Peer pressure helps Notre Dame hoops stay poised

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH – Nobody in Notre Dame men's basketball history has played in more games than senior captain Pat Connaughton, who will set the school record (137) when he steps on the floor Saturday for a third-round NCAA tournament Midwest Region game against Butler.

But for all that Connaughton has done doesn't mean he's immune to criticism, particularly from his peers.

Especially from his peers.

If something needs to be said to get the Irish (30-5) back going in the right direction, more often than not,and more often than at any time in coach Mike Brey's 15 seasons in South Bend, it's going to come from one of the Irish before a coach has to say a word.

Most times, the staff sits back and lets the players police themselves.

So when Connaughton started the second half of last week's Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinals game against Miami (Fla.) with three missed shots and two turnovers, somebody had to get in his ear to get him back in gear. And it would be an underclassman, still really all new to the college basketball world, whose voice would matter most.

Sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson approached Connaughton with some strong words, and even stronger actions. He yanked on the senior's jersey for additional emphasis of his message – get it back on track, because the team needs you to get to where it wants to go.

Connaughton absorbed all that Jackson had to say, and knew that he had to be better. Then he was.

Three wins later, Notre Dame was celebrating its first-ever ACC tournament championship.

“This year, more than any other year, this team has the ability to not take things personally,” said Connaughton. “When people get mad or call you out on your performance, no one takes it as a personal shot, like he's picking on me because he doesn't like me.

“It's all known that it's for the betterment of the team and the team's benefit.”

That's one reason why Notre Dame has soared to a 30-5 record this season and sits 40 minutes away from a second NCAA tournament win and first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 2003. Through good times, the Irish resolve and focus has been strong. Through bad times, the Irish resolve and focus has been even stronger.

“That's where we've really grown,” Brey said. “We handle criticism from our teammates better than any team I've had.

“They've handled criticism of each other like men.”

It could be seen for the three days in the ACC tournament; and it could be seen during Thursday's second-round tournament game against Northeastern when Jackson got into junior power forward Zach Auguste.

Auguste fell into foul trouble, picking up his second less than six minutes in. When that happened during the season, Auguste had a tendency to drift into indifference. But Jackson wouldn't let him do it again Thursday.

“We're just a really close team,” Jackson said. “Guys listen to the call-outs and use that for motivation. I can almost see it in their eyes.”

Auguste responded with a game-high 25 points in the 69-65 victory over No. 14 Northeastern.

The Irish have been at their best when they've been on edge, particularly with one another. It's something Connaughton and fellow senior Jerian Grant worked for weeks last fall to instill in everyone up and down the roster.

“There are leaders on this team, but there's plenty of times where we need to be called out as well,” Connaughton said. “Last year, people were intimidated by calling out the older guys with the reaction they would have or not pay attention to them. This year, everyone realizes they have a voice.”

For as much as the Irish have done this season – and they've done more than anyone ever imagined – Thursday's opener still was a bit of adjustment. Playing in the NCAA tournament is big, like nothing they've ever experienced. But the more time the Irish have spent in Pittsburgh, the more they've gotten used to the routine – the interviews, the open locker rooms, the practice schedule, the attention.

Notre Dame looked little like itself Thursday, something it believes will change the second time around.

“There's going to be that adjustment period, especially for guys in this locker room who haven't been involved in an NCAA tournament,” Connaughton said. “It was very good that we had that game pressure on us. Now we know what it takes to pull out wins in this tournament.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame senior Pat Connaughton is fine with having an underclassman tell him something if he needs to hear it.AP Photo/KEITH SRAKOCIC

NCAA Tournament

Third round

WHO: No. 3 seed Notre Dame (30-5 overall, 14-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 6 Butler (23-10, 12-6 Big East).

WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center (19,100), Pittsburgh.

WHEN: Saturday at 9:40 p.m. (approximately).

TV: TBS.

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: Guard Kellen Dunham scored 20 points, including 13 in the second half, as No. 6 seed Butler beat No. 11 Texas, 56-48, in Thursday’s second-round game. The Bulldogs were limited to five field goals in the second half, but went 19-of-26 from the free throw line over the final 20 minutes. Swingman Roosevelt Jones left the game and then later returned after suffering a sprained left knee. He’s expected to play Saturday. Butler held Texas to a season-low 48 points. …This is the seventh NCAA tournament in the last nine years for Butler, which looks to advance to its fifth Sweet 16 since 2003. … Picked in preseason to finish seventh in the Big East after going 14-17 last year, Butler tied for second with Georgetown … Butler scores 69.6 points per game and allows 61.2. … Ranked as high as No. 15 in the Associated Press poll this season, the Bulldogs have five wins over ranked teams – North Carolina, Providence, St. John’s and twice over Seton Hall. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 71-31, but is only 1-4 at “neutral” site games. …Saturday will be the first time these teams meet outside the state of Indiana. … Butler has won six straight meetings dating back to 1990. … These teams last met Nov. 13, 2006 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse as part of the preseason National Invitation Tournament. Butler won 71-69. … Notre Dame has not beaten Butler since a 97-65 victory in South Bend on Dec. 30, 1999 … The winner of this game moves on to the Midwest Region semifinals Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

WORTH QUOTING: “Every time I go in the locker room I say there’s not a group I’d rather do this with, this journey, this season, than this group. They have embraced this whole dynamic, this new dynamic. We’ve gone through a lot of times in the locker room that have been really special and I just can’t say enough about everything in that locker room, how they’ve embraced this.”

-Butler coach Chris Holtmann, who started this season as an assistant before serving as interim and now permanent head coach.