Notre Dame men's basketball: What's new? Role grows for ND's Connaughton

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

Deepening the job duties has been an annual occurrence for Notre Dame junior swingman Pat Connaughton. During his freshman year of 2011-12, only 19 games were needed before the coaching staff realized the Irish were better with Connaughton on the floor more. He moved into the starting lineup — where he has remained since — before Notre Dame ran off nine consecutive conference wins. That included a seven-point, seven-rebound effort in the upset of top-ranked Syracuse and a monster 23-point, 11-rebound day against Marquette. As a sophomore, Connaughton no longer was considered just a spot-up specialist. He took on the added role of doing a little more off the dribble and at the rim. He also guarded the other team's best perimeter player. “He's so flexible,” said coach Mike Brey. “He's physical. We can play him a lot of positions.” Connaughton now is faced with perhaps his most important increased responsibility. With Notre Dame needing to be better at team rebounding following the graduation of Jack Cooley (10.1 rpg.), and eager to field a three-guard lineup that includes former Marian standout and McDonald's All-American Demetrius Jackson, the 6-foot-5 Connaughton and his 6-10 wingspan often will slide into the role of the team's second big man. “I'm pretty excited for it,” said Connaughton, who averaged 4.7 rebounds last season, second to Cooley among Irish who finished the season on the active roster. “I've always loved rebounding. I've always loved banging around inside. “It's something that I'm looking forward to this season.” Connaughton gets that chance sooner than later as Notre Dame opens exhibition play Monday (7 p.m., no TV) against Division II Indianapolis at Purcell Pavilion. If all the pieces had been in proper place, Notre Dame would field a starting lineup of senior guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, Connaughton on the wing and fifth-year senior power forwards Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman. Sophomores Zach Auguste and Cameron Biedscheid and Jackson would be the main three off the bench. But injuries — lingering and longer term — may shuffle that rotation. Auguste will not play while recovering from a broken left hand. Knight, who spent one of his longest stretches of good health in his collegiate career during preseason, recently experienced back spasms. If he cannot go, the starting lineup might include Biedscheid, fellow sophomore Austin Burgett, who has impressed during his increased workload since Auguste's injury, or Jackson. However the top five unfolds, Connaughton will get a long look as the second big man. “We'll get to that a bunch,” Brey said. A three-time team captain, Atkins is the most consistent voice in the locker room, but Connaughton is not far behind. Offered this offseason the opportunity to pitch in the Cape Cod Summer League, and encouraged by Brey to spend all offseason there if he felt the need, Connaughton cut short the pitching stint to return to campus and be around the Irish as much as possible. “He's such a great teammate,” Brey said. Connaughton did it because he knew how important the offseason was for him and for Notre Dame. Last year's team fell short in the vocal leadership department. Now an upperclassman, Connaughton was encouraged this summer to have a stronger say in huddles, on the floor and in the locker room. Like working as the second big, it's a role he's embraced. “That helps me a lot, not only in being a leader but delivering on a consistent basis,” he said. “Having more being asked out of me is something that I thrive on. I really look forward to it.” Notre Dame looks forward to the chance to play an actual game for the first time since the 2012-13 season ended March 22 in the third-round NCAA tournament loss to Iowa State. A long offseason seemed even longer after the NCAA allowed teams to begin official practices in late September. Monday's exhibition — and another Friday — cannot come soon enough for the Irish. In an attempt to break the practice monotony, Brey canceled Friday's workout and took the team bowling. Brey wants to see what this team will look like defensively, if it can better pressure handlers and contest passing lanes with the three-guard look and gang rebound. Offensively, Notre Dame looks to again be an efficient group. That means taking care of the ball, taking good, high-percentage shots and making sound decisions. “That's been the hallmark of our program,” Brey said. With four starters back off last season's team and a talented freshman class confident it can contribute, Connaughton believes these Irish will look a lot different than seven months ago. “It's a consistency thing,” he said. “We've worked on it. You've seen it in spurts, now we can home in and do it on a night-to-night basis.” TNoie@SBTinfo.com 

574-235-6153 

Twitter: @TNoieNDInsider

1/30/2013: Pat Connaughton, left, passes the ball around Villanova's NCAA college basketball game on Jan. 30, 2013, in South Bend.

WHO: Notre Dame vs. Indianapolis (exhibition).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Monday at 7 p.m.

TV: None. The game can be seen live at WatchND on und.com.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDInsider.

WORTH NOTING: Indianapolis is an NCAA Division II school with an enrollment of 5,400. … The Greyhounds return four starters off last year’s team that finished 20-9, averaged 76.2 points per game and shot 48.7 percent from the field. … They won 12 in a row to start the year and closed with victories in three of their last five. … Indianapolis also plays an exhibition this week at Purdue. … No Greyhound stands taller than 6-foot-9. … Indianapolis is a member of the Great Lakes Valley Conference, the same conference for previous Irish exhibition opponents Lewis, Quincy and St. Joseph’s (Ind.). … The Greyhounds were picked in a preseason coaches’ poll to finish fourth in the GLVC’s East Division. … The Irish are without sophomore power forward Zach Auguste (broken left hand). … Notre Dame closes exhibition play Friday against Tusculum (Ohio) at 9 p.m. … The Irish season opener is Nov. 8 at home against Miami (Ohio).

WORTH QUOTING: “If Eric Atkins is the most respected guy in the locker room, Pat Connaughton isn’t far behind.”

—Irish coach Mike Brey.