Noie: Special group convenes to remember special time for Notre Dame men's hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

What happens when a dozen players off arguably the most successful Notre Dame men’s basketball team in program history can coordinate their schedules during a global pandemic to participate in a live streaming conference call?

How about two hours of non-stop stories and laughter and memories shared by those on the inside of the 2015 Notre Dame men’s basketball team, while those on the outside were offered a peek into just how close that 32-6 squad was on and off the court.

The term “brotherhood” is so overused and overrated in sports, but it applied to those 2015 Irish. Watching that video call Saturday afternoon offered sufficient support. Those guys cared about one another, cared about the team, cared.

If you missed that season, you missed something special. If you missed Saturday’s call, you missed pure Irish basketball gold. The backstory behind the story.

Billed as the “2015 ACC Tournament Championship Team Virtual Reunion” and coordinated by former Irish guard Demetrius Jackson, the session was broadcast on Twitch. Almost every player from 2015 — from first team All-American guard Jerian Grant to walk-on Matt Gregory — participated. The only player absent was former guard Matt Farrell, who had a tee time he couldn’t miss.

He missed a lot. A lot of stories. A lot of laughs. A lot of memories shared by guys sitting wherever they were sitting – back in their hometowns like guards V.J. Beachem (Fort Wayne) and Steve Vasturia (Medford, N.J.) and forward Bonzie Colson (New Bedford, Mass.). Or in their new homes, like swingman Pat Connaughton who checked in from his place in Milwaukee, which included a sweet sweeping view of Lake Michigan out the window, or power forward Martinas Geben from Nashville. Grant and Jackson called in from South Bend. Former forward Eric Katenda was in Paris, where it already was evening.

“We’re not really allowed to go out — only 30 minutes per day,” Katenda told his former teammates about the world-wide pandemic. “You need to have a form or the police will stop you. I can’t come back to the States ‘cause of the ‘rona,”

It was the coronavirus that allowed everyone to finally reunite for the first time as a group in five years, really since the year-end awards program when they unveiled the 2015 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship banner. Had the sports world not come to a stop, most of the guys — like Geben and Austin Burgett and Colson and Vasturia — would’ve still been overseas. Their regular seasons would’ve kept them away until June.

“It’s good to be back home,” said Colson, who played last season in Turkey. “It was a great experience for me. It’s good to see all my brothers, my boys.”

All those memories

It didn’t take long to jump back to 2015. Former Irish power forward Zach Auguste got everyone in the mood by wearing his mustard gold jersey that Notre Dame sported during its postseason run. He then raised his right hand, which featured a large ACC championship ring on his middle finger.

“We keep it on,” Auguste said. “Always.”

Minutes into the session, the former Irish were joined by strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski. Few around the program are as respected — even beloved — as much as Rolinski. He asked if anyone in the group wanted to run some 22s — up and back the length of the floor twice. Everyone admitted that Connaughton would win those and win them easily. A few said they’d give it the college try.

That resonated with the veteran strength coach.

“That was the makeup of this team,” Rolinski told them. “It didn’t matter if we struggled, we finished. Way too many good memories.”

Like the time everyone piled into a truck owned by Connaughton’s father for the drive across the Purcell Pavilion parking lot to Compton Ice Arena for a summer conditioning session. Players were hanging off the vehicle every which way, something coach Mike Brey heard about the next day, and that was the end of that. They laughed when Jackson told the story of Brey driving anywhere he wanted — even on sidewalks — during one of his recruiting trips because, well, he’d just signed a contract extension.

They laughed about the time Brey tossed former walk-on Chad Holtz from practice after he airballed a free throw. They teased about Colson really being 6-foot-3 3/4 and not 6-5. They laughed about stealing one another’s phones and loading them with hundreds of photos, or locking them for 30 minutes, which would infuriate its owners.

They laughed about the dice games and others they played at quiet moments. They laughed about how Brey ordered them to take off those neon yellow UnderArmour shoes and never wear them again after a disappointing home loss late that season to Syracuse.

“We put ‘em right back on,” Connaughton said.

The Irish wore them next time out and won at Louisville. They won their next seven and didn’t lose again until the Midwest Regional finale against Kentucky.

When the conversation waned — it rarely did with everyone often chattering at once — Jackson would offer a viewer question. Like who had the messiest locker (Grant) or who was the worst teammate to room with on the road.

The consensus was Colson.

“He stayed up way too late and he’s gotta sleep with the TV on and he snores,” Beachem said.

Colson protested, saying that he doesn’t snore anymore, not since he’s had his tonsils out.

More laughter.

The group also was joined by Rev. Peter McCormick, C.S.C., the team chaplain who can play a little. Make that, a lot. Father Pete asked if everyone would like for him to say Mass, which was part of the game day routine. He was asked his favorite memory from 2015.

“There was a culture in place that I loved the most,” he said. “When it clicked, it was beautiful to watch.”

Finally Grant, who was as outgoing and open on the call as he was dynamic during that 2015 season, asked the group about some of the games from that season.

“We,” Grant said, “had some fun games.”

Like the one against Georgia Tech when Grant drove the lane, jumped and kept going up until his freaking chest was above the rim as he delivered a nasty dunk. Or the Crossroads Classic game against Purdue, which the Irish led by seven at half then doubled them up (48-24) to win by 31. Or the game against Michigan State that was a coming-out party for Granger native Austin Torres. And the one at North Carolina State, where Notre Dame erased an 18-point deficit to win 81-78 in overtime.

How about the home game against Duke, when Grant probed the lane and had seemingly exhausted every option before eyeing Vasturia in the corner for a clinching 3.

“Steve been hitting big shots forever,” Colson said of Vasturia, who played professionally last season in Germany. “Just chilling in the corner.”

Chilling back home with that thick Jersey accent back, Vasturia just smiled. Pure Vasturia.

Jackson then punched up video highlights of the ACC tournament win over North Carolina. It got quiet for a minute as the Irish watched that decisive 24-2 run when everything just flowed and clicked and worked. It was beautiful basketball at its best. It was Notre Dame at its best. That team at its absolute apex.

“Y’all remember that energy?” Auguste said. “It feels like we just blacked out and went crazy.”

“We went crazy,” Grant said.

When everything ended

Nearly an hour into the call, Grant offered something that nearly sucked the energy and enthusiasm from the call. Even guys who had something to say about everything went quiet.

“How ‘bout that Kentucky game?”

“I had to go there,” Grant told the group.

Most admitted they’d never watched the game in its entirety. Not even highlights. Not even after all these years. Can’t do it. Won’t do it. That NCAA tournament game against a team that featured nine future NBA players, was for the Midwest Regional championship. Notre Dame led by six with 6:16 left. It led by two with 2:34 to play. But it went scoreless that final 2:34 in a two-point loss.

The Irish had a chance to win and return to the Final Four for the first time since 1978, except Grant’s contested fade 3 from the corner sailed long and a dream run, a dream season, a dream team, was done.

Grant then offered perhaps the strongest statement on an otherwise chill afternoon.

“If I could go back, I would’ve gone to the basket,” he said. “I don’t know why I shot the 3. We had them.”

“Man, we won that game, a lot of us would’ve done some things,” Auguste said.

Notre Dame returned to the Elite Eight the following year behind Beachem and Jackson and Colson and Vasturia. The year after that, it nearly won its second ACC tournament title in three seasons. It’s been a struggle since for myriad reasons. But there was little struggle in 2015.

“Special group,” Jackson told the Tribune in a direct message.

From the moment the Irish arrived on campus for summer school, then left for Italy on their foreign tour, everything just fit. There was youth and experience and exuberance and determination, all rolled into one. It was a time and a team that nobody wants to forget. And won’t.

“We,” Connaughton said, “were one of the best teams to come out of Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame players and coaches raise the trophy after an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina in the championship of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Saturday. Notre Dame won 90-82. 
From left, Demetrius Jackson, Bonzie Colson and Jerian Grant react during Notre Dame's decisive 24-2 run over North Carolina helped clinch the 2015 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship in 2015.

“We’re not really allowed to go out — only 30 minutes per day. You need to have a form or the police will stop you. I can’t come back to the States ‘cause of the ‘rona,”

Former Notre Dame forward Eric Katenda, right now residing in Paris