PHILADELPHIA – It wasn’t animosity or jealousy or the desire to show them up.
The key components of the 2015-16 Notre Dame basketball team loved and respected what Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant meant to and provided for last year’s team that advanced to the regional finals before falling to undefeated Kentucky, one step shy of the Final Four.
But they wanted to make their own mark, carve their own path.
Consider it done with a chance to add another layer…or two…or three.
“This is a group that always wanted to distance themselves from last year and have their own identity,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey the day before leaving for Philadelphia for weekend No. 2 of the NCAA tournament.
“I give them credit because last year’s team had no expectations after going 15-17. They could just play and develop. Everything they did was gravy.
“One of the advantages I hoped this group would pick up on was that they believed it was their time in the tournament.”
Friday night in the Wells Fargo Center, their time rolled around.
This year’s team with this year’s leadership chopped through the jungle that was the sticky Wisconsin interior defense – and the penchant for missing point-blank range shots – to claim a 61-56 victory over the Badgers to advance to Sunday’s East Regional championship game against No. 1 seed North Carolina in what has become an all-ACC side of the bracket.
“Totally different team,” said junior Demetrius Jackson, one of the key figures in last year’s Elite 8 run, but now one of the team’s true driving forces emotionally.
His six points in the final half-minute of play led Notre Dame on its decisive 8-0 run to close the game out against the Badgers.
“We just tried to use last year as a learning point,” Jackson said. “We just go out, have fun, play hard…Some nights it doesn’t fall for us offensively, but we still always try to give ourselves a chance to win.”
For players such as sophomore Matt Farrell, his contributions a year ago could be summed up in three letters – DNP.
After Notre Dame’s final regular-season game of the year against Clemson, the scrappy point guard watched every single second of all seven post-season games from the sideline.
It looked as is Farrell’s role might be trending that way again in 2015-16 when he logged just 45 minutes during a 17-game stretch of ACC games. But when Notre Dame’s offense began bogging down late in the regular season, Brey inserted Farrell for an energy boost.
If he bottled that energy, he could make a small fortune.
Farrell has started each of the three NCAA tournament games, logging an average of 27 minutes per outing, scoring at a six-point clip and playing distributor and traffic cop with 11 assists.
Talk about carving a new path.
“We have confidence, and the fact that we went through some adversity earlier in the year is why this team is so much more mentally tough,” said Farrell, who made 3-of-5 shots, including a three-pointer, to finish with seven points, three assists, a steal and no turnovers in 28 minutes of action against the Badgers.
“We went through some things, we made adjustments, and we stayed together. It speaks about the culture of the program and the guys we have in this locker room.”
For Farrell, distancing himself from last year’s team simply means finding a niche that never materialized a year ago.
“We lost a lot of talent,” said Farrell, nodding in the direction of Grant, who attended Friday’s game and meandered into the locker room amidst the post-game celebration.
“We had a target on our back after last year, which is something we knew would happen. We hit adversity down in Florida (losing to Monmouth and Alabama in Orlando). We wanted to absolutely create our own identity, and that’s what we’re doing.
“Everybody in this locker room is capable. Everybody is a great player. We all have confidence in each other. You’ve just got to be ready when your number is called.”
For Steve Vasturia, the journey has been different from all of his teammates. Averaging 13.2 points per game during the 2015 post-season, including 13-of-28 shooting from three-point range, Vasturia was elevated to captain this season.
Vasturia has hit a wall. Since the last two games of the regular season, Vasturia is averaging just 6.7 points per game. He had another dismal shooting night against the Badgers, going 1-of-6 from the field and missing all three of his three-point attempts.
In his last seven games, Vasturia is 18-of-71 from the field (25.3 percent), including 4-of-28 (14.2 percent) from three-point range.
Vasturia, ultra-quiet by nature, remained unflappable after another poor shooting performance. His role from a leadership standpoint has changed.
“Coming into this season, we wanted to find our own identity,” Vasturia said. “Last season was great. Obviously, we had lot of success.
“But this is a different team with different guys and different contributors. We wanted to try to form our own path by getting to the Elite 8 again, and now we have a chance to go further than we did last year.”
No one epitomizes the changeover in leadership more than junior V.J. Beachem, who scored a grand total of 14 points in seven post-season games a year ago.
Not only has Beachem led the Irish in scoring with a 16.4 average since the start of the ACC tournament, he’s shooting a phenomenal 62 percent from the field (31-of-50), including 53.3 percent (16-of-30) from three-point range.
“We’ve just kept believing the whole time,” said Beachem following his game-high 19 points against Wisconsin. “We just never gave up.
“Then, when it came down to the other end (on defense), they had a great shot at the rim, but they missed it, and then we knocked down some more clutch free throws.”
Indeed, this is a very different team than the one that nearly knocked off undefeated Kentucky in Cleveland.
A few different names, a few different leaders, but the same shot at a trip to the Final Four (in Houston) against one of the game’s bedrock programs – North Carolina.
“I told the guys Monday or Tuesday, we’re rated 16th in the power ratings of the (Sweet 16),” Brey said. “But I said, ‘We’re the toughest team. We’re by far the toughest team left mentally.’”
Make that the toughest team mentally in the Elite 8.