Storylines aplenty for No. 9 Notre Dame as regular season winds down

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

They have been together for nearly 30 regular-season games and 100 practices, around a ball and a basket almost daily since the foreign tour of Italy in early August.

But the next three weeks, and with a little luck and a lot of hard work one or two more, will be what everyone remembers about this special season for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

Inside a seven-day break before wrapping up the regular season with games Wednesday at No. 17 Louisville and Saturday at home against unranked Clemson, Notre Dame sits at 24-5 overall, 12-4 and third place in the Atlantic Coast Conference. No Irish team has been this good this deep into a season since 1973-74. Notre Dame is ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll, No. 8 in the USA Today/Coaches poll. For the last three weeks, it has been a lock to return to the NCAA tournament after missing the postseason last year.

It’s been a whole lot of ups (going 69 days with only one loss, winning at North Carolina for the first time in school history, beating Duke in front of an electric Purcell Pavilion crowd) and a few downs (near-misses against Providence, Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse and being smothered by Duke). Notre Dame has been ranked in the top 10 for six consecutive weeks as college basketball’s most important and memorable month arrives.

Here are five central storylines worth following as an Irish regular season that far exceeded all expectations winds down:

Why is Jerian Grant the ACC player of the year?

The statistics scream special. Grant ranks fifth in the ACC in scoring (16.9 ppg.), first in assists (6.6), seventh in free throw percentage (79.5), fifth in steals (1.79), first in assist/turnover ratio (3.31) and third in minutes (36.3). Half of his eight career double-doubles have come this season.

But it’s more than stats when it comes to his value. It’s the swagger. The fifth-year senior has had a few clunkers – going 1-for-7 from the free throw line in the loss at Duke, not attempting a single shot in Tuesday’s first half – but there have been many nights where Grant has clearly been the best player on the floor. He’s carried himself as such.

Former Irish Pat Garrity, Troy Murphy, Luke Harangody and Ben Hansbrough each earned league player of the year honors in the collegiate careers by doing what Grant has done all year – driving the train, setting a tone for his teammates to be better and delivering.

Coming back to finish work toward his undergraduate degree after missing the spring semester last season due to an academic issue wasn’t enough for Grant. He wanted to max out his basketball experience. So he came back a better player. A more mature player. A focused player.

Heading into the final week of the regular season, league player of the year is a two-man race – Grant or Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor, a multi-talented future NBA multi-millionaire. Okafor received plenty of POY hype in preseason, when many around the league still had no idea the depths of Grant’s game. Okafor was the chosen one, Grant the unknown one.

Okafor has the luxury of playing with the elite of the elite as teammates who know how to set the big guy up for easy buckets. Everything that Notre Dame has done on the court this season – E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G – has hinged on Grant’s ability to create. If he has a bad day, so do the Irish.

Grant has delivered in ways few Irish ever have. That still might not be enough for the ACC and its Tobacco Road roots to look to Indiana and acknowledge the league’s best.

Might a new wrinkle be added to the Notre Dame rotation?

Five years ago, it was “burn” that helped slingshot Notre Dame into postseason with four-straight victories to end the regular season. Are we on the verge of “big?”

Long before the trek through Italy, before ripping through non-league play 12-1 and before flirting with first place for the better part of two months in league play, the Irish operated one way – four perimeter players around one low-post player.

Playing bigger, the way the Irish worked much of last season, simply was not at option. Too much size bogged down everything. These Irish were built to move and cut and flow offensively and sliced up many a non-league team in that manner.

Late in Tuesday’s game against Syracuse, coach Mike Brey paired together starting power forward Zach Auguste and freshman forward Bonzie Colson. It was a combination that Brey admitted afterward the Irish would look at during their week away from game action.

Colson’s work the last four games has demanded he play more. He’s averaged 11 points and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 69.5 percent from the field. He’s played with a confidence not found in many freshmen in this league not named Okafor.

Playing Auguste and Colson together gives the Irish more size it’s missed around the rim in league play, where it ranks 12th in the ACC for rebounding margin (+1.1). Going big also could allow the Irish guards to work more off screens set in the halfcourt without concerns of emptying the post. Add to the mix senior captain Pat Connaughton, the team’s leading rebounder at 8.0 per game, and the look may solve a constant concern that has seen the Irish outrebounded in seven of their last eight.

But it would come with a cost. An Auguste-Colson pairing for however many minutes means fewer for a perimeter player. But which one? V.J. Beachem stretches the defense with his shot and can create matchup problems with his length. Demetrius Jackson is the most relentless on-ball defender and gives everyone else the confidence to get up on their guy and guard. Brey believes Steve Vasturia is one of the most underappreciated players in the country. He plays with a savvy far beyond his two seasons.

Can an Auguste-Colson combination do enough to earn Brey’s confidence that the Irish are better off not being 4-around-1 for all 40 minutes? We might find out this week.

How can this team avoid cruise control?

Even when Notre Dame lost Tuesday at home to Syracuse, it won. North Carolina State went to Chapel Hill and beat North Carolina that night, which clinched a double-bye for Notre Dame in next week’s ACC tournament. After laboring to a 6-12 record in its first ACC season last season, Notre Dame is guaranteed a top-four finish. That was one goal many figured was too much of a reach for an Irish team picked in preseason to finish seventh in league.

There’s plenty for Notre Dame to prove this week, to itself and to the outside. Since beating Duke at home on Jan. 28, Notre Dame is a pedestrian 4-3. The wins have come against three teams (Boston College (2), Clemson, Wake Forest) that entered the weekend with a combined 12 league wins. The losses have come to three teams (Duke, Pittsburgh, Syracuse) with a combined 29 league wins.

Has the competition caught up to Notre Dame or was a rather average February just a stretch that swallows every league team not named Virginia?

A red flag of sorts was raised the other night after the Syracuse game when Brey and Connaughton talked about the Irish having only four guaranteed games left – two in the regular season and at least one in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. For a team that that has been so locked in with a laser focus on the next task at hand and the next challenge to answer, it was the first time this season anyone in the program publicly acknowledged that they can see the light at the end of what has been a long tunnel.

This season has always been only about getting better and getting onto the next game. Counting them down wasn’t part of the process.

That can’t start now.

What awaits Notre Dame at the ACC tournament?

Everything. Particularly what it really is like to be in the ACC. Last season was Notre Dame’s first run through the league after 18 years in the Big East, where it was the only team to advance to the league tournament semifinals every year for its last four seasons. It had everything about a Friday night in Madison Square Garden – from the sight of former president Bill Clinton in the stands, to the inspirational instrumental of “God Bless America” – down pat.

For as much as the Irish have learned about life in the ACC, it really knows nothing about the ACC tournament. Notre Dame lost to Wake Forest in the tournament’s first game in front of seemingly select hundreds at the 23,500-seat Greensboro Coliseum.

It’s going to be a whole lot different this time around. Depending on how the rest of the regular season shakes out, Notre Dame may face a Tobacco Road regular – North Carolina or North Carolina State – in a quarterfinal game. Success Thursday could send Notre Dame into a third meeting against Duke in a Friday night semifinal showdown.

The atmosphere will be eye-opening for Notre Dame, likely still looked at by the ACC family as the mysterious cousin in the corner.

Will Notre Dame finally deliver when it really matters in March?

It has to. Notre Dame last ventured down a similar road of regular-season success four seasons ago. It won a modern-day school record 27 games against seven losses, climbed to as high as No. 4 in the national rankings and earned a No. 2 seed in the Southwest Region of the NCAA tournament.

Even with all that, and with five seniors in the starting lineup, the Irish failed to get to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. Two years ago, a veteran Irish team ripped off 12 consecutive wins early in the year and won seven of nine in league play en route to a 25-10 record before being pummeled by Iowa State in the NCAA opener.

Before and after both seasons, the same question of Notre Dame was asked – if not now, when?

Everything has broken right for this year’s Irish – a special, unique talent in Grant is part of a solid senior nucleus that has driven this team all season. Auguste made a serious push for league most improved player honors. Beachem, Jackson and Vasturia all play like they belong after being in over their then-freshmen heads last season. Colson brings an attitude and energy that no freshman owned last season.

Much has been accomplished this season, yet much more is expected.

Very soon, the storyline’s going to shift back to if not now, when? Ever?

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame has been a together group in taking it one day, one week, one challenge at a time this season. Can the Irish keep from looking ahead knowing that the end of the season is closing in?AP Photo/MICHAEL DWYER