Entering Wednesday’s showdown with No. 4 Duke, No. 8 Notre Dame trailed by double digits in five of the eight ACC games they had played. And outside of their home loss to No. 2 Virginia, Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish have successfully erased those deficits. That was once again the case Wednesday, as Notre Dame overcame a ten-point second half deficit to beat the Blue Devils 77-73 in South Bend.
And the star was none other than senior guard Jerian Grant, whose name has to figure prominently in the races for ACC and national Player of the Year. And in all honesty, given the way Grant has played all season long this should have already been the case.
Grant finished the game with 23 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots, and he impacted the game on both ends of the floor down the stretch as Notre Dame completed its comeback. There was the improbable floater in the middle of the lane with 1:11 remaining, and his assist to Steve Vasturia for a corner three that proved to be the dagger came about 40 seconds later.
Grant followed up that assist with a block of a Quinn Cook shot ten seconds later, with that defensive play hammering the final nail in the coffin. In a game in which both teams had areas they could exploit on the offensive end, Notre Dame won out in the end but this was just as much about what Duke couldn’t do as it was what the Fighting Irish did.
Duke missed numerous attempts around the basket, failing to take advantage of the 13 offensive rebounds they collected on the night. Add in the fact that they made just ten of their 20 free throws, and Mike Krzyzewski’s team left points on the board and that cost them in the end. Jahlil Okafor accounted for 22 points, 17 rebounds and three assists, leading four Blue Devil starters in double figures, with Justise Winslow (3-for-4 3PT, 13 points) snapping out of his five-game shooting slump.
But even with the ability to point towards those missed opportunities on the offensive end of the floor, Wednesday’s defeat showed that the Blue Devils still have work to do defensively. Notre Dame shot nearly 52 percent from the field and 8-for-18 from beyond the arc, with Mike Brey’s team finding decent looks for most of the night whether Duke was in man or zone.
Notre Dame finished the game with four double-digit scorers and on a night in which Vasturia shot 1-for-7 from the field, 6-foot-5 forward Bonzie Colson gave the Fighting Irish some valuable minutes off the bench. Colson, who played just nine minutes in Notre Dame’s overtime win at NC State on Sunday, contributed eight points, three rebounds and a blocked shot in 14 minutes against Duke. Thanks to the likes of Colson, Zach Auguste (14 points, six rebounds) and Pat Connaughton (13 points, 12 rebounds), the Fighting Irish were able to hold their own in the front court despite being the smaller team.
While this win keeps Notre Dame on the heels of Virginia in the race for the ACC title, for Duke the defeat makes their game in Charlottesville Saturday night even more important. Now three games behind the Cavaliers in the loss column, Duke’s in a spot where they have to win if they’re to make a run at winning the ACC regular season title. And in order to beat Virginia, Duke has to do a better job of converting around the basket than they did Wednesday night.
Failing to do so left the door open for a Fighting Irish comeback, and Jerian Grant and company were all too willing to take advantage.
No. 3 Virginia takes away Jerian Grant in win at No. 13 Notre Dame
Saturday’s matchup between No. 3 Virginia and No. 13 Notre Dame set up to be a highly entertaining affair, with the Cavaliers boasting one of the nation’s premier defenses and the Fighting Irish being the most efficient offense in the country. A key figure for Notre Dame is senior guard Jerian Grant, who spends time both on and off the ball and entered the game averaging 17.2 points, 6.3 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. And while the Fighting Irish have multiple weapons capable of hurting opponents, it’s Grant who serves as their most important player.
Virginia took Grant away, limiting him to just six points (2-for-7 FG) and six assists, with junior guard Malcolm Brogdon getting the assignment for most of the game. And that was a major factor in the Cavaliers leaving South Bend with a 62-56 victory that rates among the best true road victories in college basketball this season.
Virginia made things difficult on Grant, playing him tight when he had the ball and making his work to get touches when Demetrius Jackson initiated the offense far tougher than usual. But what made this matchup so intriguing is the purpose of the pack-line defense, which is to keep teams out of the paint, matching up against Notre Dame’s ability to knock down perimeter shots.
The Fighting Irish hit ten three-pointers, with Pat Connaughton (21 points, eight rebounds, 4-for-9 3PT), Jackson (12 points, six rebounds, 3-for-6 3PT) and V.J. Beachem (12 points, 3-for-6 3PT) responsible for the makes, but they struggled to find any consistency inside of the arc. Notre Dame made just ten of its 35 two-point shots, with the resulting percentage (28.6%) well below the 63.6% clip at which they’re converting those shots (which is tops in the country).
Not only does Virginia make it tough for teams to get close to the basket, but they also do a very good job of challenging those shots once opponents find a way inside of the arc.
Offensively it was all about balance for Virginia, with Darion Atkins (eight rebounds) scoring 14 points, Brogdon (four assists and three rebounds) 13 and Justin Anderson (four rebounds) 11. The Cavaliers shot 49 percent from the field, and after a Martinas Geben layup gave Notre Dame a 40-39 lead with 9:10 remaining Virginia scored on eight of its next 11 possessions.
This is a very efficient offensive team that, like Notre Dame, entered the game ranked in the top five nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers and that’s how things played out down the stretch.
As a result of this win Virginia has a trio of true road victories that few (if any) teams in America can match right now, as they’ve also won at Maryland (now ranked 11th nationally) and VCU (20th). Last year’s group managed to win 30 games and the program’s first ACC title since 1981. These Cavaliers are capable of not only repeating as ACC champions, but also making a run at their first Final Four appearance since 1984.
He knows it. He freely admits his screw up was a doozy — a stupid, selfish and ill-timed decision that he paid for dearly. Grant was suspended from school for the spring semester, costing him the final 20 games of Notre Dame’s 2013-14 season, for what the school has termed “an academic mistake.” After the tears dried up following a December 21st loss to Ohio State in Madison Square Garden, Grant traveled back to South Bend, Indiana, with the team, packed up his apartment and headed home.
His season was kaput, but Grant’s Notre Dame career wasn’t over. Academically, he was a senior, but Grant redshirted his first season on campus. He still had a year of eligibility remaining, and after discussions with his family and high school coaches, Grant quickly made the decision that he would be returning to school for his final year. Head coach Mike Brey made it a point to keep Grant close, to make sure he felt like he was part of the team even if he was a thousand miles away. He gave Grant some homework: He had to watch every Notre Dame game, and at some point after the final buzzer, he had to email Brey with his thoughts and observations.
The assignment was harder than Grant anticipated. He was fine breaking down the game — Brey said he rarely needed to wait more than 45 minutes after the game was over to get the email from Grant — the issue was watching his teammates struggle. The Irish finished 15-17 overall, 6-12 in the ACC and didn’t play in any postseason events.
But that wasn’t the worst part.
At some point in every telecast, Grant’s face was flashed on the screen as the broadcasters proceeded to explain just how badly he had messed up, how dreadful Notre Dame’s season had been since the suspension and how fortunes could have been changed if it wasn’t for Grant and his “academic mistake”.
Mike Brey’s biggest concern when bringing his star back into the Notre Dame team this season wasn’t anything that had to do with Jerian Grant’s basketball ability. He knew the 6-foot-3 guard had stayed in shape during his seventh months away from school. He wasn’t worried that he’d be rusty or that his jump shot would have suddenly become ineffective. He knew that, as Brey put it, “our finisher” would still be lethal in the pick-and-roll and capable of picking out his open teammates.
No, what kept Brey up at night was the Blame Game.
Notre Dame’s inaugural season in the ACC was a disaster. The Fighting Irish finished the year below .500, seeing their season come to a close with a loss to lowly Wake Forest in the opening round of the ACC tournament. The majority of that happened with Grant, the team’s best player, separated from the program.
How would the team react when Grant rejoined them that summer? Perhaps more importantly, how would Grant react to a season where it was beaten into his head that he was to blame for Notre Dame’s struggles? Grant and Eric Atkins were very, very close. They were both from Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C., and they had roomed together since their first day on campus. Atkins didn’t redshirt. Last season was his final season; he watched the last NCAA tournament he was eligible for from a couch, just like you did.
“We came in together. We wanted to do something special here,” Grant told NBCSports.com last week. “We had our good runs, but we never got to leave the mark that we wanted to. It was hard not to go out with him.”
“Talk about swallowing pride,” Brey added. “There was a lot for him to deal with.”
The only game that Grant didn’t watch on television was Notre Dame’s ACC tournament loss. Instead, he made the trip to Greensboro for the game, in part to see his brother, Jerami, play for Syracuse, but mainly to support his teammates in their last chance at trying to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. He joined the team in Brey’s hotel room just hours after the loss, and it was in that room, as the coach addressed his players, that Brey’s concerns melted away.
“One of my major points was, ‘Jerian, you’re coming back to us,'” Brey said. “I wanted him to get over this mindset, ‘I let everybody down, it’s my fault.’ When I looked at the guys sitting in front of me, Pat Connaughton had his arm around him. That was awesome. Our rock, our guy, our voice was like, ‘I got his ass, he’s back.’ For me, I’m looking at that going, ‘Ok, we had a tough year, but I’m feeling a little better now.'”
“The guys welcomed me back with open arms,” Grant said. “And that’s been good for me,”
“Pat was really a lifeline for him,” Brey continued. “They’ve been through a lot together. They’ve won a lot together. I think Pat always kind of reached out to him and stayed connected to him. ‘I’m coming back, you’re coming back.’ I thought that that’s kind of been a neat thing to watch, those two guys.”
The suspension couldn’t have come at a more convenient time for the Irish. Missing Grant hurt, but the good news was that Notre Dame had a foreign tour scheduled for this past summer. Grant, Connaughton — who spent the spring playing pro baseball — and the rest of the team returned to campus in the middle of June and were back on the practice court by the end of July.
They got 10 days worth of practice in before they spent 10 days in Italy, playing four games in total. And in that time, Brey noticed a subtle, but important, difference in his star. He started preparing like a pro. And not just for games, either. He was going hard for every minute he was on the floor in practice. He was showing up in the morning, before class, to get shots up. He was getting to practice an hour early, getting to the trainer and working through his own stretches before the team stretch.
“He has his routine now,” Brey said. “He’d never been a great practice player. I was on his ass throughout his career,” mentioning that Grant would sometimes show up “20 minutes before practice with a quarter pounder in his hand.” But Grant was young. He was 17 years old when he got to college, as immature as you would expect any 17 year old freshman to be, and it took him a while to grow out of that.
But a public embarrassment like the one Grant dealt with? A suspension that was on the front page of every sports website in the country, that got his name mentioned on Sportscenter for all the wrong reasons?
That’s an easy way to force a kid to grow up.
It’s the quickest way to give him a new perspective on life.
“I don’t take things for granted,” Grant said. “I’ve been preaching to the guys, you’ve gotta play every game like it’s your last. You never know when it’s going to be taken from you.”
As Brey put it, “I feel like I’m talking to a man now.”
Notre Dame struggled with consistency in its first season as a member of the ACC, going 15-17 overall with a 6-12 record in conference play. As a result 2013-14 was the first season a Mike Brey-coached team finished below .500 since 1996-97, when his Delaware Blue Hens finished the year with a 15-16 record. The biggest reason for Notre Dame’s issues was the absence of senior guard Jerian Grant, who had to leave the school for the spring semester due to what was described as an “academic misstep.”
Through 12 games Grant, who was a second team All-Big East selection as a junior, averaged 19.0 points, 6.2 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game and he was shooting 51.8% from the field and 40.8% from three. A player of that caliber is tough for any team to replace, especially when they have to do so in the middle of a season. Now back with the program, Grant’s expected to be a leader for a group that has just two seniors with Pat Connaughton (13.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3.0 apg) being the other.
With expected captain-to-be Pat Connaughton playing baseball in the farm system of the Baltimore Orioles, Grant is the lone Irish senior on campus. Despite his absence last winter, Grant had no choice but to embrace the role of the veteran voice of reason.
“I’ve been really impressed with him,” coach Mike Brey said in a radio interview earlier this week on WSBT’s Weekday Sportsbeat. “He’s come back a more mature guy, more equipped to have a great senior year. Probably learned some lessons and has grown up.”
In the article it’s also noted that Brey believes his senior guard to be a better leader now than he was prior to his leaving the program. And given Notre Dame’s youth, with its most productive returnees outside of Connaughton being junior forward Zach Auguste (6.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson (6.0, 2.1), Grant’s ability to lead will be critical as the Fighting Irish look to climb up the ACC standings.
Being productive from a statistical standpoint is fine, but the intangibles are just as important for a player who will be featured as prominently as Grant.
BOSTON — Notre Dame’s debut in the ACC did not go as planned. Rare home losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State set an ominous tone early in the season. It got worse before conference play even began when Jerian Grant, who was averaging 19.0 points and 6.2 assists per game, withdrew from the university. That all resulted in the Fighting Irish failing to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.
Head coach Mike Brey, who is entering his 15th season, is turning to past experiences as the Fighting Irish enter Year 2 as members of arguably the best conference in college basketball. When Brey was hired at Notre Dame in 2000, he was inheriting a team that had a 35-53 record in the Big East, not once having a record above .500.
“We were fighting for an identity [in the Big East],” Brey told NBCSports.com on June 28 at The Basketball Tournament championship game at Boston University. “We’re in familiar territory right now, fighting for an identity in this ACC. I don’t know if I have the answers for what it is yet, but I got a little better feel than the first year.
“The league is only going to get better, it’s getting deeper. You’re trying to get a feel for teams. When you’re in the Big East as long as we were, you had a book on how Georgetown played. A book on how Syracuse played. Now you’re flying blind. I think we have a little better feel for systems and styles of play. I think that’s going to benefit us in Year 2.”
In conference, Notre Dame had only one win over an NCAA tournament bound opponent with a 79-77 upset win over Duke. It won’t get easier next season with Duke, North Carolina and Virginia projected to be in the preseason top 10. That doesn’t include the conference’s newest member, Louisville, which figures to contend immediately.
Brey should have plenty of intel on the Cardinals, including a thrilling five overtime win back on Feb. 9, 2013. Though, Louisville would defeat Notre Dame two times later in the season, en route to a national championship.
The biggest advantage the Fighting Irish have heading into the 2014-2015 season is the return of its back court, Grant and Pat Connaughton. The Balitmore Orioles drafted Connaughton in the fourth round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft, but will allow him to finish is playing career on the hardwood. Grant was readmitted in May. The Irish will also benefit from rising sophomore guards Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia both seeing more than 22 minutes per game as freshmen.
Notre Dame has the pieces to finish in the top half of the ACC standings. If Notre Dame was still a member of the old Big East, Brey would be optimistic this summer, instead it’s a bit of a precarious feeling as the ACC only received six tournament bids last March. Brey’s suggestion has been for the ACC to play 20 conference games. The old Big East was the first to go to 18 games in 2008, which helped improve the RPI for bubble teams in search of an at-large bid.
“I hope we can get this thing to eight and nine bids because that’s what earmarked the Big East as the best,” he said.
Notre Dame finished 15-17 (6-12 ACC) last season, but are ranked as the seventh-best team, according to College Basketball Talk’s early conference power rankings.
Connaughton will be allowed to sign a contract for a few weeks that allows him to be back in South Bend on July 30th so he can have a week with the basketball team to prepare for the team’s trip to Italy. Until then, Connaughton will be in Sarasota, Florida with the Orioles’ minor league affiliate.
The 6-foot-5 Connaughton averaged 13.8 points per game last season for Notre Dame. With the return of Jerian Grant to school for his senior season, Notre Dame will have some experience on the perimeter and could surprise some in the ACC next season.
For now, Connaughton needs to focus on baseball. In his junior season, the starting pitcher was 3-5 with a 3.92 ERA in 10 starts for the Irish.
“Until then, I try to make as much baseball improvements as I can, and basically start plugging through the minors as quickly as possible,” Connaughton said to the AP.