Notre Dame ‘saga’ ends without tourney berth
Mike Monaco | Friday, May 16, 2014
After bowing out in the first round of the ACC tournament with a 12-point loss to 12th-seeded Wake Forest, Irish head coach Mike Brey made things clear.
Rather than pursue a trip to the College Basketball Invitational (CBI), Brey and the Irish (15-17, 6-12 ACC) closed the books on the program’s first losing season since 1998-99.
“It’s probably good we end this saga,” Brey told reporters in Greensboro, N.C.
In its first season in the ACC, Notre Dame battled injuries, inconsistency and personnel losses from start to finish.
Brey and sophomore forward Cam Biedscheid announced in early November that the former four-star recruit would redshirt. Two months later, news broke that Biedscheid would transfer to Missouri.
The Biedscheid announcement came on the heels of senior guard Jerian Grant’s departure. The day after Notre Dame lost to then-No. 3 Ohio State, Grant released a statement that he was no longer a part of the basketball program and would not be enrolled at the university for the remainder of the 2013-14 school year due to “an academic matter that I did not handle properly.”
“I take full responsibility for my lack of good judgment and the poor decision that I made,” Grant said in the statement. “I have no one to blame but myself for the situation. I know and understand the expectations that go with being a student at Notre Dame, and I did not live up to those standards.”
In the 12 games before the announcement, Grant led the team with 19.0 points and 6.2 assists per game. Grant, who was one of just five players on the preseason all-ACC team, declared his intention to return to Notre Dame and the team as soon as possible following the spring semester.
The final game of Grant’s shortened season was the loss to Ohio State (25-10, 10-8 Big Ten) on Dec. 22. The Irish led by eight points with a minute remaining in regulation, but they committed four turnovers in the final 58 seconds, and Ohio State ended the game on a 14-3 run.
“They really turned the heat up on us and flustered us,” Brey told reporters afterward. “We had a hard time doing anything right.”
The loss dropped Notre Dame to 8-4. The Irish also lost non-conference games against Indiana State, Iowa and North Dakota State.
After the loss to the Buckeyes, Notre Dame returned home eight days later to host Canisius and close out their non-conference slate. Golden Griffins senior guard Billy Baron, an eventual AP All-American honorable mention, poured in 33 points — including a three-point play down the stretch — as Canisius (21-13, 14-6 MAAC) scored the final five points in regulation to force overtime.
But Irish senior guard Eric Atkins matched Baron with a career-high 30 points of his own to lift Notre Dame to the 87-81 win in its first game without Grant.
“I am not surprised because this kid can score,” Brey said of Atkins. “He has had nights like this before when we needed it, and now we really need it. I think he was excited to go back into that [scoring] role.”
The Irish then began their inaugural ACC campaign by welcoming conference powerhouse Duke to Purcell Pavilion on Jan. 4. Trailing 60-50 with 11:35 remaining in the second half, Notre Dame surged on a 20-4 run over the next seven minutes. The Blue Devils (26-9, 13-5 ACC) pulled within one on three separate occasions, but the Irish held on for their biggest victory of the year over the then-No. 7 team in the nation. Atkins paced the squad with 19 points and 11 assists.
“Our group, this team of guys, has been through some tough stuff since the Ohio State game, and for us to come together and win a game like this after being down 10, I am very proud of us,” Brey said after the win. “I think it all starts with our senior captain who — Eric Atkins — never lets us think that it’s going to be a tough night.
“It’s a historic day for us. Our first ACC game — and to beat a program like Duke’s will always be a great memory for us starting off in Atlantic Coast Conference play.”
Whatever momentum the Irish built from the victory was soon sapped as they lost their next three games, the first being a seven-point loss at home to North Carolina State three days later.
Notre Dame never led in the second half against the Wolfpack (22-14, 9-9), and Brey said he recognized the difficulty in bouncing back from the Duke game.
“I was worried about it,” Brey said. “We invested a lot. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little residual fighting through that. Even though I thought in the second half we started to find it a little bit when they started missing, we just couldn’t get two or three offensive possessions in a row that looked like us.
“Then you get a little tight, and you feel the weight of the world, and you aren’t as loose when you are lining up those shots.”
Including the loss to North Carolina State, Notre Dame lost six of its next seven, culminating with a 68-53 defeat at the hands of Virginia on Jan. 28. The Cavaliers deployed their swarming defense and forced 20 Irish turnovers, 13 of which came in the first half. Virginia led by as many as 24.
“We just got to give it to them,” Irish sophomore forward Zach Auguste said afterward. “They definitely gave us a beating.”
The win improved then-unranked Virginia’s ACC record to 7-1. The Cavaliers went on to win the ACC regular-season title and postseason tournament.
“Let’s give them a lot of credit,” Brey said following the loss. “I think that’s the best team in the league [and the] most confident team in the league. They thoroughly beat us down tonight.”
The Irish picked up four league wins over their final 10 games, but they won back-to-back conference games only once.
Notre Dame concluded the regular season with a 63-61 loss to No. 14 North Carolina but limited the Tar Heels to just 22 points in the second half.
The defeat was Notre Dame’s seventh loss by five points or fewer. The squad’s 12 ACC losses were by an average deficit of 7.9 points per game.
While the defense was stifling against North Carolina, Notre Dame’s defense and rebounding were inconsistent all season long and were some of Brey’s major emphases heading into the ACC tournament.
But the defense struggled mightily against the Demon Deacons, who shot 61 percent from the floor. Wake Forest outrebounded Notre Dame, 33-23, en route to the 81-69 win.
In addition to the inconsistent play on the boards and the defensive end, Notre Dame dealt with injuries throughout the year.
Senior center Garrick Sherman chipped his right pinkie finger Feb. 11 against Clemson and played through the pain during the final month. Sherman averaged 13.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, essentially doubling his per-game averages from the 2012-13 season.
Sophomore forward Austin Burgett (irregular heartbeat) and graduate student forward Tom Knight (ankle, illness) missed a combined eight games. In total, Notre Dame trotted out 12 different starting lineups.
“Never a dull moment,” Brey joked about the injuries before the ACC tournament.
With all the injuries, Brey relied heavily on junior guard/forward Pat Connaughton, who averaged 37.2 minutes, 13.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game for the Irish. Connaughton was an honorable mention all-ACC selection by the league’s coaches.
Freshman guard Demetrius Jackson, a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, started 15 games and averaged 22.2 minutes, 6.0 points and 1.8 assists per contest. Jackson missed two games in mid-February. Brey said the freshman needed to improve his “academic habits.” Jackson returned after the two-game hiatus and scored a season-high 17 points against Miami, but he posted just 18 points in the final five games, indicative of the growing pains and up-and-down nature of the season for Notre Dame in the ACC.
“I think at times it was a year of adjustment for us on a lot of fronts, some personnel losses and kind of new preparation, new scouting, new venues, all of those things,” Brey said after the postseason loss to Wake Forest. “I would hope we’ll be better at it next year in year two.”