Notebook: Finally, some Sweet 16 company in Notre Dame hoops program

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CLEVELAND – He finally has some Sweet 16 company on campus, and was more than willing to step aside so the spotlight could shine on this year’s group that made the long-awaited NCAA tournament run.

Former Irish swingman Torrian Jones was a member of the previous Notre Dame squad that was the last to advance to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. Jones was a junior on the team that beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Illinois before losing in the West Regional semifinal to Arizona in 2003. He often wondered with each passing year if that was the year that the 2002-03 team could allow a new group to take its postseason place.

It finally happened this year, and Jones couldn’t be happier for the current Irish, who took a seven-game win streak and 31-5 record into Thursday’s Midwest Regional semifinal as the No. 3 seed against No. 7 seed Wichita State.

“I’m loving it and feel very fortunate and blessed to be around and see this happen,” said Jones, who now works for the university and worked Thursday’s game on the Notre Dame radio network alongside play-by-play voice Jack Nolan. “We have a good group that runs itself and that chemistry has gotten them to this point.”

Jones felt that the key point for this season arrived Jan. 5 at North Carolina. It was Notre Dame’s first true road game of the year, and the Irish had to do some tough stuff – dig in, defend – to get out of Chapel Hill with the one-point win for the first time in school history.

When that happened, Jones felt this season could become that rocket rise to a place the Irish haven’t been in 12 years.

“Seeing how the guys reacted to a pressure-packed situation like that, we started to scratch the surface,” Jones said. “Then repeatedly answering the call anytime there was a close game, I don’t think they would have been doing that had they been blowing teams out all year long.”

There are plenty of similarities between that 2002-03 team and this year’s squad. Both had a key fifth-year senior (Dan Miller, Jerian Grant) and fourth-year senior (Matt Carroll, Pat Connaughton). Both had dynamic sophomore point guards (Chris Thomas, Demetrius Jackson). And both had the belief that somehow, they were going to figure it all out.

That season’s Sweet 16 team shaved their heads when they advanced to the tournament’s second weekend. This year’s group kept their intact.

Career choice

The assumption with Notre Dame swingman Pat Connaughton is that whenever the Irish basketball season ends, he will immediately pack up his stuff, trade in his hoops shoes for spikes and a baseball glove and pick up where he left off as a right-handed pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles’ system.

Not quite.

While the Orioles hold Connaughton’s rights for six years after making him a fourth-round choice in last June’s amateur draft, Connaughton is not contractually obligation to immediately rejoin the organization once the college basketball season ends.

“Pat loves to play basketball and he’s intrigued about what the NBA thinks about him,” said Irish coach Mike Brey.

Connaughton has already accepted an invitation to participate next month in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational, the first showcase for NBA draft hopefuls. There’s a chance that he won’t be drafted in the NBA’s two-round selection process in late June, but he still could be invited to join an NBA team’s summer-league roster for July.

Connaughton is ranked the No. 9 prospect in the Orioles’ farm system according to Six of those top nine are right-handed pitchers.

Career choice II

Alabama has made no secret where it would like to turn to fill its head coaching vacancy after firing Anthony Grant. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall sits atop the Crimson Tide wish list.

Marshall was asked Wednesday about his future, one that, at least for now, includes a long stay in central Kansas.

“None of my players are worried about it; none of my staff’s worried about it and I’ve said how content and happy I am at Wichita State over and over and over and we are,” Marshall said. “It could be the last job I ever have; I could retire from there.”

Marshall indicated that he’s had to deal with talk of him looking to go to school A, B and C in 13 of the last 17 years, but nothing has ever come from it.

“I’ve had two jobs in that amount of time,” he said.

Marshall is in his eighth season with the Shockers after the previous nine at Winthrop.

Records room

Connaughton and Wichita State senior guard Tekele Cotton both set school records for games played in Thursday’s matchup.

For Cotton, it was career game No. 141, one more than the previous school record set by Demetric Williams (2009-13). For Connaughton, it was career game No. 138, two more than the former mark of 136 held by guard Tory Jackson.

Cotton came into the contest with a career record of 120-20. Connaughton was 93-44.

Tourney tidbits

• Thursday’s Midwest Regional semifinal was the fifth game this season for Wichita State against a ranked team. The Shockers came into the game 2-2 with wins over Northern Iowa and Kansas and losses to Northern Iowa and Utah. Thursday was Notre Dame’s 10th game against a ranked team. The Irish were 7-2 including four-straight wins. Their losses were to Duke and Virginia.

• The Shockers took a 4-1 regional semifinal record into Thursday’s game with the lone loss in 2006.

• Shockers coach Gregg Marshall has taken Wichita State to four NCAA tournaments with one trip to the Final Four (2013) and two Sweet 16s (2013, ’15).

• Wichita State was ranked as high as No. 8 in the Associated Press poll this season. Notre Dame finished the final AP poll before tournament play ranked No. 8.

• Grant entered Thursday’s game ranked first in the NCAA for minutes played this season at 1,328. He currently ranks seventh in assists (235) and eighth for assists per game (6.8).

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Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton signs autographs Wednesday for fans at Quicken Loans Arena.SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ