Finally one focus for Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Running from class to class and sport to sport while balancing the difficult demands of academics and athletics dominated nearly every day of Pat Connaughton’s first three years at Notre Dame.

That has all changed for Connaughton, now a one-sport standout only a few months away from his degree in management consulting.

Thanks to his work in summer school, Connaughton will graduate in December. And thanks to his decision last summer, when he was a fourth-round choice of the Baltimore Orioles, Connaughton’s college baseball career is over. For the first time since he arrived at Notre Dame, he can concentrate solely on one sport.

No more trying to shoehorn in a throwing session after hoops practice. No more trying to fit in fall baseball on a basketball day off. From here on out, it’s all hoops all the time.

“I can focus on basketball for a solid seven months,” he said. “I’ve never focused on one sport for an extended period of time.”

Six weeks in summer was as close as Connaughton got to being a one-sport guy. After signing with the Orioles shortly after the June amateur draft, Connaughton reported to the club’s training facility in Sarasota, Fla., before being assigned to the Aberdeen (Md.) IronBirds, a short season Class A team in the New York-Penn League.

While his hoops teammates were back on campus for summer school, Connaughton was a full-time professional baseball player morning, noon and night. He’d get to the ballpark in the early afternoon and not leaving until late, late at night.

“You eat, drink, sleep that game; that’s all those kids do; that’s all they want to do,” Connaughton said. “They get up every morning and they love doing what they do.

“It’s a different feel from balancing basketball, school, social life, stuff like that. All it is is baseball.”

Connaughton worked as a right-handed starter for the Orioles, but not in the traditional sense. Following a spring in which he worked 62.0 innings over 10 games (all starts) with 36 strikeouts, 40 walks and a 3.92 earned-run average while going 3-5 for Notre Dame, Connaughton received just a slight taste of life as a starter in the minors. He would work one inning in one game, maybe two innings the next, before calling it a night. Even when his stuff felt really good, his fastball was popping in the mid-90s and his breaking stuff was falling off the edge of the table, Connaughton might only face three hitters.

“They didn’t want to overdo things,” he said. “They just wanted to see flashes.”

Even with limited work, Connaughton felt he maxed out his time with the team. He threw with a higher velocity more consistently. His arm didn’t feel so worn out. He cut his walks way down. He finished 0-1 with a 2.45 ERA in six games with four starts. He pitched 14.2 innings and allowed 13 hits and nine runs with 10 strikeouts and three walks.

“I was able to learn how to pitch,” said Connaughton, who doesn’t plan to pick up a baseball again until January. “It’s interesting to see once you focus on something what you can actually do with it.”

Thinking hoops

Basketball never remained far from his mind. On those days that called for Connaughton to throw lightly on the side or sometimes not at all, he would dig out a basketball and find a hoop to keep any rust off his game. Many of the players on short-season Class A teams stay with host families to limit housing costs, and Connaughton was no different.

Not expected at the baseball park until 3 on many afternoons, Connaughton had plenty of down time. If he didn’t sleep in, he’d be hooping.

“I was able to get up in the mornings, play some basketball,” he said. “My host dad rebounded me for like two hours and he was exhausted by the end of it. It was a good time.

“I was able to balance both and that’s why I was so excited and eager to get back.”

Connaughton returned to campus in time for the handful of Irish practices leading into the August foreign tour of Italy. It took him all of maybe two sessions to jump back into the role that he has embraced the last three years: Need someone to make some shots? He’ll do it. Rebound? Will do. Be the glue? He’ll do that too.

“By practice two, it didn’t look like he played baseball all summer,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “He’s shooting the ball, making plays. What a rock.

“He is there every day.”

Connaughton will need to be there again and more this season. A starters since just beyond the midway point of his freshman year, Connaughton has never missed a game (101 career) and has made 82 consecutive starts. He again is a main guy for Notre Dame. Maybe even the main guy. He’s one of two seniors, and likely will be named a team captain in the coming weeks. While the program will benefit from the return of guard Jerian Grant, Brey admitted they really, really, really needed No. 24 back for his senior season, after staggering last winter through a 6-12 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“Never has a guy’s attitude, preparation, example been needed more than his this year for where we want to go and the mat we’re coming off of,” Brey said of the Arlington, Mass., native. “To look at him every day and see him, that’s very inspiring.”

Brey has to remind himself and his staff that watching Connaughton work should be something that cannot ever be taken for granted, especially his effort last season, when all he did – at 6-foot-5 – was lead the ACC in defensive rebounds (5.9). He averaged 13.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 37.2 minutes, all career highs.

Though an honorable mention post-season selection, Connaughton rarely is mentioned among the league’s elite. He could be on the verge of an all-ACC effort this season.

“He is so steady and solid and consistent on the court, and with his demeanor and attitude and preparation that you’re almost spoiled,” Brey said. “We won’t really understand it until we don’t have it next season and go. 'Man, that guy was really good.'”

Notre Dame and Connaughton opened official practice on Friday. The Irish had three-straight days of workouts before Tuesday’s off day. Notre Dame opens exhibition play Nov. 1 against Minnesota-Duluth.

Future double duty?

As for Connaughton’s life after college basketball, many believe that the day after the Notre Dame season ends – whenever that may be – he will be on a plane back to the Orioles’ farm system with basketball forever in his rear-view mirror.

But that’s no given, not for someone who has already drawn interest from pro scouts for his basketball abilities.

Connaughton may be considered a pro hoops longshot. But look at what he did last year in the ACC. Look at his dunk over Jabari Parker or his drive down the lane and two-hand slam against Ohio State last December.

Ranked the No. 19 prospect in Baltimore’s farm system, Connaughton is an athletic freak who doesn’t shy away from anything or anyone on the basketball court.

Connaughton signed in June for $428,100, but that covered only the six weeks of summer. The Orioles own Connaughton’s rights for six years, but they’re also banking on the fact that there will be little future basketball interest in him. If there is come spring, it gives Connaughton some leverage. It also gives him something he had when he arrived at Notre Dame: An option to play both.

Sacrificing one sport for the other has never been an option the last four years, and it may not happen for a few more, depending on how this season shakes out. If Connaughton delivers another big effort, and the Irish enjoy a little more success, who knows of his basketball ceiling?

“That’s when things become interesting and that’s a situation we’re trying to get to,” he said. “People always assume baseball, (but) it would be tough to live with myself knowing what could have happened instead of trying to see what may happen and then making my decision from there.”

Pat Connaughton hasn't closed the door on chasing professional basketball after his final year at Notre Dame.SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN