Notre Dame rolls into Sweet 16 looking to create legacy
Manuel De Jesus | Thursday, March 26, 2015
No. 3 seed Notre Dame will have a chance to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in head coach Mike Brey’s 15-year tenure when it faces seventh-seeded Wichita State on Thursday in Cleveland.
The last time the Irish (31-5, 14-4 ACC) made it to the Elite Eight, Digger Phelps coached Notre Dame, which was a No. 1 seed in the 1979 tournament’s Mideast region.
Led by senior guard Jerian Grant, the Irish have reshaped their identity this season: The program took home its first conference championship, won a school-record 14 conference games and won 30 games for just the second time ever (1908-09) but will put it all on the line tonight when they play the Shockers (30-4, 17-1 Missouri Valley), which have recently become a force in March.
“Well, they have a history of playing well in the tournament, so we know we’re going to get a good game against a great team,” Grant said. “They won their regular season, so they’re champions as well, so we just know we’ve got to be ready because it’s a great team.”
Two years ago, the Shockers reached the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. Last year, they went undefeated in the regular season, cruised through the conference tournament and were handed a No. 1 seed by the selection committee before losing to eventual national runner-up Kentucky in the third round.
Despite the loss of forward Cleanthony Early, who led the Shockers in scoring last season, Wichita State has returned to the Sweet 16 behind the play of junior guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet.
“They’re a fabulous team,” senior guard/forward Pat Connaughton said. “They beat a lot of teams obviously, but the way they play, the style of play that they have, the toughness that they have, that’s something they pride themselves on, so that’s as tough as any team that we’ve played. You look at the way Butler played, and it’s a similar toughness, and they have just as many if not more athletes, and they’re here for a reason. So we’ve got to take this, it’s the most important game on our schedule, it’s probably the most important game in Jerian’s and myself’s lives thus far.”
While the Shockers are not one of the nation’s best offensive teams — they rank 108th in points per game and 102nd in field goal percentage — they have been able to hone in on their defense, making it their strength, allowing just 56.7 points per game, ninth-best nationally.
Grant said that while the Irish boast more of an offensive-oriented team, the defense has been a recent strong point, and the Irish can win defensive-oriented games.
“We got stops when we needed to against two great teams,” Grant said. “I think that’s the great thing about it — we can win in different ways. We don’t need to score 80 points to win. We’re really playing great defense right now, and I think we’ll find that level. We need to, to beat a Wichita State team that is really good defensively. We are going to have to score some points, but just to know that we can rely on our defense will go a long way.”
Both Grant and Connaughton had the choice to leave Notre Dame last year but opted to return, wanting to leave a positive legacy with the program. The Irish were 15-17 last year; this year, they are four wins from a national title.
“We came in together, we played together, we have gone through a lot, and we have similar interests,” Connaughton said. “And those interests include winning, and I think with the way that we’ve gone at things since freshman year, we weren’t satisfied on the way last season ended, obviously myself being a captain last year and having to, you know, go through a stretch where I wasn’t a good enough leader to put our team in those situations, and then to see the way Jerian felt about not being there to be able to prevent it as well, it made us that much closer in the sense that it wasn’t a joint decision, but at the same time, there was always that half-kidding, half-serious, ‘Well, if you’re not coming back, I’m not coming back.’ [We said,] ‘Let’s do this together. Let’s make sure that we write our own history in Notre Dame basketball as a collective one.’”
Grant, Connaughton and their Irish teammates will have the opportunity to further write their legacies tonight against Wichita State at 7:15 p.m. at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena.