Notre Dame's Grant finding his voice
The last time he was a member of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team during the regular season, guard Jerian Grant had the luxury of leaning on others to handle the leadership lifting.
This month, all of that landed on his shoulders, and a semester away from the squad seemingly better prepared the steady but often silent Grant for the task.
When last seen in an Irish uniform, Grant was seated in the Madison Square Garden media room, the lone Irish player asked to dissect how an eight-point lead with less than a minute to go slipped away in the Dec. 21 loss to Ohio State. He did his best to answer how everything went wrong, all the while knowing that he soon would lose more than a game.
In the hours that followed as the Irish scattered for their homes over Christmas break, Grant returned to northern Indiana on a half-full team charter, packed the belongings in his apartment and headed out on the long drive home back to Bowie, Md.
Having committed an “academic misstep” during the fall semester, Grant spent the spring semester separated from the university. Re-admitted in the spring, Grant returned to campus in June for summer school.
A leadership void greeted him. Gone from last year’s group that without him staggered to a 15-17 finish, 6-12 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, were fifth-year senior captains Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman. Grant’s roommate and closest friend on the team, Eric Atkins, graduated in the spring as the only three-time team captain in program history.
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.”
Grant, who was leading the team in scoring (19.0), assists (6.2) and steals (24) at the time of his December dismissal, has not been made available to the media since his return.
Brey believes it’s good for Grant that Connaughton spends the summer learning how to become a Major League pitcher. Had Connaughton remained on campus, Grant may have continued in his role of letting his actions speak the loudest.
Until Connaughton returns from his baseball commitment July 30, Grant has had to be the voice and the guy who communicates what Brey wants and expects in a program of seven underclassmen.
“It makes Jerian talk a little bit more and be more of an outgoing personality,” Brey said. “He’s a better communicator from when he left and I think that’s something he’s improved on the most.”
Brey and his staff have developed a routine during the July evaluation period.
Coaches are allowed on the road to recruit from Wednesday to Sunday (Brey spent this period at an Under Armour event in Atlanta and the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C.) before returning to campus. Mondays are spent catching their collective breath. Tuesdays mean practice with the current team before everything starts over again Wednesday.
What’s caught the head coach’s eye during workouts?
The competition level throughout the roster; the readiness of the team’s three freshmen (Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, Martin Geben) and a sophomore class that had no choice but to play big roles as freshmen last season.
“V.J. Beachem and Demetrius Jackson have made great strides through the spring and into the summer,” Brey said. “Steve Vasturia, I look at Steve almost like a junior in our program with the poise that he played with last year, and the big moments that he played in last year.”
Brey looks at the seasons his three sophomores had as freshmen as good news/bad news. It was swell that all saw meaningful minutes — all started at one point or another — but it often was evident that they weren’t ready to handle the rigors of the ACC. Now they are.
“It helped them go into the summer a little more comfortable and confident,” Brey said.
Two more recruiting periods remain – this weekend and next – before Brey turns his focus to next month’s foreign tour of Italy.
The Irish are scheduled to leave Aug. 5 and will play four exhibition games on an itinerary still being finalized by assistant coach Martin Ingelsby and Brey’s administrative assistant, Stephanie Reed. One certain stop on the trip is Rome.
“It’s going to be very neat with the Notre Dame connection in that city,” Brey said. “We’re going to be able to do some things there that other people can’t. The education side of this is so powerful.”
The games – and the 10 practices leading into the tour – are critical for a young team that needs the work. Just as important is a chance for the Irish to experience a journey to a place that many would have otherwise never had. For junior Eric Katenda (a native of Paris) and Geben (Lithuania), overseas travel is the norm. For others, it’s a whole new world.
“I’ve got a roster of kids, maybe two of them, three of them, four of them have been out of the country,” Brey said. “Katenda and Geben do it all the time, but for some of our other guys, what an educational experience. It’s going to be good on a lot of fronts for us.”
The 2014-15 college basketball season marks the first time in over 20 years that Notre Dame will not make at least one regular-season trip into metropolitan New York.
Having spent 18 seasons in the Big East, the Irish often were in the area two or three times in a season. This year, their second in the ACC, has them skipping the big city for the first time since 1993-94.
“You’d like to get there as much as you can without forcing anything,” Brey said. “The rotation of the schedule this year kind of got us more into New England than New York.”
Notre Dame’s in-season tournament this year – the 2014 Tip-off Tournament – takes the Irish to the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on Nov. 22-23 for weekend games against Massachusetts and former conference colleague Providence. Brey hopes Notre Dame can get back into the New York area, maybe for a one-game deal like the Jimmy V. Classic at the Garden, before the ACC tournament moves to Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2017.
“It is important to get into that corridor because we have kids from New Jersey and New York and we are recruiting kids from those states,” Brey said. “Getting through there regularly will be important for us. We’ll get there.”
The official release of the 2014-15 roster highlights two new numbers for a pair of Irish sophomores.
Jackson, who wore No. 23 last season, has switched back to the No. 11 he wore while becoming a McDonald’s All-American at Marian High School. Sherman wore No. 11 last season. Jackson’s close friend, former Penn standout Austin Torres is the third player in school history (Ty Nash, Chris Thomas) to wear No. 1. Last season, Torres was No. 35 which has been issued to Colson. Geben will wear Jackson’s old No. 23 while Farrell is No. 5.
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