Follow the leaders

Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton have set up Notre Dame up for tourney runs – this year and beyond – by grooming sophomore Demetrius Jackson’s game and voice.

Every few weeks Demetrius Jackson headed to Mike Brey’s office, usually flanked by Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. The in-season summits were designed less for the sophomore point guard to offer input than for Jackson to figure out how the Irish program really worked.

It was an investment in next season when Grant and Connaughton won’t be here to help. It’s proven vital to this season too as Notre Dame opens the ACC tournament tonight against Miami with expectations of an NCAA Tournament run later this month.

By listening, Jackson found his voice. Brey heard it during the blowout loss at Duke. Grant hears it virtually every time Jackson controls the ball. Connaughton has heard it when he’s gone quiet as the Irish captain.

“There’s no fear of going at the captain,” Connaughton said. “Demetrius is very good at calling you out whether it’s positive or negative.”

The alpha dog in Jackson isn’t a breed that will tear the face off a teammate a la Ben Hansbrough. And because this Notre Dame team doesn’t have that savage personality in Grant or Connaughton either, it’s let chemistry develop beyond the veterans.

For Grant and Connaughton, effective leadership has meant a willingness to follow. It’s required rebuilt confidence for Jackson to call out a future pros. And it’s demanded a new maturity from Grant and Connaughton to listen. Blended, those dynamics helped get the Irish to 26-5 overall and the No. 3 seed in the ACC Tournament.

“Demetrius has made great strides in being a voice and a leader,” Brey said. “He is comfortable challenging Jerian and Pat.  They have been comfortable accepting that. Demetrius has earned that. That’s what I love rolling into next year because I think he will be the key voice for us.”

Whatever team talks Jackson gives next season, it will be in the accents of Connaughton and Grant.

Jackson relied on both to push his game forward after a dreadful freshman season that bottomed out with transfer speculation in February. Rough patches as a sophomore have been limited to production, where Connaughton has smoothed out the former McDonald’s All-American.

Connaughton returned from Christmas break a day early and shot late night with Jackson, pushing 2 a.m. When Jackson hit a February lull – a six-game stretch where he shot 15-of-38 and averaged 7.6 points per game – Connaughton told the point guard to keep firing. Jackson closed the regular season 10-of-19 with 35 points in wins over Louisville and Clemson.

“Pat’s a little more vocal than Jerian, but they’re both great leaders and lead by example,” Jackson said. “The past couple weeks, I was offensively in a funk. For them to encourage me and continue to motivate me, I definitely think that’s been probably the most important (thing).”

Grant started scouting Jackson’s mental makeup during the summer tour of Italy, wanting to check boxes before giving Brey his stamp of approval. He’d only played a half-season with Jackson before Grant’s second semester suspension. 

“With Demetrius, he’s a defensive stopper,” Grant said. “I’ve seen it in practice. I saw it a little bit last year. I needed to see it on a consistent basis. He was out there ball hawking, getting a lot of steals and playing with a lot of confidence.”

How Notre Dame’s layered leadership holds up in the postseason, not even Brey knows. The Irish were out immediately of the ACC tournament last year. The roster has zero minutes played in an NCAA Tournament win, Notre Dame’s last coming four years ago against Akron.

The ACC Tournament puts the Irish on the same Greensboro court as their 67-63 Round of 64 loss to Xavier three years. Grant shot 4-of-13 and scored just 11 points in the loss, including a brutal lane violation in the final seconds. In a blowout loss to Iowa State in the Round of 64 a year later, Grant shot 3-of-8, finishing with nine points and five turnovers.

Against Xavier and Iowa State, Connaughton went a combined 5-of-9 for 13 points.

Now Grant and Connaughton can write their own history while also helping Notre Dame’s young talent grow. Each objective should complement the other as the Irish seek their third Sweet 16 in the last quarter-century.

“Those two have been great all season long,” Jackson said. “We just want to continue to fall behind them into the ACC and the NCAA tournament.”


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