Accountability on, off court key for No. 9 Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Gathered recently as a group to gear up for the final full month of the regular season, coaches and players from the Notre Dame men’s basketball team put a plan to paper.

One day prior to starting practice, coach Mike Brey talked of having February improvement for March success. He crafted a list of about eight to-do items to make sure the Irish continued to be even better as the regular season wound down. Among those were concerns that had been consistent all season – protecting the paint, gang rebounding and defending well enough to win.

Senior captain Pat Connaughton then stepped to the board in the locker room and added one word on the watch list.

Accountability.

The addition was met not by puzzled looks from everyone in the room, but by knowing nods. For the Irish to keep going where they believe they can go, accountability would play a part. A major part.

What does that word mean to the Irish?

“It means taking care of everything,” said Connaughton. “At this university, it’s not just about athletics. It’s getting your academics done, taking care of your body, eating healthy, getting your rest. There’s a lot that goes into being a Division I athlete.

“To be successful, you have to ramp that up even more, and that’s what we lacked last year.”

As February draws to a close, Notre Dame has nine more victories (24) than all of last season (15). It has doubled the Atlantic Coast Conference wins (12) than last winter. The Irish are tucked inside the Top 10 of the national rankings (No. 9 in Monday’s latest Associated Press poll) this late in the year for the first time since 2010-11 and are headed back to the NCAA tournament after missing out on any postseason last year.

Following last season’s lost season, it was important for Notre Dame to again win, but it was maybe even more important for the program to return to being the steady and stable outfit that it had long been in the Big East. One reason Notre Dame was the only school to make it to the tournament semifinals each of its final four seasons in that league was because the Irish took plenty of pride in being the most stable, most steady, most consistent program in the conference from January through March. While other schools were dealing with issues on and off the court, Notre Dame was busy working. And winning. Distractions were often minimal, if at all.

Last season then seemed headed off the rails even before the first go-round through the ACC arrived. Sophomore swingman Cameron Biedscheid announced in preseason a somewhat puzzling plan to sit out the season, if for no other reason than he wasn’t going to be a starter. Biedscheid eventually transferred. The Irish then absorbed the crippling loss of guard Jerian Grant, who left the program for the spring semester following an “academic misstep.” They never did recover.

Guard Demetrius Jackson missed two league games when he needed a week in February during his freshman year to tighten up his academics.

Along the way, the Irish fielded 12 different starting lineups, and only once were able to muster more than a one-game league win streak. For the players who remained to piece it all together, the series of stops and starts was a struggle on and off the court.

Distractions dominated a season that seemingly couldn’t end soon enough.

“It made it a lot tougher for us having all the different things go on off the court,” said sophomore swingman V.J. Beachem. “That took away from our focus.”

“It was a huge eye-opener for us, especially for me sitting out a few games,” Jackson said. “It makes you realize that you better handle your business. Once you do that, it makes everything so much easier not having to worry about anything off the court.”

Better on, off court

Notre Dame’s distractions have been minimal this season. In mid-January, junior power forward Zach Auguste skipped a mid-week trip to Atlanta for the Georgia Tech game to shore up some academic shortcomings.

Auguste was back in uniform by the end of the week, and back in line with the rest of his teammates. It doesn’t matter if someone’s a senior or a freshman, every player is held to the same standard in being accountable for his academics, his work in study hall, his eating habits, his sleep habits, his entire being as a basketball player.

“None of that,” Connaughton said, “is a distraction.”

As a result, Notre Dame is enjoying a season for the ages. The Irish have fielded only three different starting lineups. They have not lost two games in a row. Four more victories will set a modern-day record for wins. There’s still an outside chance to catch No. 2 Virginia and claim a share of the regular-season conference championship.

While Notre Dame has handled its business and embraced accountability, other ACC schools have been forced to address issues that don’t deal with the bounce of a ball.

Tuesday’s opponent, Syracuse, announced a self-imposed ban stemming from an ongoing NCAA investigation that will keep it from participating in the ACC tournament. Late last month, Duke dismissed swingman Rasheed Sulaimon. Georgia Tech recently suspended guard Chris Bolden for six games. Louisville first suspended then ultimately cut all ties Sunday with guard Chris Jones, the team’s third-leading scorer.

“This time of year, guys get squirrely,” Brey said. “We’ve been amazingly steady and stable.”

Even for a group that has been together since the trip to Italy in early August, everything remains so fresh, so good. For the first time in school history, Notre Dame will get to an NCAA tournament at the end of a season that started with a foreign tour. During the 2003-04 and 2008-09 seasons, Brey believes his teams eventually grew tired of basketball, of living up to lofty expectations and of one another.

This one’s still humming along.

“There’s so much good energy coming off this group,” Brey said.

On Saturday, the Irish fell two points shy of placing seven players in double figures for the first time in program history. They scored 87 points in a 17-point victory at Boston College. It was road win No. 6 – a single-season school record – for Notre Dame.

“Nobody’s ever been complacent; guys are still hungry to get better,” Jackson said. “Everybody knows we have to get better every day to be where we want to be.

“We’re just steady.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame has been a more together group, one reason the Irish are the No. 9 team in the nation heading into the final week of February.SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: No. 9 Notre Dame (24-4 overall, 12-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. Syracuse (17-10, 8-6).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Tuesday at 8 p.m.

TV: ACCN, WMYS (Channel 69).

TICKETS: Available.

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: Rakeem Christmas scored 20 points with 12 rebounds for his sixth double-double but Syracuse lost Saturday at home to Pittsburgh, 65-61. Battling a bad back, guard Trevor Cooney finished 0-for-5 from the field for no points. …. The Orange opened conference play 4-0. … Christmas ranks second in the league in scoring (18.2 ppg.) and fifth in rebounding (9.2 rpg.). … Syracuse is in sixth place in the ACC. … … Syracuse spent two weeks ranked No. 23 this season. … This is the only regular-season meeting between the teams. … Syracuse leads the all-time series 26-19 and has won the last two and five of the last six. Notre Dame’s lone win was Jan. 21, 2012 when Syracuse was undefeated and ranked No. 1. The Orange also were ranked No. 1 in last season’s 61-55 victory at the Carrier Dome .... The Orange are 11-9 all-time in South Bend. … Notre Dame is 24-4, its best record since going 25-3 in 1973-74. … The Irish have won three straight and nine of their last 11 following an 87-70 victory Saturday at Boston College. Notre Dame shot a season-high 66 percent from the field, also its highest percentage in an ACC game. The Irish also set school bests for bench points (30) and assists (19) in an ACC game. … The Irish are 37-for-40 (92.5 percent) from the free throw line the last two games.. … Guard Jerian Grant has had double-doubles for points and assists in each of the last two games, averaging 17 points and 10.5 assists. … Cooney and Grant rank second and third in the league in minutes played at 37.6 and 36.2. … Notre Dame is 16-1 at home this season, 6-1 in conference games. … The Irish have a seven-day break from game action after Tuesday’s game before closing out ACC road play March 4 at No. 17 Louisville.

WORTH QUOTING: “We’re getting ready to play one of the best Notre Dame teams that we’ve faced since I’ve been at Syracuse. They’re a tremendous team. They shoot the ball as well as any team in the country. They’ve got multiple scoring threats. This is a very, very good team. It’s the best offensive team that I’ve seen at Notre Dame and they’ve had a few good ones.”

-Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.