Hungry Irish set sights on ACC championship

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Notre Dame fizzled in its first ACC tournament appearance last year, but players like Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant know what it’s like to play in the semifinals after making runs in 2011-12 and 2012-13.

GREENSBORO, N.C. – It is, without a doubt, the most storied existing conference tournament in college basketball, particularly now that the “new Big East” is a shell of what was the “old Big East.”

For the 62nd season – and the 26th time in Greensboro -- the Atlantic Coast Conference is conducting its post-regular season/pre-NCAA tournament affair. No such tournament supersedes the significance of winning this one.

“It would be really powerful to hang a banner with ACC on it,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “We had such a respected identity in the Big East, and we yearn to develop that in the ACC.”

Captain Pat Connaughton and fifth-year senior Jerian Grant are the rocks upon which this memorable season (26-5, 14-4) has been built. Both experienced success in the Big East tournament.

The Irish advanced to the semifinals in 2011-12 -- when Connaughton was a freshman and Grant was a red-shirt freshman – with a victory over South Florida before falling to Louisville.

A year later, the Irish had to win twice (versus Rutgers and Marquette) to get to the semifinals, only to run into another Louisville juggernaut en route to the 2013 national championship.

“This year feels more like the Big East years my freshmen and sophomore years,” said Connaughton, who made 12-of-18 three-pointers in the first two games of the Big East tournament two seasons ago to propel the Irish to the semifinals.

“To be in this tournament in arguably the best conference in the country as a three seed is something this team can hang its hat on. But compared to last year, our expectations are very much higher than just getting a three seed and being there.”

Notre Dame’s sights are set at the top of the chart.

“It would be huge,” said Grant of an ACC tournament championship. “We have the confidence that we can go out there and win it. It would mean a lot to say we’re ACC tournament champions.”

For players like sophomores Steve Vasturia and Demetrius Jackson, advancing beyond the first game of the ACC tournament is the first step after a decisive 12-point loss to Wake Forest in the first game of the 2013-14 tournament.

“We’re focused on trying to win an ACC championship, and I think we’ve got a good chance of doing that,” Vasturia said.

“It would make us legit,” said Jackson of an ACC tournament championship. “It would be a great boost for us going into the NCAA tournament.”

The recent trend in the ACC tournament points to a team like Notre Dame winning it. Duke – which has won 10 of the last 16 – hasn’t won it since 2011. Florida State, Miami and Virginia have claimed the title the last three seasons.

The last time the ACC tournament was won by five different teams in a row was 1982-86 when North Carolina, North Carolina State, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Duke won it in consecutive years.

With quality performances at Louisville and at home against Clemson to close out a strong regular season, the Irish are in a good place heading in Thursday night’s tilt with No. 6 seed Miami.

“It was a quick exit (last year),” Brey said. “We’re really hungry.”


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