Have Faith: Is This Notre Dame’s Year To Make An NCAA Tournament Run?

Pat Connaughton
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Pat Connaughton holds the ACC Tournament trophy like it’s a box full of pots and pans he’s moving into his new apartment. There’s no right way to hold this trophy, so he’s inevitably going to look goofy doing it, especially with part of a basketball net draped around his neck.

“This thing’s heavy,” Connaughton says. It’s only natural he’d sound a bit surprised. Notre Dame hasn’t won one of these before, in the ACC or anywhere for that matter. This is the Fighting Irish’s first conference tournament championship in men’s basketball – ever.

As Connaughton lumbers around with the trophy, Jerian Grant stands next to him the whole way. It’s only fitting that the Fighting Irish’s two leading scorers get to celebrate together. They’re in sync on the floor, and they seem inseparable off it. The two seniors do what you’d expect anybody to do in a situation like this. They’re smiling, a lot, they seem to be moving in slow motion, and their eyes are wider than a kid who just unwrapped his first bike on Christmas.

“To do this in still the early stages of league play for our program, there is not a better achievement in the history of our program,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey says after the game. “I’m thrilled that Jerian and Pat, when we come back or they come back for reunions, that is something they’ll always remember.”

This is an especially important moment for Brey, who knows the ACC better than anyone else at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish coach was an assistant at Duke from 1987-1995 under Mike Krzyzewski, and he was part of six Final Four and two NCAA Championship teams. So it’s easy to see why Brey might be biased in thinking this is the biggest moment in the program’s history, even bigger than the Final Four that Notre Dame reached in 1978 under then-coach Digger Phelps.

It isn’t just that the Irish won the ACC, it’s how and where they did it. Notre Dame plowed through a Miami team playing for its bubble life and dispatched Duke and North Carolina in their backyard at the walking ACC history museum that is the Greensboro Coliseum. At times throughout the finals, the building got louder on big plays for the Tar Heels than it gets in the Dean Dome when things are going well.

“It’s a blessing to be here, to win it, to look up and see all blue,” Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson said.

In other words, this was the definition of a hostile environment. And Notre Dame still managed to suck the life out of the building with a 24-2 scoring explosion after trailing by eight points with just under 9:30 to play. Eleven of those points came in about 68 seconds.

This was the type of run that makes you truly wonder if this group of Irish can finally make the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2003. With this offense, and the engine that is Grant driving them, it’s not a question of if Notre Dame is going to hit shots, but when. North Carolina learned that the hard way, and the Tar Heels were so flustered, they couldn’t even hold onto the basketball on their side of the floor while the points were piling up.

The Fighting Irish have played great teams before in the regular season under Mike Brey, especially when they were in the always-stacked Big East. But in their second ACC season, with Grant back in the lineup following his suspension that forced him to miss the last three months of last season, the Fighting Irish seemed to take the challenge of playing so many top teams as a genuine opportunity to show what they could do.

Notre Dame beat Michigan State, Purdue, N.C. State, North Carolina (twice), Duke (twice) and Louisville along the way, and the Irish finished the year with the nation’s best effective field goal percentage (58.6) and second best adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. There’s no guarantee that will translate to NCAA Tournament success as a No. 3 seed, but getting that first conference championship out of the way certainly doesn’t hurt.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be coaching in the ACC for the University of Notre Dame,” Brey says. “That is how crazy league expansion is. But to win a championship in this league, it does mean a lot. Personally, I’m really proud. I had a Lefty Driesell flashback though. And maybe some of you old timers will remember this: Going through Duke and Carolina and what we’ve done on Tobacco Road this year, I remember Lefty when he won it, he said, ‘I’m going to bolt the trophy to the hood of my car and drive all over Tobacco Road.’ So if you see a Buick Enclave in June with this trophy going from Asheville to Wilmington, that’s me. That’s me going through there.”

After Connaughton and Grant make their way out of the locker room, they’re followed by Father Pete McCormick, the team’s chaplain who is on the bench during games and is often not far from Brey’s sight. Father Pete has his head held high, and the way he wears the ACC champions hat high on his head contrasts strikingly with his freshly starched clerical collar.

Unfortunately Notre Dame finds itself in Kentucky’s region. But with that offense, Connaughton’s Batman socks and Father Pete on their side, there’s always a chance. Maybe it’s finally time to have a little faith in the Fighting Irish making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament after all.

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