They’ve been in this situation before and watched it fizzle and fall apart. A brilliant regular-season has been followed by another tournament collapse.
They’ve made runs in the conference tournament and then dropped the ball. Senior captain Pat Connaughton has never been part of a Notre Dame basketball team that has won an NCAA tournament game. Jerian Grant was red-shirting during his freshman season when the Irish defeated Akron in their first game of the NCAA tournament and then lost handily to 10-seed Florida State.
The determination to make this a different conclusion to the 2014-15 season has never been higher. Neither has the confidence.
“They believe it’s their time now in post-season, and they have every reason to believe,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey after Notre Dame’s 81-67 victory over Clemson Saturday lifted the Irish to a 26-5 overall record and a 14-4 mark in the ACC as they enter this week’s conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C. as the No. 3 seed.
“I don’t think I have to work on that. Other (previous Notre Dame) teams, I was working on them. I certainly don’t want to over-coach them. You want to let Jerian and Pat set the tone for us.”
Brey said the initial tone was set on the August trip to Italy when the team played four games against mainly inferior competition. The togetherness and teamwork began to take a tangible form during that excursion, and it’s built to a crescendo heading into the post-season
“I really believe our sophomores and (Bonzie) Colson have played more like juniors because of the leadership of Pat and Jerian,” Brey said. “Those two guys helped the young guys believe, and they helped the coach believe, too.
“Those two guys were so confident coming back that starting with me, it made me feel like, ‘The way they’re talking, we do have a chance,’ and I think it was contagious. Demetrius (Jackson) and Zach (Auguste) had to be key guys, and the way Pat and Jerian talked in Italy made them feel that way. It helped me bring them along as key guys.”
The Irish have completed phase one of the 2014-15 season. They’ve put themselves in a position to land a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. Some success in Greensboro would solidify that standing. The strong regular season has virtually assured the Irish of a favorable geographic placement.
“This group as a whole has always had their sights set on the biggest of goals,” Connaughton said. “Our goals are very lofty. If we focus on one game, one possession at a time, I think we have the ability to accomplish it.”
“We have a 100 percent focus on getting wins in the post-season,” Grant said. “We know we can do it. We’re stressing to the team to just play our game. We’re a top 10 team in the country, so if we play our game, we’ll be there at the end.”
The “moment by moment” mantra has rubbed off on Auguste, who struggled against Louisville but had a nice bounce-back performance against Clemson with a 19-point effort on 9-of-13 shooting.
After Saturday’s game, Auguste was focused on the days leading up to their first game Thursday night after No. 6 seed Miami plays the winner of Wake Forest-Virginia Tech for the right to play Notre Dame.
“We’re happy to be where we are and we want to continue to make a statement,” Auguste said. “We’ve got to continue to take care of our bodies, rest our bodies and recover. Do the things off the court that we have to take care of.
“Then we just have to stay together and keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve been a great offensive efficiency team, and on defense, we’ve got to stick with it and just play together like we’ve been playing.”
Spearheading the defensive charge is sophomore Steve Vasturia, who once again put the clamps on a top opposing scorer – Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame – after he got off to a fast start without Vasturia assigned to him.
“For us it’s defense and rebounding,” Vasturia said. “Offensively, we’re really talented and we’re always able to be pretty efficient on that end. So if we can defend and get out in transition, we’re going to get easy shots, which we usually knock down.”
For Jackson, who sets the tone by pressuring the basketball and joining forces with Grant to create up-tempo opportunities, it’s about setting the pace and then remembering just how important this is to the players.
“We’ve got to play hard, continue to be happy for each other, and continue to bring the energy we’ve been bringing the past couple games,” Jackson said.
“We don’t want to stop playing with each other. There are only two guaranteed games left. Our group really wants to stick together. There will be tough situations, and during those tough times, we just have to remember how close we are and how much we want to stick together and not let it end.”
The best way to not let it end, according to Brey, is to get the ball in the hands of Grant when it matters the most.
“No. 22 is the difference-maker,” said Brey of Grant. “We’ve had a lot of close wins, we’ve stolen games, and when you have Jerian at crunch time in game situations, we’re all very confident.
“The year before, we couldn’t finish those games. We were in a lot of game situations, but we didn’t have the closer. We’ve got the closer who can score it or make the play, and the other guys are really confident when he has it in his hands.”
Notre Dame’s confidence away from Purcell Pavilion is at an all-time high with seven conference victories out of nine, including triumphs at places such as North Carolina, North Carolina State and Louisville.
“The nice thing is we’ve been great away from this building, and everything else is away from this building the rest of the way,” Brey said. “It’s not like I’ve got to convince them that we can be good on the road. We’ve been really good on the road.”
The road to their destiny begins in Greensboro.