Notre Dame, Ind. -- Same time, same place, much different feeling.
One year after a dirge-like gathering on the concourse of Purcell Pavilion to put to rest a 15-17 season, the Notre Dame men’s basketball program gathered for a gala celebration at Heritage Hall to commemorate the ACC championship, a run to the Elite Eight and one of the most entertaining and impressive seasons (32-6) in the history of Fighting Irish basketball.
“For 30 days in March,” said Brey, “it was one of the greatest runs ever.”
“An Evening with Notre Dame Basketball” featured an evening of standing ovations. The response was a celebration of victories over Miami, Duke and North Carolina in the ACC tournament in Greensboro, hard-fought wins over Northeastern and Butler in Pittsburgh to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, a second-half offensive clinic versus Wichita State at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, and the memorably valiant effort that came up two points short against No. 1-ranked and then-undefeated Kentucky.
Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick said the portrayal of the Irish as this surprising upstart was misplaced, citing the success of the 2014-15 season based upon “the success of the years that preceded it.”
In the six seasons of the current decade, Notre Dame has won 70 percent of its games and made the finals or semi-finals of the conference tournament five times. Of the 345 Division I basketball programs in the country, only 22 of them made it to the NCAA tournament as many as five times, and Notre Dame was one of them.
Swarbrick said the pinnacle of the late-season run, for him, was winning the ACC championship against the “blue bloods” of the sport.
“This is as talented and cohesive of a staff as we have,” said Swarbrick, citing first and foremost “a remarkable chief of staff” in Brey.
“We play in the toughest basketball conference in the country, a conference that has more Hall of Fame coaches than any other,” concluded Swarbrick. “Those Hall of Fame coaches share a lot of things – a history of success and a long tenure.
“The other thing they share is in the past three years, they’ve gotten their ass beat by Mike Brey.”
Notre Dame assistant coaches Anthony Solomon, Rod Balanis and Martin Ingelsby – and others – passed out the awards. Balanis presented the Outstanding Playmaker to Demetrius Jackson. Solomon cited Zach Auguste as the team’s Most Improved Player. Ingelsby presented the Defensive Player of the Year to Steve Vasturia.
Connaughton was presented the Notre Dame Club of St. Joseph Valley Rockne Student-Athlete Award, and finally, the MVPs went to Connaughton and Grant.
Brey said Grant’s return from academic exile and rise to first-team All-American was “the best story in college basketball this year.” Brey recalled the day Grant “verbally committed” to Notre Dame at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md., only the shy, reticent Grant never actually said the words to Brey.
So Monday night, Brey told the story and asked Grant to come up to the microphone and actually say the words. “I’m committed to Notre Dame,” said Grant as the crowd roared and Brey and Grant exchanged an emotion-filled hug.
“We’ve never had a player that wanted the ball and delivered more than Jerian Grant,” Brey said.
Of Connaughton, Brey said: “I don’t know if we’ve had a student-athlete like this. To play two sports, to lead, to win, to set the tone, to know what to say…He flat-out had his hand on the pulse of this thing. He had the whole thing handled, and it was amazing to watch.
“It’s one of the greatest displays of leadership we have ever had at this university, and maybe ever in the country.”
Throughout the evening, videotaped interviews of the Irish players commenting on their teammates were interspersed. The most consistently poignant comments came from Demetrius Jackson, who always seemed to get to the core of the contributions of those he referenced, especially Connaughton, of whom Jackson said showed him the way to take over a leadership role the next two seasons.
Grant thanked Connaughton, Notre Dame’s lone captain in 2014-15, for asking him to join him in the pre-game conversations with the officials, beginning with the first game of the ACC tournament.
“He told me he wanted me to go up there with him in the post-season, and that really meant a lot to me,” Grant said. “My whole career at Notre Dame, I had never been able to go up there as a captain. That shows what type of team we had this year and what type of leader Pat is.”
Although Connaughton didn’t approach Tory Jackson’s still-talked-about 45-minute banquet speech from a few years back, he did take nearly 30 minutes to say his thank you’s and offer a final farewell to the Irish fans and his teammates.
Connaughton showed once again why assistant coach Anthony Solomon said, “It’s Pat’s world and we’re all just living in it.”
“If you’re striving for perfection, you’re going to land somewhere close to it,” said Connaughton of Notre Dame’s memorable run in the post-season.
“We wanted to not just change the culture, but to change it so you guys were proud and so that you guys had something to write home about…That we did it the right way and we did it the Notre Dame way.”