Notre Dame men's basketball: Connaughton continues to prove value
Conventional coaching wisdom dictates that if a player, as key as he may be, has two fouls early in a college basketball game, he spends the rest of the first half sitting and watching and waiting.
But there is nothing conventional about the game of Notre Dame junior swingman Pat Connaughton. At 6-foot-5, he’s jumped center the last four games, and won the tip on three occasions. He can play like a power forward, securing rebounds that guys five inches taller should snare. But he also maintains his guard game, unafraid to defend on the perimeter or make a big shot.
Connaughton went to the bench after being tagged with two fouls in the first 6:45 of Monday’s game against Bryant. His break lasted five seconds shy of two minutes after it was obvious that something about the Irish lineup sans No. 24 was missing.
The Irish led 12-11 when Connaughton checked out, and were down 17-12 when he returned. The two fouls aside, Connaughton helped restore order in a 70-59 Irish victory during the second of three home games in the 2013 BlackRock Gotham Classic.
As Notre Dame improved to 7-2, Connaughton had his third double-double — 17 points, 11 rebounds — in as many home games and the fifth of his career. That he was able to again have an impact was a result of not really caring about the early foul trouble.
Fouls or not, making shots or not, getting every rebound in sight or struggling to track anything down, Notre Dame needs Connaughton to play with an energy level that’s so contagious.
Forget passive-aggressive; Connaughton is all about aggressive-aggressive.
“It’s just a mentality and it all starts with rebounding and stuff that you can control,” he said. “That’s what I try to do and that’s something that helps us come out with a win.”
Hustle helps. Connaughton was at the top of the key when Demetrius Jackson attempted a corner 3 at the end of the first half. Connaughton raced to the rim looking for a tip dunk. When that didn’t happen, and Garrick Sherman grabbed a weak-side rebound, Connaughton refused to stand still. He charged from under the basket, grabbed Sherman’s miss and dropped in a hoop at the halftime horn.
Early foul trouble can be a problem for a player if he allows it. The key for Connaughton is caring, but not necessarily being concerned. He knows he has to play a little smarter, but change his game? No way.
“It can’t change your mentality as a player,” he said. “Then you get it in your head and you’re not out there playing, you’re thinking too much.
“I couldn’t let it affect me.”
Little has affected Connaughton early in a season that saw his peers vote him a co-captain with senior Eric Atkins. Nine games in, Connaughton is averaging career numbers for points (13.1), rebounds (7.2) and minutes (32.8). He’s shooting career bests from the field (50 percent) and from 3 (46.9). He ranks third in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 3-point field goal percentage, fifth in 3-pointers made (2.6 per game) and fifth in defensive rebounds (5.8).
Connaughton is seventh in the league in overall rebounding. All six players ahead of him each stand at least 6-8.
Irish coach Mike Brey would have preferred to sit Connaughton for an extended stretch Monday, but he just can’t bring himself to have him out of the lineup for more than a minute here or two there. He weathered the early foul trouble to play 11 first-half minutes, then went all 20 in the second. He went all 40 while scoring a season-high 21 two days earlier.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a more solid guy who just doesn’t let anything affect him,” Brey said. “He doesn’t get sideways.”
After opening the season with a starting lineup of two power forwards — Tom Knight and Sherman — Notre Dame has gone small the last four games. The three-guard look bumps Connaughton up to the power forward spot. Despite being vertically challenged, especially last week at No. 23 Iowa, Connaughton has responded with rebounding efforts of 10, three, 11 and 11.
“You can’t play small unless that dude is doing that,” Brey said. “He’s just so dependable.”
It’s reached a point where the older guys — Atkins, Jerian Grant, Knight, Sherman — notice Connaughton, also a standpoint pitcher whose career path is more promising in baseball, and know they have to raise their games.
“If you play with Pat Connaughton, you get confident because he’s such a rock,” Brey said. “You just get confident. I’m confident when he’s on the floor.”
That confidence will be tested Wednesday against North Dakota State (6-4), a team that finished one win shy last spring of advancing to the NCAA tournament. The Bison are a confident group that won’t be rattled playing on the big stage of a team that calls home the Atlantic Coast Conference. This game closes an Irish stretch of three games in five days. And this one may be the toughest.
“I think that’s great for us; these have been hard games for us,” said Brey, whose team opened the run with a five-point win Saturday over Delaware. “I’m very worried about Wednesday.”
The last two home games have seen the Irish jump to big early leads — 10 against Delaware, seven against Bryant — before the visitors made a run. Notre Dame gave itself breathing room by holding Delaware to one field goal the final 6:44 of the first half while Bryant went the final 8:26 of its first half with only one basket.
North Dakota State likely will have its moments. Cause for concern? Hardly.
“These teams are good teams,” Connaughton said. “They’re going to hit some shots; they’re going to hit some tough shots.
“It’s just a matter of sustaining that defensive intensity.”