Cruel hoops competitors give Notre Dame advantage
PITTSBURGH – Considered by their head coach two cruel competitors in carving up opposing backcourts, Notre Dame senior Jerian Grant and sophomore Demetrius Jackson have tag-teamed at guard of late to play at the highest of levels.
Grant and Jackson again will look to create chaos for an opposing backcourt when No. 3 seed Notre Dame (29-5) begins NCAA tournament play Thursday (12:15 p.m., CBS) against No. 14 Northeastern (23-11) at CONSOL Energy Center.
Irish coach Mike Brey has long held to the belief that a team has a chance to go a long way if it has good guards. Grant and Jackson have played as well as any backcourt in the ACC, and maybe the country, the last couple of weeks.
“It sets the tone on both ends of the floor,” Jackson said. “It helps us get into a rhythm offensively and helps us be aggressive on the defensive end.”
Grant and Jackson spend a lot of time before the game talking about how to go about their collective business. They talk during breaks in the game. They talk in huddles. They talk at halftime. They talk as the Irish fall into a 2-3 zone or switch it up to man.
“We have a good plan,” Jackson said. “We have a great relationship.”
The two have worked as if they’ve known for years how the other will operate, but that hasn’t always been the case. The first time the two stepped on a basketball court as college teammates, they wanted to crush the other.
It was June 2013. Jackson was just beginning his freshman year; Grant was set to start his senior season. As the Irish gathered for their nightly pickup session at Rolfs Student Center, the 6-foot-5 Grant and the 6-1 Jackson were placed on opposite teams.
And the battle began.
“It was the competitive nature in both of us,” Jackson said. “It was almost like backyard basketball.”
A McDonald’s All-American coming out of nearby Marian High School, Jackson felt he had to prove he belonged at the elite level, that he could be counted on by not only Grant, but by a veteran Irish team coming off a season the previous winter that saw them win 25 games.
Grant arrived that evening with memories of his first pickup game at Notre Dame. Like Jackson, he believed he could be an elite talent right away, but was then taken down a notch or two or three in the summer of 2010 by eventual Big East player of the year Ben Hansbrough.
“I got my butt kicked a few times,” Grant said. “It definitely helped me become the player I am today.”
In many ways, Grant rotated into the role of Hansbrough that summer’s night. He went right at Jackson. He posted up Jackson. He defended him all 94 feet. He gave him a long look at the effort and energy it took to be an elite college guard.
There was some pushing. There was some shoving. There was intensity usually reserved for a critical conference clash sometime in the middle of winter. At one point, the teammates went chest-to-chest, then nose-to-nose. Neither backed down. The tension was, well, tense.
“It definitely made us better,” Grant said. “He’s a tough player to guard and I feel like I’m a tough player to guard. We definitely challenged each other.”
The recent tag-team run of Grant and Jackson is a key reason why Notre Dame enters NCAA tournament play on an all-time high after capturing the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
Against Miami (Fla.) in the tournament quarterfinals, Grant went for 13 points, six rebounds and six assists. Against Duke in the semifinals he delivered 13, seven and three. Against Carolina in the title game, he finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds to earn tournament most valuable player honors.
Jackson was just as good. His points-rebounds-assists lines read 12-5-3, 15-3-5 and 11-2-4 to earn second team all-tournament honors.
Prior to the Duke game, Grant and Jackson heard plenty of how the Blue Devil backcourt of Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones was the league’s – and perhaps the nation’s – best. Some of that bluster came from Cook and Jones. But both were back on campus in Durham while Grant and Jackson cut down nets in their basketball backyard.
“We definitely took that matchup a little personally,” Grant said. “I think it showed.”
Both have been near-lethal in screen-roll situations, whether getting something for themselves, getting to the rim or getting something for someone else. They’ve also defended 94 feet. They’ve pressured. They’ve trapped. They’ve guarded.
They are playing their best basketball together at the season’s most important time. As Brey said early this season, they have been assassin-like.
“When those two guys are slashing, we’re hard to deal with,” he said. “We’re coming right down your throat.”
The way Grant and Jackson are playing allows for everything across the board – effort, confidence level, trust – to be raised by the rest of the Irish. When Grant and Jackson are sizzling, everything else comes easily for everyone else.
“It’s awesome, something that really makes this team go,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton. “We’re at our best not only when our offense is on our toes but also our defense.
“Not only do Demetrius and Jerian do it on the offensive end, but they do it with defense.”
Game-planning for the NCAA tournament can sometimes be a tricky test. Teams have to step out of their conference-play comfort zones and get a lot of information gathered on an unfamiliar opponent – a quality opponent – in a short amount of time. They also have to deal with the knowledge that their next loss is their last loss.
But in some ways for Notre Dame, playing Northeastern is like playing against a similar version of itself. The Huskies like to move the ball and spread other teams out. They have old guys, a big man down low that’s often hard to deal with and they pass well to guys who can make shots.
Northeastern made 55 percent of its shots from 3 during the Colonial Athletic Association tournament.
“We’re going to have to defend to win,” Brey said. “We defended to win down there. Our offense was good, don’t get me wrong, but we defended to win a trophy and we’re going to have to defend to win (Thursday) at noon.”
And to win, the Irish starting backcourt has to be good. That’s also part of the plan.
“We’re not done yet,” Jackson said. “We want to continue making history.”
• WHO: No. 3 seed Notre Dame (29-5 overall, 14-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 14 Northeastern (23-11, 12-6 Colonial Athletic Association).
• WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center (19,100), Pittsburgh.
• WHEN: Thursday at 12:15 p.m.
• TV: CBS.
• 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: Picked in preseason to win the Colonial Athletic Association, Northeastern is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991 after winning the league tournament. … The Huskies have won four straight and six of the last seven. They haven’t lost since Feb. 26, a 72-65 decision at Elon. They finished 14-8 away from home, including 6-1 at neutral sites. … Northeastern lost consecutive games only once this season – at William & Mary and at Drexel. … Four of five Huskies started all 34 games. Northeastern used two different starting lineups this year. … One of two seniors on the squad, forward Scott Eatherton leads the Huskies in scoring (14.6) and leads the CAA in field goal percentage (594.). He’s third in the league in blocked shots (1.3). … Guard David Walker ranks second in scoring (13.6) and second in the league in minutes (36.9). … The Huskies average 68.6 points and allow 65.0. … Northeastern is first in the CAA in rebounding defense (28.4), second in field goal percentage (48.6), second in 3-point field goal percentage (38.8), ninth in 3-point field goal percentage (44.5) and ninth in turnover margin (-3.71). ... Notre Dame leads the all-time series 1-0 with the meeting in 1997 in South Bend. … Notre Dame is 12-3 away from Purcell Pavilion, including six straight wins dating back to the Feb. 7 loss at Duke. …The Irish have won five in a row and eight of their last nine. … This is the third noon start game of the year for Notre Dame, which went 1-1 with a win over Massachusetts and a loss at Pittsburgh. … This is the 10th appearance in the NCAA tournament for Notre Dame under Mike Brey, who is 6-9. … Notre Dame has not won an opening game in the NCAA tournament since a victory over Akron in 2011. … The winner of this game advances to Saturday’s third round to face the winner of No. 6 Butler and No. 11 Texas. Tip time for that game will be determined late Thursday.
• WORTH QUOTING: “We can’t really worry about Notre Dame and what they have done. We have to take care of our business. If we do upset them that would be something to talk about.”
-Northeastern sophomore guard T.J. Williams