Notebook: Chemistry a big hoops key for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CLEVELAND – Gathered as a group that March day over a year ago in the hotel suite of their head coach after being eliminated from the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, returning members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team had little clue what lay ahead for the 2014-15 season.

Who were they going to be moving forward from last season’s 15-17 showing? They wanted to be better. They dreamed of doing more. But could they do everything needed to do to be a more cohesive, competitive group?

Notre Dame answered that question and many more by getting to its first NCAA tournament regional final since 1979 when it faced No. 1 seed Kentucky late Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena for the Midwest Regional championship.

“We’ve really come together as a family, as brothers,” said senior guard Jerian Grant. “I think that’s what made us so good. We really trust each other, we really give each other confidence.”

That confidence was nurtured in August during the team’s foreign tour of Italy. It wasn’t so much about competition – the Irish won four exhibitions by an average of 44 points – it was breaking down barriers between players that may have built up over last season’s struggles. Even as the Irish ventured deeper into what became a long season, and the games and the practices piled up, they showed that this was a different team.

“At Christmas, we’re starting to think, ‘You know, we’re not that 17-loss team anymore; we’ve got a chance at this thing,’” coach Mike Brey said.

Notre Dame’s two previous teams that took summer foreign tours — in 2004 and 2008 — failed to make it to the NCAA tournament because those teams got tired, both of the long grind and of one another.

This one never did.

One reason Brey so enjoyed getting to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003 was that it offered him the opportunity to coach this group for another week.

“You can’t look at one thing you will remember the most,” said Irish captain Pat Connaughton. “You will remember it all as a whole. Not many people were sure how we would perform (but) we had to believe in each other. It will be something that you won’t be able to forget and memories that you’ll have forever.”

No reserves

Kentucky coach John Calipari refuses to use the word “reserves” when talking about the players in his ridiculously-deep rotation that don’t start the game.

“We have reinforcements,” he said, likening the guys that come in to replace the starters as “tanks coming over the hill.”

How did Calipari find himself in the position of dividing up minutes for as many as 10 players before forward Alex Poythress went down with a season-ending knee injury eight games into the year? Calipari constructed his current freshman recruiting class, which includes potential NBA first-round draft picks Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns, believing that at least four players off last year’s team (guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Poythress, power forward Willie Cauley-Stein) would leave for the NBA. When all four decided to return to school, it created a minutes crunch.

Calipari said he had no choice but to find time to all 10.

“My choice was to either play seven and figure out why I wasn’t going to play three – bury them, do whatever, but 'You three aren’t playing,'” Calipari said. “Or I could try to play 10. We coach every player on this team like they’re a starter.”

Ten Wildcats have started at least one game, while no player averages more than 11 points. According to NBADraft.net, Kentucky has four projected first-round picks and seven overall in the June draft.

Iron Five

Notre Dame’s starting five of guards Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia, swingman Pat Connaughton and power forward Zach Auguste started for the 36th time together in Saturday’s regional championship.

It was the 18th straight game the same five started.

Every starter except for Auguste has started every game.

The only other Irish to start this season were freshmen Bonzie Colson and Martinas Geben, who each started one game in mid-January. A year after fielding 12 different starting lineups, the Irish have had three.

Notre Dame’s starting frontline of Auguste, Connaughton and Vasturia goes 6-foot-10, 6-6 and 6-5. Kentucky’s starting frontline of Cauley-Stein, Lyles and Towns goes 7-foot, 6-10, 6-11.

“Kentucky has three physical bodies in there,” Auguste said. “It’s going to be another challenge for us, individually and collectively.”

Battling the best

Saturday marked the 35th time in school history that Notre Dame has played the nation’s No. 1 team. The Irish entered the game with a career mark of 10-24 against top-ranked teams.

Saturday was the first game for Notre Dame against the No. 1 team since a 61-55 loss last season at Syracuse. The last time the Irish had beaten a No. 1 team was Jan. 21, 2012 at home against Syracuse, which also entered that game undefeated.

Kentucky has been ranked No. 1 six previous times prior to Saturday in games against Notre Dame. The Irish were 1-5 with the win (67-61) Dec. 27, 1980 in Louisville.

The regional final marked the first time Notre Dame has played an NCAA tournament game against the nation’s No. 1 team since an 84-77 loss to Duke in the 2002 South Regional second round game in Greenville, S.C.

Tourney tidbits

• Notre Dame was one of three ACC schools (Duke, Louisville) to advance to the Elite Eight. Two others – North Carolina and North Carolina State – lost in the regional semifinals.

• It’s the first time three ACC schools were in the Elite Eight since 1985.

• The Irish entered Saturday’s game against Kentucky having tied the school record for NCAA tournament wins with three. Notre Dame also won three tournament games en route to the 1978 Final Four in St. Louis.

• Kentucky has advanced to the Elite Eight five times in the last six seasons. The one year it didn’t get to the regional championship, in 2013, it lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the postseason National Invitational Tournament.

• Saturday’s winner advances to the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium Indianapolis to play the winner of the West Regional championship between Arizona and Wisconsin.

• Notre Dame entered Saturday’s game one win shy of the program’s all-time record for wins of 33 set in 1908-09.

• Thursday’s victory over Wichita State in the Midwest Regional semifinal bumped Notre Dame’s record to 8-1 against teams that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. That included two wins over Duke and North Carolina and victories over Louisville, Michigan State and North Carolina State. The loss was to Duke.

• The Irish entered Saturday’s game having won 15 games away from home, including eight in a row, most since it won 14 in 1957-58. Notre Dame had not lost away from home since Feb. 7 at Duke.

• Jerian Grant’s younger brother, Jerami, was expected to attend Saturday’s game, time permitting. Jerami Grant is a rookie forward with the Philadelphia 76ers, who were expected in town sometime Saturday in preparation for Sunday afternoon’s NBA game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena.

• Irish senior captain Pat Connaughton appeared Saturday in his school-record 139th career game. It was start No. 123.

• Notre Dame entered Saturday 1-4 all-time in regional finals with the win coming in 1978 against DePaul in Lawrence, Kan.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Former Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant will participate Friday in the first-ever college basketball postsason awards show in Los Angeles.SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ