GREENSBORO, N.C. — Walking through the drive-thru lane of a fast-food restaurant during the early hours following a late night three years ago classifies as the most memorable moment in two trips to this city for Notre Dame senior captain Pat Connaughton.
He and the 11th-ranked Irish hope to change that in the coming days when they finally open play Thursday in the 2015 New York Life Atlantic Coast Conference tournament at Greensboro Coliseum.
This is Connaughton’s third trip to the Coliseum complex during his collegiate career. In 2011-12, his freshman career came to a crippling close with a 67-63 loss to Xavier in an NCAA tournament opener. Afterward, though it was well past midnight once the team bus finally returned to their hotel, Connaughton and former teammate Alex Dragicevich tried to satisfy a Whopper hunger craving with the drive-through walk-through.
Last March, Connaughton’s junior career ended abruptly when Notre Dame was the first team eliminated with an 81-69 loss to Wake Forest in the first game of the ACC tournament. By that weekend’s arrival, he was back painting corners and throwing curveballs for the Irish baseball team.
“There are a lot of memories there, even though they’re not the best,” Connaughton said of Greensboro. “We’re looking to change that this year.”
Perhaps different from its previous two trips to town, Notre Dame arrived earlier this week toting something different about its collective confidence. The Irish have a whole lot of swagger. A year ago, an Irish team that finished 15-17 overall, 6-12 in their first run through the ACC, was simply playing out the string. If they won for the first time in the league tournament, swell. But even if they lost, it wasn’t all that bad. It would be — and was — time to turn the page and start fresh for 2014-15.
This season saw Notre Dame climb to as high as No. 8 in the national polls while going 26-5 overall, 14-4 in the ACC. The Irish tied the school record for most conference wins and set the school mark for most conference road wins. After winning just one game away from home a year ago, the Irish were really good this season, winning seven league games and nine times overall away from Northern Indiana.
That, Connaughton believes, will count for something now that every game the rest of the way – either in the ACC or NCAA tournaments – will be played in a building other than Purcell Pavilion.
“To have that sort of record away from (home) where the games that really count are is something that’s very encouraging,” Connaughton said. “We have that killer instinct. We enjoy silencing crowds almost as much as we enjoy livening one up.”
No Irish has been better away from home than one of the program’s two homegrown talents – sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson. Stepping into a starring role this season, the Mishawaka native averaged 12.5 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 33.7 minutes, all career highs, in 31 games.
In nine league road games, Jackson averaged 13.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 35.3 minutes. Group those nine with the non-league games away from home against Massachusetts, Providence and Purdue, and Jackson averaged 14 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 35.4 minutes in the dozen away games.
Jackson went for 15 points and three assists last month in the win at Boston College, then capped league road play with a sparkling 21-point, five-rebound, four-steal, three-assist effort in last week’s win at No. 14 Louisville.
Getting away from home allows Jackson to get into more of an aggressive/attacking/single-minded mentality. He doesn’t have to worry about friends and family in the stands. He doesn’t have to worry about balancing academics. It’s all about staying focused and cutting it loose in front of far fewer friendly faces.
“It’s fun when everybody’s kind of cheering against you,” he said. “Guys really play well on the road. People are stepping up making big-time plays.”
The moxie that Jackson has shown away from home has been contagious throughout the entire sophomore class. Last year at this time, Jackson and classmates V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia had absorbed so many body blows through their first season that they were all but out on their feet by league tournament time. This year, the three and freshman Bonzie Colson have carried themselves on the court more like upperclassmen.
They’ve taken their lead from the examples set by Connaughton and fellow senior leader Jerian Grant.
“Me and Pat, we lead, but the young guys are fearless,” Grant said. “They’re not worried where they’re playing or who they’re playing against. They just play their game.”
Many wondered how a Notre Dame team that ripped through the non-league schedule rather effortlessly (12-1) would fair in its first true road test in January. The Irish responded by winning at North Carolina for the first time in school history. They followed with gut-check wins at North Carolina State and then later in the year at Louisville.
Having arrived in Greensboro on Monday evening – with spring break back on campus this week, the Irish had only Carolina on their minds – Notre Dame will have waited nearly 72 hours before tipping off against an opponent that was unknown until nearly midnight Thursday.
By the time the Irish play, only five of the 15 league teams still will have championship dreams.
“They’re really hungry,” coach Mike Brey said. “Talk about the difference a year makes.”
Whoever Thursday’s opponent is matters little to the Irish, who know that postseason is more about what they do. Whoever the opponent, they already will have played at least one game, while the Irish will have had four days off from game action. No big deal.
“If we want to be ACC champs, it shouldn’t matter who we’re playing,” Jackson said. “To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”
Part of this week carries with it some personal pride for Connaughton and Grant. Both have been to Greensboro twice before in their collegiate careers. Grant was called for a lane violation with 2.8 seconds left and the Irish down two with guard Eric Atkins at the free throw line in the Xavier loss and was a spectator last March. Both seniors talked amongst themselves this week about still being winless in the building, and about trying to change that – maybe in the biggest of ways.
“We know we’re both 0-for-2,” Connaughton aid. “There’s not many teams we play or places we play where me and him are 0-for-2.
“We’d like to change that and have a winning record after this week.”