an academic matter.
But none of that mattered at the team’s media day Thursday at the Purcell Pavilion. Irish head coach Mike Brey and a host of Notre Dame players optimistically addressed reporters on a variety of topics, including the returns of the team’s two seniors, the replacement of three-time captain Eric Atkins and the team’s summer trip to Italy.The Return(s)
Notre Dame’s roster only includes two seniors, guard/forward Pat Connaughton and guard Jerian Grant. But the two veterans both had tough decisions to make before returning to Notre Dame for the upcoming season.
The Baltimore Orioles drafted Connaughton, a former pitcher on the Irish baseball team, in the fourth round of June’s MLB Draft. Connaughton signed with the Orioles, but reached an agreement with the team that allowed him to pitch in its minor league organization for the summer and return to Notre Dame for his final basketball season.
Connaughton appeared in six games for the Aberdeen Ironbirds, Baltimore’s single-A affiliate, compiling a 2.45 ERA and striking out 10 batters in almost 15 innings.
“I’m very happy with [my decision],” Connaughton said. “You have to look at the overall grand scheme of things … doing both, it’s kind of something I’ve been into since the day I started playing both sports, and I stuck with it through high school and noticed I could play it in college, and I’m going to try to stick with it through college and see what happens on the professional side of things.
“But then, you have to look at the non-athletic side of things, and getting my degree from an institution like [Notre Dame], it just really made sense overall.”
Grant’s road back to Notre Dame was a little less straightforward. The 6-foot-5 guard, who averaged 19 points per game in 12 appearances last season, was suspended due to an “academic matter” in December.
Grant said he was initially unsure about returning to Notre Dame, but soon set his sights on being back.
“At the end of the day, I had to make the best decision for me, and I think that decision was to come back,” he said. “But I definitely had to talk to my parents and of course talk to Coach Brey, and I had to waver a little bit, but at the end of the day, this is the best decision.”
Brey said he is thrilled to have Connaughton and Grant back in the Irish backcourt.
“I think everybody talks about your recruiting; the two key recruits for us to get were Connaughton and Grant back,” he said. “… I’m just glad we got those two guys back. I think they’re looking forward to leading a group of kind of some unproven guys that really need them, that look up to them and need them.”
When Notre Dame takes the court for its first exhibition game in November, the Irish will be without one notable face — former guard and three-time captain Eric Atkins, who graduated in May.
Atkins ran the point for the Irish last season, averaging 13.9 points per game and nearly five assists per game. Notre Dame will call on Grant and sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson to fill his role.
Brey said Atkins’ absence has forced Grant to become more of a vocal leader.
“The one thing Jerian can do is he can talk to all these guys about how good they have it at [Notre Dame],” Brey said. “Sometimes, when you’re here, you don’t know how good you have it until it’s gone. … Well, Jerian’s been able to tell them in the locker room to appreciate what they have.
“I think he’s been much more focused on talking more, which doesn’t come easy to Jerian — he’s kind of a quiet guy. But I talked to him about this, and he knows he needs to do that.”
Jackson said he will try to incorporate lessons imparted by Atkins into his decision-making.
“I learned a lot from Eric, and I definitely look up to Eric and he taught me a lot last year as a point guard,” Jackson said. “He was a great point guard to watch for me to work on my decision-making because he had great decision-making skills.”
Roman’ around Italy
Notre Dame had a summer vacation of its own when the team traveled to Italy for 10 days in August. Of course, the trip wasn’t all sightseeing — the Irish played four Italian teams and won all four games convincingly.
Brey said the foreign trip gave the Irish some extra practice and opened opportunities for all players, including the team’s three freshmen, to get some playing time.
“The timing of the trip couldn’t have been better,” he said. “I wish the competition was a little better, but the other side of that is we were able to play everybody in different combinations and never really worry about the score, so you could get guys in there [and] really evaluate them.”
Jackson was named the MVP of the team’s final game, a 95-57 win over the Vicenza All-Stars, as he recorded 11 points, five assists and three steals.
“It was very fun, we did a lot of stuff together, hung out as a team,” Jackson said of his overseas experience. “I think we grew closer on- and off-the-court.”