CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Jerian Grant makes a big difference. The result of his return and everything else around him is exactly what the senior came back for this season. Add him to running mate Pat Connaughton, and you understand why Notre Dame is having a historic season for the program.
By now, Grant’s story from last season is well-known. Just after the Fighting Irish gave away a game to Ohio State in New York a few days before Christmas, he withdrew from the university for an academic matter. He stated all along that he would be back for this season, though plenty surely wondered if that would happen. He was certainly good enough to get NBA Draft interest had he desired to pursue that avenue.
Well, he’s back, and he’s had a tremendous season that will likely end with a host of honors and will to finish in the NCAA Tournament.
Connaughton, one of three Notre Dame players from Massachusetts, could have opted not to come back as well. He was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles for his exploits on the mound, but he’s back finishing out his college career and maximizing the basketball experience. Notre Dame is a big beneficiary of having both, but Connaughton’s intangibles, which have gotten him this far, are a big part of why.
“We’ve had a lot of great senior leaders, and none better than Pat Connaughton,” said head coach Mike Brey. “Everything he’s around is just good, there’s a good vibe. There’s 500 people in the place tonight to see him. Is he the mayor, or vice-mayor or someone? He’s a special one and I will really miss him.”
Grant has plenty of support, and the big thing he has done is make everyone better. Up and down the lineup you see players benefiting not just from Grant being back, but what he does. Demetrius Jackson has more than doubled his scoring and is shooting nearly 50 percent from the field. Steve Vasturia has emerged on the perimeter alongside both. Zach Auguste waited his turn after being part of a crowded frontcourt his first two seasons and is one of the ACC’s most improved players this season. Joining him is Bonzie Colson, who has played very well over the past month and had his best game on Saturday with a team-high 16 points.
All of that improvement isn’t on Grant, of course. A good deal of it was only natural, especially for Auguste given that the frontcourt wasn’t so crowded with older players this time around. But watch how he runs the offense, how he passes, the decisions he makes, and you see how he makes them better. Saturday was a great example, as he had 11 assists and just two turnovers, taking what the defense gave him as Notre Dame had six players score in double figures, all between ten and 16 points.
“They are really aware of him, and they almost doubled off of the ball screens, and he just made easy plays and got guys shots and didn’t worry about his numbers,” said Brey. “He was such a man out there, dragging ball screens and kicking back, and other guys were making plays. He’s been that way all year, he just wants to win.”
Only three times this season has Grant scored in single digits. In the first two, he had as many assists as points – eight and six. The other one was at Duke when the Blue Devils annihilated the Fighting Irish in a game that was never competitive, where he had seven points but just four assists. Let that stand as the exception that proves the rule, especially since he was sensational in the first meeting between the two in South Bend with 23 points on 9-15 shooting and 12 assists.
In fact, entering Saturday Grant was responsible for over 42 percent of the team’s offense this season. He leads the team in scoring and his assists have led to almost as many points by others. With his 11 assists and 10 points on Saturday, those numbers are probably a lot closer now. He has had a hand in more than half of his team’s three-pointers. He leads the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio and is shooting over 50 percent from the field, a number that is terrific for a guard.
“If you really watch his game, if you’re savvy on your basketball I.Q., you see all the things that he does for our team and that he does as a basketball player overall,” said Connaughton. “A lot of people are worried about his scoring ability, but he showed tonight he can let the game come to him offensively.”
With Saturday’s win, only two Notre Dame teams have more wins before the NCAA Tournament than 24 that this one has put up, both coming in recent years under Brey. They could certainly top that, as the record is 26 back in 2011, and they have three regular season games left plus the ACC Tournament. Grant should be the ACC Player of the Year based on his play to date, and Connaughton will get his share of honors as well.
Grant’s return has made a big difference for this ball club, and Connaughton has been an integral part as well. Grant has made players better and Connaughton has helped mentor guys as they have developed. With them, Notre Dame appears primed to keep winning and then play well into March. It’s undoubtedly what both of them came back for.