Hartnett: ‘Cautious Optimism’ fills Purcell Pavilion
Brian Hartnett | Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Wednesday night brought an atmosphere to Purcell Pavilion that was all too familiar for Notre Dame fans and ranked opponents, yet it had been conspicuously absent for much of the last year.
It was the atmosphere fostered by a strong performance by Notre Dame against a ranked opponent, one that has been present several times since Notre Dame’s two seniors started their careers — see Syracuse, Marquette and Kentucky in 2012, Louisville in 2013 and even Duke this past January.
But Wednesday night’s atmosphere had a slightly different feel than the raucous ones of the past. It was one of cautious optimism, the feeling that Notre Dame might be on its way to contending in the ACC, mixed with the lingering doubt that last season’s struggles — and six home losses — might not totally be behind the team.
And Wednesday still provided plenty of reasons for doubt for Irish supporters.
Notre Dame was manhandled on the boards, particularly the defensive glass, for most of the game — there were stretches where Michigan State’s Branden Dawson was out-rebounding the Irish, and the Spartans senior finished with only seven fewer rebounds than the Irish had as a team.
Notre Dame’s lone big man in its starting rotation, junior forward Zach Auguste, had only four points and four rebounds in 19 minutes of action.
After hitting 50 percent of their 3-pointers in the first half, the Irish went 1-for-11 from behind the arc in the final 25 minutes of action.
And Notre Dame’s depth, something head coach Mike Brey has praised this season, took a hit shortly before Wednesday’s game, when it was announced that sixth man sophomore forward V.J. Beachem would likely miss the next month with plantar fasciitis.
These struggles, particularly the frontcourt issues, certainly need to be addressed before an ACC schedule that includes five teams currently ranked in the top 15 of both major polls.
But in spite of these obstacles, Notre Dame managed to hold serve down the stretch and control overtime to earn a win over a team that looks to once again finish toward the top of the Big Ten, if recent history is any indication.
And Notre Dame’s backcourt provided enough reasons to believe that the Irish will be a tough out for any of the top-tier opponents it has remaining on the schedule.
Brey referred to his one-two guard duo of sophomore Demetrius Jackson and senior Jerian Grant as the best backcourt in the NCAA after the victory, and his assertion didn’t sound too far-fetched, at least strictly based off Wednesday night’s performances.
Grant, who Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo referred to “as complete of a player” as he’s seen thus far — and the Spartans have already played Duke and Kansas — posted a career-high 27 points as well as six assists, four rebounds and three steals Wednesday night.
Jackson added a career-high of his own with 22 points. More importantly for Notre Dame, the sophomore made plays when it counted, tallying half of the team’s 12 overtime points.
While Grant and Jackson combined for 49 of Notre Dame’s 79 points, there was more to the team’s effort than just the two guards. Despite struggles from the field, senior guard/forward Pat Connaughton finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, while sophomore guard Steve Vasturia added a dozen points of his own, marking the eighth straight game Notre Dame has had four starters reach double-figures in points.
This continued offensive balance will be a key for Notre Dame moving forward. But equally important will be the efforts the Irish receive down low and off the bench. With Auguste benched for more than half the game, Austin Torres filled both of those needs, slowing down Dawson in the paint and adding a tip-in when the Irish needed it most. Torres still only averages 8.2 minutes per game, but his presence, along with that of junior forward Austin Burgett and freshman forwards Martinas Geben and Bonzie Colson, will be needed to continually provide the depth about which Brey has raved.
These three “b’s” — backcourt, balance and bench play — all combined to create a lively atmosphere and stepping-stone victory for Notre Dame on Wednesday night. And given the half-dozen defeats that occurred on the Irish home court last season, it was fun to see.
But the real test will be whether the Irish can give those packed into the 9,149-seat arena reason to maintain that atmosphere for the various challenges that lie ahead.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.