CLEVELAND – Mike Brey’s voice cracked, partly from the emotions of the moment, partly due to the fact that his vocal cords had been strained amidst the din of Quicken Loans Arena, which forced communication at a much higher decibel level.
He beamed with pride as he talked about his team’s amazing, go-for-the-gold performance against Kentucky in the Midwest Regional championship game, which the Irish led throughout much of the second half, only to fall to the undefeated Wildcats, 68-66.
After their first trip to the Elite Eight since 1979, the Irish couldn’t turn it into their first Final Four appearance since 1978. And yet in many respects, it still felt like a victory, one that carried on from start to finish of the season, and extended to seven games in the post-season play, from Greensboro to Pittsburgh to Cleveland.
“This group has gotten us into uncharted territory,” Brey said. “I told them, ‘When you leave tonight, keep your head up because you guys are champions. You are a championship team and we’re going to get some championship rings for that ACC championship.’
“They are fearless. I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a tougher group. They love the moment. At about the seven- or six-minute mark, we got out of the huddle and I was watching them talk out there before play started. I’m thinking, ‘God, it’s beautiful.’ Their relationship, their chemistry…I just marveled at watching it.”
It was, indeed, a sight to behold.
The spectacular performances throughout the season of captain Pat Connaughton and fifth-year senior Jerian Grant were no surprise. Connaughton moved into the starting lineup during his freshman season and his leadership skills flourished to a crescendo.
Connaughton wasn’t just one of the all-time great captains in Notre Dame basketball history; he was one of the greatest leaders in Notre Dame sports history.
Grant – never one to be vocally demonstrative, even as a fifth-year senior – did his leading with his play and his determination to keep taking his and the team’s game up incremental notches along the way.
A combination of Brey’s deft coaching and Connaughton’s confident leadership brought out the best in the supporting cast, which allowed what undoubtedly was going to be a bounce-back season from last year’s 15-17 disaster to become something truly special.
It was unfathomable in November to imagine how far Steve Vasturia, Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson would progress during the 2014-15 season with Vasturia the least surprising of the trio. He was the one of the three who had showed the most promise during the previous losing season.
By the time the 2014-15 season came to a close late Saturday night, Vasturia had proven to be a clutch, game-on-the-line, championship-level player. Not only was he Notre Dame’s best off-the-ball defender, he became a multi-faceted offensive threat. He wanted and took the big three-point shots along the way, including at home against Duke during the regular season and against Butler to advance to the Sweet 16.
Against Kentucky, he showed – as he had done most of the season – the ability to put the ball on the floor, drive to the basket and offer an array of offensive skills around both sides of the basket. If you can drive and score against Kentucky’s athleticism and size, you can do it against anyone.
Over the final nine games of the season, Vasturia made 37-of-69 from the field (62.7 percent). He evolved into a star this season.
Auguste was quite a bit more hit-and-miss along the way. As recently as the last road trip of the regular season (Louisville), he still was showing hiccups in his performances. Then came the final home game of the season, followed by the post-season. Auguste became a different, much-improved player, one that prompted Brey to suggest he’d be one of the top returning big men in the country.
Over the final eight games, Auguste averaged 15.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while converting 64.4 percent of his shots (49-of-76), and even those numbers don’t do full justice to his effectiveness. In the final two NCAA tournament games against Wichita State and Kentucky, he made 16-of-19 from the field.
Most expected Jackson to be a star from the outset. After all, he was a McDonald’s All-American. But the first-year experience at Notre Dame – from the classroom to the basketball court – swept Jackson away. He ran into an academic snag as a freshman and he never could quite find a groove as Eric Atkins backup/running mate.
The transformation started early in the 2014-15, thanks largely to Brey stressing defense first, ball distribution second and scoring third. The aggression that earmarked Jackson’s prep career at Mishawaka Marian returned. His love for the game, which was so prominent during his formative years, was evident once again.
Once the post-season started in Greensboro, he took it up a notch and was arguably Notre Dame’s most valuable player during its run to the ACC championship. He played the aggressor defending the dribble and by penetrating the lane.
Although he managed just two points on 1-of-7 shooting against Kentucky and had difficulty with the Wildcats’ backcourt length, he and Grant out-played the Harrison twins in the first half.
The overall growth of this basketball team from last year to this year couldn’t have been imagined. For every close, uncertain, doubt-your-ability loss in 2013-14, there was an equal and opposite response at crunch time in 2014-15.
The performance against Kentucky was not only valiant, it was chill-inspiring. The intention never was to feel out the Wildcats and probe when the opportunities arose. Notre Dame attacked Kentucky, put them back on their heels, and prompted a normally frantic John Calipari to become downright apoplectic.
Kentucky’s body language indicated doubt and concern; Notre Dame’s made an emphatic statement: We intend to go to the Final Four.
Ultimately, Kentucky’s talent, defense, experience in the post-season, clutch play, and perhaps Notre Dame’s lack of experiences this late in the season led to a failure to score over the final two-and-a-half minutes. Critical missed free throws by Auguste and Grant – after the Irish made their first eight – exposed the miniscule margin for error.
“We put ourselves in a great position to win the game, which is something you can be happy about,” said Connaughton, whose strength and will after the game was as obvious as his steely-eyed, big-time presence during the game. “Obviously it’s not something you’re happy about now or tomorrow. But at the end of the day, we went toe-to-toe with them.
“When a season ends that abruptly, there’s a lot going through your mind. You think about the guys in the locker room. The best thing about it was you were able to go through a whole season with the guys you call brothers.”
Just as the 2014 football season ended with an emphatic statement in Nashville against LSU, Notre Dame’s basketball pride – as dynamic as it’s been in three-and-a-half decades – shined through. The Irish went for it and fell short. But it carried Notre Dame basketball to heights no one could have imagined prior to the start of the post-season run, let alone in November.
“I told them I was honored to coach them and certainly honored to have two senior leaders like Jerian and Pat,” Brey said. “The whole season was a statement. I don’t think it would have been an upset. We never believed that with our little group, and that’s probably why we had a chance.”
A season of statements – plus the growth of Vasturia, Auguste and Jackson – is why a whole new light has been shed on the 2015-16 season and beyond. A few short weeks ago, a deep run in the NCAA tournament was imperative because chances didn’t seem very good that the Irish would be able to carry on beyond Connaughton/Grant.
To be sure, the loss of those two rips a large part of Notre Dame’s heart out. But now a pack of leaders return.
Bonzie Colson has to become the rebounding presence lost with Connaughton’s departure, although he won’t be able to duplicate the shooting prowess. V.J. Beachem must dedicate himself to dramatically improve his strength. He has more overall shooting prowess than Grant, if not the other slashing assets.
Austin Torres must expand his niche role. Martin Geben – a skilled big man in the prep ranks – has to shed weight, add to his confidence, and become an alternative behind Auguste, not the liability he was when he was part of the rotation early in the season. Matt Farrell needs to step up and provide productive minutes behind Jackson. Austin Burgett – a senior next season – has the athleticism and length to play a role.
Incoming freshmen Rex Pflueger and Matt Ryan represent the next generation of open-court scorers while Elijah Burns provides help in the frontcourt.
It’s unlikely Notre Dame basketball will be a year-after-year presence in the Elite Eight. But perhaps the 2014-15 season can raise the Irish to the level of Sweet 16 fixture, or at least a legitimate aspirant as opposed to the easy out they had become.
“There’s some really good stuff going on in that locker room with that group, and Pat and Jerian were the ultimate role models,” Brey said. “To lead, to be fearless, to be unselfish, to set the tone for winning, to set the team goal…It was just so pure. I hope we can bottle it and keep it going next season.
“The expectations of the group coming back will be very high. It’s a championship group. It’s certainly something to build on. We want to use that momentum.”
The 2014-15 Irish basketball season will go down in Notre Dame’s modest history of round-ball accomplishments as one of the greatest. Perhaps it will be the kick-start of more consistent things to come.