March 31, 2015
The curtain officially has closed on the 2014-15 University of Notre Dame men’s basketball season.
No Irish team in 106 years won more games.
No Irish team posted a more impressive list of March triumphs–including Duke and North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament and then Northeastern, Butler and Wichita State in the NCAA Championship. By the time it ended, Notre Dame had posted eight wins against teams that advanced into the 2015 NCAA Sweet 16, including three versus teams that advanced to the Final Four.
No Irish team did a better job of blending all its collective talents in such an unselfish manner that every player Notre Dame coach Mike Brey put on the floor qualified as a legitimate threat to make a big-time play.
Here are some of the scenarios worth remembering:
1. The chameleon-like quality of Jerian Grant – For a player who ended up a consensus first-team All-American, Grant constantly displayed an amazing and refreshing ability to provide whatever it took for the Irish to be successful. Hit big shots? Check. Handle the basketball? Check. Distribute the ball? Check (see Steve Vasturia in the corner versus Duke). Defend? Check (he was named to the ACC All-Defensive team by the league’s coaches). All that took place nightly despite receiving extensive defensive attention from opponents. Capable of scoring 20 points any time he wanted, Grant impressed just as much in games like the Sweet 16 win over Wichita State where he had only nine points but 11 assists (one less than in the Irish regular-season win over Duke).
2. The development of Demetrius Jackson – A year ago as a freshman Jackson often looked lost. He never really found his rhythm in 2013-14. That changed emphatically–and right away–as the 2014-15 season unfolded. This was a different player who now was the quarterback of the team. He defended, he shot the three, he drove to the rim with emphasis and abandon and he handled the ball–with all the assuredness that had been missing as a rookie. By the end of the season he took a back seat to no one in terms of easily being capable of qualifying as the best player on the floor on any given night. Just ask Louisville ( 21 points), Duke (15 in the ACC semifinal) or Wichita State (20).
3. The look on Pat Connaughton’s face – The ever-game competitor who served as the Irish captain hardly ever changed demeanor. No matter the score, he looked both his teammates and opponents right in the eye, as if to say, “Let’s go. Let’s play.” In some ways, he reveled living as a big kid in a candy store. He’d playfully punch strength and conditioning coordinator Tony Rolinski every time he came up or down the aisle of the team bus. But, once the ball was rolled out, did Connaughton ever compete. His numbers seldom did justice to his game.
4. The unflappability of Vasturia – The steady pace of the sophomore’s game seldom altered. He didn’t often display much outward emotion, yet that calmness helped define the Irish in 2014-15. When Grant and others were drawing all the attention, Vasturia would be busy guarding the other team’s most dangerous scorer or hitting shots from any distance required. He hit seven combined three-pointers in the three ACC Tournament wins–and no Irish player connected on a more clutch shot than his dagger from the corner to help beat Duke at Purcell Pavilion.
5. The growth of Zach Auguste – Auguste realistically remained a work in progress at the start of the season, as the lone true Irish post player in the rotation. By March he’d developed into a legitimate force. He had 16 points and 13 rebounds in the ACC title contest against North Carolina. Working the pick and roll to perfection while Northeastern defenders hugged Irish shooters around the arc, Auguste erupted for 25 points in Notre Dame’s opening NCAA assignment. A week later against Kentucky, he soared for 20 points.
6. The daily double of Grant and Connaughton – Notre Dame’s two seniors combined to start 240 career games and contribute 3,204 points, 1,166 rebounds, 947 assists and 268 steals. They accounted for 8,821 career minutes played, for a gaudy average of 34.2 per game. Connaughton led 2014-15 ACC players in career rebounds, while Grant led current ACC players in career assists.
7. The close wins – Nothing fuels a team’s confidence more than believing the clutch plays can be made when games are on the line. Here’s how the Irish did that in winning seven times either in overtime or by three points or less (the last five of those away from home):
- 79-78 in OT over Michigan State (the Irish rebounded from a seven-point deficit with 11 minutes to go and never trailed in overtime)
- 83-76 in double OT over Georgia Tech (the Irish trailed by 10 in the first half and eight in the second half but never trailed in either overtime)
- 71-70 at North Carolina (the Irish hit 10 three-pointers to win for the first time in Chapel Hill)
- 62-59 at Georgia Tech (the Irish came back from a 12-point first half deficit to win for the first time at Georgia Tech)
- 81-78 in OT at North Carolina State (the Irish trailed by 18 in the first half, by five with 1:16 left and tied it with a tip-in with two seconds to go)
- 60-58 at Clemson (the Irish trailed by eight in the first half and by four with 4:09 remaining before an 8-0 run)
- 67-64 in OT versus Butler in NCAA third round (the Irish trailed by six with 9:35 to go, again using an 8-0 run)
8. The big-name wins – There’s no better way to earn attention and respect than by defeating the big names (and the big coaches) in the game. That’s why a victory over perennial Big Ten power Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge looked so good. That’s why two wins each over ACC bluebloods Duke and North Carolina loomed so large. That’s why defeating the Blue Devils and Tar Heels on back-to-back nights in Greensboro, essentially on their home turf and doing it with such high-level play, earned such high marks:
- In the ACC semifinal versus Duke, the Irish built an early 33-17 lead and held on thanks to a team-high 17 points off the bench from Bonzie Colson.
- In the ACC title game versus North Carolina, the Irish used an astounding 26-3 flurry to erase a nine-point deficit with 10 minutes left.
In the win over Duke in South Bend, the Irish came back from a 10-point deficit with 11 minutes to play to win 77-73. Throw in the victory at Louisville, and Mike Brey’s crew accounted for six wins over the combination of Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo. No one in America did that in 2014-15.
9. The emergence of Colson – Early on, the 6-5 rookie was a non-factor. Brey admittedly felt badly when the Irish played two November games back to back at the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic in Uncasville, Connecticut (not far from Colson’s New Bedford, Massachusetts, home) and the freshman didn’t merit a minute of playing time. That changed as the conference season unfolded. Colson scored 10 points (and survived a bloodied nose) at Georgia Tech. In consecutive games against Boston College, Syracuse and Louisville he notched 16, 16 and 17 points (playing a combined 59 minutes in those three contests). Super sub, indeed.
10. The magnitude of Quicken Loans Arena – Notre Dame plays in no shortage of big-time environments, only accentuated by the competitiveness of the ACC. Yet, it may be some time before anything matches the sheer intensity of the atmosphere for the Notre Dame-Kentucky NCAA Elite Eight game. The size advantage of Big Blue Nation hardly qualified as a surprise–what did surprise and impress was the frenzied response from the Irish fans who watched their team match the Wildcats shot for shot and even stun the Kentucky fans into silence at times. LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavalier teammates didn’t show up to watch any average basketball game.
11. Grant shoots, Grant passes, Duke falls – There may not have been two more eye-catching, connected late-game plays than Grant’s possessions in the final minutes against Duke on Jan. 28 at Purcell Pavilion. On a Wednesday night in South Bend, with the Irish nursing a 71-70 advantage and the clock shot winding down, Grant at the free-throw line nearly lost the ball, found it again and somehow threw up an off-balance floater that went in at 1:07. Duke hit two free throws nine seconds later and, with Notre Dame again leading by one, Grant backed his defender into the lane and then avoided the double team by whipping a perfect pass to Vasturia in the corner by the Irish bench. At :22 Vasturia buried the three. Ballgame.
12. Play well and they will watch – The Notre Dame-Kentucky game received an 8.4 rating, meaning 14.7 million viewers saw the game and making it the most viewed program in TBS history and the highest-rated college basketball game ever on a single cable network. The Notre Dame-Wichita State game along with the North Carolina-Wisconsin game March 26 drew a combined 9.3 overnight rating on CBS/TBS. The Notre Dame-North Carolina ACC Tournament title game March 14 drew 3.53 million viewers on ESPN, making it the fourth highest-rated regular-season game of the 2014-15 campaign.
13. Brey keeps his cool – Notre Dame’s head coach calls himself the loosest coach in America, and that’s not by accident. Brey’s main method is to build confidence and let his charges do their thing. He banks on the smarts of his players, who understood that the Irish boasted enough weapons on the floor at any given time to make sharing the wealth (and the basketball) the wisest thing to do. Notre Dame qualified as the most efficient offensive program in the nation, as most nights the assist-to-turnover ratio was off the charts. Brey may not have earned serious national coach-of-the-year consideration, but did any of those who did bring their program from 15-17 to the heights the Irish reached in 2015?
14. The Irish have fun – Face it, the 2014-15 Notre Dame team was great fun to watch. The Irish did their thing in impressive fashion yet seldom were impressed with themselves. The players were approachable and low-key. They seldom made headlines with anything they said. They did their jobs as if they expected to do their jobs at that level. It was no different from the first exhibition on the first day of November to the craziness of Cleveland in late March. They shot the three, they dunked (see Grant’s amazing flight down the baseline against Georgia Tech when his chin ended up the near the rim), they passed and then they passed some more.
So, what’s in your wallet? There are a lifetime of memories when it comes to Irish men’s basketball in 2014-15?
— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director