One last ride for seniors
Brian Hartnett | Thursday, March 19, 2015
It’s not too difficult to spot the two seniors on Notre Dame, a No. 3 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
They’re the team’s two leading scorers and are frequently on the court for upwards of 35 minutes per game.
They’re even pictured on the media guide for Notre Dame, which will start the tournament by facing No. 14 seed Northeastern on Thursday afternoon.
Their names are Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, and their contributions to Notre Dame’s season, which has included 29 wins and an ACC tournament title, are immense.
But their presence on this year’s team was far from guaranteed one year ago.
Connaughton, who also served as a right-handed pitcher for the Irish baseball team, was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the fourth round of last June’s MLB Draft and spent the summer playing for the minor league Aberdeen Ironbirds, Baltimore’s single-A affiliate.
Despite the prospect of advancing through the Orioles’ farm system, Connaughton reached an agreement with the club to return to Notre Dame in the fall — there was unfinished business.
“Three hundred-seventy days ago, we were in a hotel room with [Irish head] coach [Mike] Brey, the season had just ended [with a 81-69 loss to Wake Forest] in the first round of the [ACC tournament], and we set lofty goals,” Connaughton said after Notre Dame’s 90-82 win over North Carolina in the ACC tournament championship Saturday night. “We knew we had a chance at things. We had to do some hard work that people don’t enjoy doing.”
Connaughton wasn’t the only one faced with the decision of returning to the Irish for this season. Grant, who was suspended in December 2013 for the remainder of the 2013-2014 season due to “an academic matter [he] did not handle properly,” had to choose what to do with his final year of eligibility.
Like his classmate, Grant rejoined Notre Dame in the fall, reenergized by his time spent watching his team fall to a 15-17 record last season.
“I got to take a step back and actually watch instead of being on the court,” Grant said at Notre Dame’s media day Oct. 14. “I got a different view of the guys I’m going to be playing with this year, and I saw their strengths and weaknesses.”
Notre Dame’s strengths were multiplied with the return of the two Irish seniors, a scenario Brey compared to landing two elite recruits.
“At the end of last year, after losing 17 games, I needed something to look at every day to give me some hope,” Brey said Saturday. “I had my assistant, I said, ‘Put up the top 15 returning players in the ACC.’
“… And Grant and Connaughton were easily on that list, and I made sure I walked by that every day because I’m looking and going, all right, we’ve got a place to start with these guys.”
Brey said early on that he had an idea of the role Grant and Connaughton would play for the team this season, starting with its trip to Italy in early August.
“[Grant has] come back and accepted responsibility to kind of run this team,” Brey said at media day. “I think he and Connaughton have a great one-two punch as far as being the veterans here.”
Thirty-four games later, Brey’s words are more than just typical preseason clichés — they have some statistical backing.
Grant and Connaughton are first and second on the team, respectively, in both minutes per game and points per game. Grant leads the Irish in assists per game and steals, while Connaughton is first in rebounds per game, blocks and 3-point shooting percentage.
And when it’s mattered, Grant, a member of the all-ACC first team, and Connaughton, a third team all-conference selection, have provided that one-two punch for Notre Dame — witness Saturday’s championship game win, in which Grant led the Irish with 24 points and Connaughton followed him with 20.
“I talked to [Grant] before the game [against the Tar Heels], and I said, ‘Look, we’re going to come out here and we’re going to have to take control,’” Connaughton said Saturday. “It’s something that we came back in order to do this, in order to accomplish this goal [of winning the ACC championship].”
While the ACC conference tournament title marks the first such one in Notre Dame history, it isn’t the end goal for this year’s team, both Grant and Connaughton reiterated. That end goal is success in the NCAA tournament, something that has thus far eluded both Grant and Connaughton — both players were on teams that lost its first game of tournament play in 2012 and 2013, plus Grant was on the roster of a 2010-2011 Irish team that was upset as a No. 2 seed in its second game of the tournament.
Notre Dame has a chance to change its postseason fortunes this season, and Grant acknowledged that both he and Connaughton want to end their careers at Notre Dame by lifting the Irish to even greater heights.
“Pat always talks about rewriting Notre Dame history, and we’ve done that a little bit this year, but we’re not done,” Grant said Sunday. “We still have another tournament that we want to go and win it all.”