No givens for this group of Irish

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Guarantees that the Notre Dame men’s basketball team will be good enough this season to return to the NCAA tournament, good enough to finish in the top half of the Atlantic Coast Conference and good enough regain its swagger after last season are not givens.

Not for a team that struggled to sustain much of anything good last season before finishing 15-17 overall, 6-12 and tied for 12th place in the 15-team ACC.

The Irish resolve again will be tested in the coming months, but what they believe can be better is their overall approach, which suffered to a point where the returning players wanted everything last March to end and end quickly so they could hit the offseason reset button and start over with a clean slate.

In a rush to establish an identity during its inaugural ACC season, Notre Dame lost a whole lot of what made the program so special, so unique, so steady during its latter days in the Big East. Losses on the floor and problems off it were what often felled other teams. Notre Dame often stayed its course.

Last season, there were times when the Irish played with no compass.

“It was hard to keep our identity that we had in the Big East and carry it over to the ACC,” said junior power forward Austin Burgett. “There are so many things you can point to, but we just need to start off solid this year and not drop off.”

Only two seasons prior, the Irish ripped off a school-record nine-game league win streak en route to a 13-5 Big East record. That allowed coach Mike Brey to flirt with a fourth league coach of the year honor (it went that March to South Florida’s Stan Heath). Notre Dame finished 8-1 at home and 5-4 on the road in conference play. The Irish never lost two in a row and again were one of the league’s steadiest, surest programs from January through March.

Nothing like that ever came close to materializing last winter. Notre Dame had trouble protecting its once-invincible home court (5-4 in league play), couldn’t win on the road in the ACC (1-8) and three times staggered through three-game league losing streaks. The starting lineup featured 12 combinations and seemed to change not only game to game but half to half. Who was in? Who was out? Who knew?

“We’ve had time to grieve over last season,” said junior center Zach Auguste.

Grieve as in all-black funeral attire type of grieve?

“Pretty much,” Auguste said. “It was tough for us. But that’s dead and gone for us. Right now, we’re focused on the here and now.”

Hounded by injuries, ineffectiveness and academic issues, all problems it long avoided in the Big East, Notre Dame never did figure it out long enough to succeed. The season became one big scramble. One step forward often was followed by two steps back. Sometimes three.

“We,” Brey said, “got exactly what we deserved at 6-12.”

By the time it all ended in a disappointing first-round ACC tournament lackluster loss to Wake Forest, it couldn’t be soon enough for all involved. That loss closed a disappointing chapter and allowed Irish with eligibility remaining to look forward to starting over. Starting fresh. Starting something they believe can be special.

“Last year, you could probably say a lot of things about it that no one wants to say,” said senior swingman Pat Connaughton. “But you learn a lot from losing. You learn the tough things that not a lot of guys want to look at, that you may not look at when things are going well.

“It adds a chip on the shoulders of everyone overall.”

The one player perhaps carrying the largest chip – and it’s not necessarily a negative – is guard Jerian Grant. An academic misstep during the 2013 fall semester cost Grant the second half of last season. Instead of carrying over his game – which had been the best of his collegiate career - and living up to preseason billing as one of the ACC’s best, Grant watched from afar as the Irish scrambled to stay afloat.

Now back to finish out his fifth and final season, Grant has driven this team to be better just by being better.

“We’re really feeding off Jerian’s energy,” Auguste said. “Jerian is so determined and he’s so focused that it’s rubbing off on us and we’re so focused on winning together.”

Stability and steadiness will be welcome additions.

“It’s just in and out of practice every day, being solid, being accountable for each other,” Burgett said. “Last year, I don’t know what word to put on it. It was difficult.

“We just need to be solid and come ready to play every day and not take anybody for granted.”

Octobers are reserved for college basketball teams to start anew. Media Day often is that first step in starting over and starting fresh, but the Irish have been at it long before they stepped in front of the cameras and microphones and reporters on Wednesday afternoon.

Wednesday’s media session was pushed back 35 minutes so the Irish could squeeze in their ninth practice. Notre Dame will scrimmage Thursday, practice early Friday morning, then have four days off. For many, it’s their final time to return home until Christmas.

For now, Brey likes what he sees. He doesn’t necessarily know how all the parts and pieces will fit, but at least they’re the proper shapes and sizes.

“I don’t know the full identity yet,” Brey said. “Who are we going to be? How do we keep tweaking how we play to have a consistent identity that we achieved in the Big East?

“I don’t think I have all the information yet, but I’ve got some good starters.”

Notre Dame’s first step back toward being better arrived in the weeks after that loss to Wake Forest. Spring workouts took an all-business, better work tone. With only six returning players available – Connaughton was finishing his career as a right-handed pitcher on the baseball team while Grant remained in academic exile – those sessions featured some bruised egos and bloodied noses. The Irish got after one another in drills like they rarely had against opponents the previous months. It was a test of wills and a battle of survival.

“It was three-on-three every day getting after each other, getting in arguments, getting mad at each other,” Burgett said. “It was great. It really brought out the competitiveness in us and you could see the potential.”

It was what this program needed to raise the expectation level across the board – whatever they had done up to that point to be in the ACC was not near good enough. It was time to get better. Time to be better so that a repeat of last season can be avoided at all and every cost.

Nobody talks about all that happened last season, but everybody knows that a repeat of it isn’t that far-fetched if they don’t bring everything they have to every weight-room session, every practice, every meeting, every chance to be better.

“It’s definitely fueled us,” Grant said. “Guys are taking practice more seriously, taking their off-the-court issues more seriously and then when we get on the court, we’re just playing harder.”

Time to see where it all goes.

Notre Dame seniors Jerian Grant, left, and Pat Connaughton are poised to make sure everything that felled the Irish last season won't repeat this winter.