ND's Grant learns about ACC life as marked man

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Basketball life, as guard Jerian Grant had come to know it during his final season at Notre Dame, effectively ended when the New Year arrived.

Up to that point, Grant still was known as the great unknown – a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference preseason first team selection who spent the 2014 spring semester separated from school for academic reasons. Grant returned in the summer before shredding non-conference opponents the first two months of the season, picking each one apart with frightening efficiency. When league play resumed for the Irish after the first of the year, Grant was leading the ACC in scoring, assists and assist/turnover ratio.

He then drove the lane with one dribble and two steps off a Steve Vasturia inbound toss the afternoon of Jan. 3 and delivered a cruel and crushing two-handed dunk. Grant jumped so high that he threatened to rub his stomach on the rim while basically vaulting over Georgia Tech guard Tadric Jackson. The play went viral. If they didn’t before, everyone who lived and breathed college basketball knew of Grant.

He’s touted as a candidate for league player of the year, a potential national player of the year and possible first-round NBA draft pick in June. Grant is currently fifth in the ACC in scoring (16.6), first in assists (6.2), first in assist/turnover ratio (3.96) and fourth in minutes (34.94).

Two days after the dunk against Georgia Tech, Grant realized what it meant to be a marked man. For the first time in his five-year college career, he is the one at the top of the opponent’s scouting report. If teams have any chance of beating No. 12 Notre Dame (15-2, 3-1), which carried a 10-game win streak into its Jan. 5 game at North Carolina, they have to slow No. 22.

“We almost kind of knew this was coming,” coach Mike Brey said. “We’re going to have some physical defenders really limit him and take him away.”

North Carolina did just that, but Notre Dame still did enough for a 71-70 victory. Bottled up by a Tar Heel defense that gave him a look he had never had to decipher while running his ultra-effective screen-and-roll – the Tar Heels went under the screen of the Irish big and dared Grant to pull the trigger from the perimeter – he was hounded into 1-of-8 from the floor. His only basket was a left-handed layup early in the second half.

“My shot wasn’t falling so it was hard to get into the lane and create,” Grant said.

Unable to influence the outcome with his scoring, Grant focused on finding others for open shots. He finished with a game-high eight assists and was singled out afterward by North Carolina coach Roy Williams.

“He really dominated the game,” Williams said of Grant. “He’s a heck of a player.”

Five days later against undefeated and then-No. 3 Virginia, Grant was thrown into the equivalent of screen-roll jail by guard Malcolm Brogdon. Every time Grant attempted screen-and-roll with an Irish big, Virginia blitzed it. If Grant wanted to go left, there was a defender. If he wanted to go right, there was a defender. If he wanted to work off the ball, Brogdon shadowed him everywhere. The Cavaliers dared him to do something. He often did nothing.

“Virginia just kind of stayed there the whole game,” Grant said. “Those different ball-screen looks have been difficult for me.”

The result was another quiet scoring night for the 6-foot-5 Grant. He finished with a team-best six assists, but scored only six points on 2-of-8 from the floor. It was the first time since early in the 2012-13 season that Grant went consecutive games without scoring double figures.

Afterward, Grant left the arena surrounded by family and friends, but basically alone with his thoughts. Those thoughts weren’t dominated by what HE could do better, by what HE could do to score more but what Notre Dame needed to do to return to its winning ways starting Wednesday at Georgia Tech (9-6, 0-3).

Grant’s offensive game may be stuck in neutral, but his mind continues to move forward.

“Being one of the leaders on the team, if I’m hanging my head about the game and still thinking about what didn’t happen, what are the rest of the guys going to do?” Grant said. “As long as I move on quickly, the rest of the guys can too and we can get another ‘W.’

“We still have a long ACC road ahead of us.”

Grant is another in a long line of Irish who have become those gotta-guard guys for opposing teams. Jack Cooley, Ben Hansbrough and Luke Harangody all faced similar situations. They were the ones every night that league teams were going to try to eliminate from the offensive equation. But Grant’s game is different than each of those three, who often could and would just go and get a bucket or force a way to get to the foul line.

Grant often looks first and second to get a teammate involved before getting something for himself, something that Brey and his staff have worked on for years. It’s fine, they’ve counseled Grant, to get something for himself, preferably going to the rim.

“I don’t want him to take bad shots,” Brey said. “For him, he’s done a good job the two games because people really take him away and sit on him. I don’t want to over-coach him like, ‘Let’s run stuff so you shoot it.’ His stuff comes a little differently.”

Faced with another physical defender Wednesday, Grant may give way to sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson to initiate some of the offense. That way, he can work himself free for an open look off the ball. Brey also would like to see Grant pressure the defense a little more, drive it and look to draw a foul. That way, he can get to the free throw line, where he’s shooting 79.7 percent, fourth-best in the ACC.

Staying involved and influencing games in other ways, has allowed Grant not to get frustrated with his lack of scoring chances and his current shooting percentage from 3 (15.4 percent on 2-of-13) in league games, something that may have happened when he was younger.

“As long as we’re in the game with a chance to win or we’re winning, it’s really easy for me to keep doing what’s working and keep playing,” he said. “The most important thing right now is winning.”

Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant has found the scoring tough going the last two games against North Carolina and No. 2 Virginia. (AP Photo/GERRY BROOME)

WHO: No. 12 Notre Dame (15-2 overall, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. Georgia Tech (9-6, 0-3).

WHERE: McCamish Pavilion (8,600), Atlanta.

WHEN: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

TV: WMYS My Michiana 69.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Georgia Tech has lost its first three conference games by a total of 15 points. All three have been decided by seven or fewer points, including a seven-point double-overtime loss Jan. 3 to Notre Dame and a one-point loss (46-45) in its league home opener Jan. 7 to Syracuse. Georgia Tech also lost by seven points Saturday at Wake Forest. It was the first time that Tech has been out-rebounded (41-29) this season. … The Yellow Jackets are last in the league – 15th – in field goal percentage (41.9) and 3-point field goal percentage (24.1). … Marcus Georges-Hunt scored a team-high 20 points in a team-high 45 minutes in the game against Notre Dame. … Georgia Tech grabbed 19 offensive rebounds and had a 46-31 rebounding advantage in the first meeting with Notre Dame. … The Yellow Jackets are 6-2 at home with losses to South Carolina Upstate and Syracuse. … Georgia Tech leads the all-time series 7-4, including 4-0 in Atlanta. … The Yellow Jackets are 0-5 at home against ranked teams in league play the last three-plus seasons under coach Brian Gregory. … The Irish lost their 2013-14 league road opener at McCamish Pavilion last January, 74-69. … Notre Dame has not won a regular-season game in Atlanta since an 88-85 victory over Georgia at The Omni on Feb. 6, 1994. … The Irish lead the nation in field goal percentage (53.5) and are second in assist/turnover ratio (1.66) following Saturday’s home loss to No. 2 Virginia. … Notre Dame set season lows for points (56) and field goal percentage (34.5). … This opens a stretch of three of the next four and four of six league games on the road for Notre Dame, which matched its league road win total (1) with last week’s victory at North Carolina. … Notre Dame returns to action Saturday at home against Miami (Fla.).

WORTH QUOTING: “Last time we lost a game, we came off the mat pretty good last time I checked. You’re in league play, how do you bounce back? I have the utmost confidence in the leadership (but) it’s going to be hard to win.”

-Irish coach Mike Brey on moving past Saturday’s loss to No. 2 Virginia and going back on the road in ACC play.

WORTH QUOTING II: “You just gotta keep believing. You’ve got to believe who you are and what you need to do to be successful. You need to be rock-solid that you are strong night-in and night-out. Every fiber of your being has to be committed to that.”

-Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory on staying positive despite an 0-3 ACC start.