Irish hoops picked to finish seventh in ACC

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

When last inside the Atlantic Coast Conference epicenter, the Notre Dame men's basketball team limped away from Greensboro, N.C., saddled with a 13th-place league finish and a first-round cameo/loss in the conference tournament.

Back in North Carolina on Wednesday for the first time in seven months to participate in the league's annual Operation Basketball, the Notre Dame traveling party left Charlotte carrying some surprise news as to how some figure the Irish will fare the second time around.

Despite all that happened last season to Notre Dame, which finished 15-17 overall, 6-12 in the ACC and missed postseason play of any kind for the first time since 1999, there's a sliver of optimism that this season will better.

In an ACC media vote, Notre Dame was picked to finish seventh in the 15-team conference.

Earlier this week, senior captain Pat Connaughton insisted that the Irish wouldn't put much stock in the projection had Notre Dame been slotted in the bottom half of the league. Breaking the top half wasn't going to move the meter, either.

The Irish aren't going to publicly proclaim their team goals, but they probably include finishing somewhere better than seventh.

“There has to be an inner confidence that the pick doesn't mean anything,” said Connaughton. “As much as you can use it as motivation, you also have to hold your head high and have the confidence in this team that we're a lot better than that and we're going to have to come out and show that.”

Coach Mike Brey figured as early as August that Notre Dame would be slotted somewhere in the 9-10-11 range. He started preparing his team for that possibility soon after it wrapped a four-game foreign tour of Italy. The games overseas may not have been competitive – the Irish won each by an average of 44 points – but Brey had seen enough good stuff to realize that there might be something special about this squad. About this season.

Maybe some feel the same.

The lower the Irish are picked, Brey insisted then, the better. Notre Dame often does its best work when dismissed as an also-ran before the college basketball race even starts. In 2007, the Irish were picked to finish ninth in the Big East before setting a then-school record for league wins (14) to tie for second.

Duke is projected to win the league followed by North Carolina, Louisville, Virginia, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Teams projected to finish behind Notre Dame were Florida State, North Carolina State, Miami (Fla.), Clemson, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Virginia Tech.

Notre Dame went 5-6 against those squads last season.

Irish guard Jerian Grant didn't expect to see the Irish slotted in the top half of the division. Not after finishing in a three-way tie for 11th before being handed the No. 13 seed in the ACC tournament last season. Privately, he believes they can be among the league's elite.

“It's not where they pick you at, it's where you finish,” said Grant, who joined Brey and Connaughton in Charlotte. “If you think we should be picked higher, let's go out there and prove it.”

After Duke and North Carolina and Louisville and Virginia, the rest of the spots are up for grabs.

"You get past those four, there's a lot of people floating around at that next level trying to figure it out," Brey said earlier this month. "I think we're one of them."

Being picked so high guarantees the Irish nothing, not even getting back to the NCAA tournament, a baseline goal for any power-conference program. Notre Dame was part of the Big East when the once-superpower league sent a record 11 teams to the 2011 NCAA tournament.

Last season, only six ACC teams qualified for the NCAA tournament. The sixth - North Carolina State - participated in a first-round (play-in) game. Regardless of where Notre Dame sits in the preseason poll, there's still plenty of work to do.

“We're going to have to write our own future,” Connaughton said, “and prove to people who we are.”

Gone, not forgotten

The next ACC game that Grant plays in will be his first, but the league media still considers him among the conference elite.

For the second-straight October, the Irish guard was selected to the first team All-ACC preseason squad. He missed last year's league schedule because of an academic issue.

“I didn't get to play in the ACC, but I did have a pretty good season before I ended up leaving,” said Grant, who was averaging team highs for points (19.0), assists (6.1), steals (24) and free throw percentage (86.5) and second in minutes (35.6) through 12 games.

Grant leads all returning ACC players with 1,111 career points. Connaughton ranks third at 990 and is the league's top returning rebounder at 541.

Connaughton (85) and Grant (79) rank second and third in the league for most career starts.

Grant was joined on the first team by guards Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia) and Marcus Paige (North Carolina), who also was tabbed preseason player of the year. Forward Montrezl Harrell (Louisville) and Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor rounded out the top squad.

Considered the early favorite as the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft, Okafor was selected the league top rookie.

Reunited ...

Notre Dame needs to do no additional homework on the ACC's newest addition.

Participating in its third conference in as many seasons, Louisville replaces Maryland after spending last season in the American Athletic Conference. It was the first time since 2005 that Notre Dame and Louisville did not play at least once.

No two Big East schools had a more bizarre/unique/thrilling relationship. Louisville and Notre Dame played seven games, including four in a row and five of six, that went to at least one overtime. They played the longest regulation game in Big East history – the five-overtime epic won by Notre Dame (104-101) in 2013.

“The battles we've had with Louisville over the years, it's going to be fun to play them again,” Connaughton said.

Notre Dame was 5-8 against Louisville as Big East brethren. The Cardinals lead the all-time series 20-12 and have won three of the last four.

Considered a preseason Top 10 team, Louisville was picked in the ACC preseason poll to finish third.

Notre Dame and Louisville meet once this season – March 4 at Yum! Center - in the final Irish league road game.

“It's a chance to get another big win,” Grant said.

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Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant was a first team All-ACC preseason pick Wednesday for the second-straight season. Grant has yet to appear in an ACC game.SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN