A season that began with high expectations ended with a resounding thud Wednesday when Notre Dame lost 81-69 in the first round of the ACC Basketball Tournament. The Fighting Irish (15-17) had plans of making it to the NCAA Tournament in their first season in the ACC, but instead they will not even make it into the NIT after suffering their first losing season in 16 years.
The Fighting Irish had been to the NCAA Tourney four straight years and nine times over under head coach Mike Brey. The 14 consecutive years of making it to either the NCAA or NIT was a program record. Brey will look to start all that over again next year, but he will do it with a decidedly different looking crew.
The biggest losses the Irish know they have heading into the 2014-2015 season are Eric Atkins, Garrick Sherman and Pat Knight. Those three played for Notre Dame for the last time Wednesday in Greensboro, NC.
Without a doubt, Atkins is the biggest loss of the group. The three-time captain has provided leadership on and off the court, while also providing consistent play during his career. Even after going scoreless in the first half of Wednesday’s first-round loss, Atkins still managed to score13 points in his last career game.
Atkins finished the season with team-highs of 13.9 points and 4.9 assists. He took the big shots and made many of them when he needed to. Atkins was also Notre Dame’s iron man, playing 37.8 minutes per game. Atkins started 105 games over the course of his Irish career.
Sherman (6’11) and Knight (6’10) will both be missed for their size, but neither is irreplaceable. Knight was a reserve for the bulk of his career. Twelve of his 14 career starts came last season and he averaged just 3.9 points in 14.2 minutes this season – his fifth at Notre Dame.
Sherman provided far more production this year at 13.5 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds. He came a long way after averaging 4.6 and 2.5, respectively, last year as Jack Cooley’s backup in the middle. He was a team guy, but Sherman put the ball on the floor too much and his feet were far from fluid enough while committing a team-high 82 turnovers this season.
Sherman played his first two college seasons at Michigan State before transferring to Notre Dame, so his Irish career is done after two seasons.
The most important player on the current roster coming back is the team’s lone junior – Pat Connaughton. After averaging 7.0 and 8.9 points in his first two seasons, Connaughton saw his scoring average jump to 13.8 points this year. The 6’5 guard also grabbed in impressive 7.1 rebounds per game and hit a team-best 76 of 201 shots from behind the 3-point arc this season.
The only thing that could knock Connaughton off track to return next season is his baseball career. The Arlington, Mass native has an 8-6 record and 2.43 ERA in two years as a pitcher for the Irish baseball team. He was 4-2 with a 1.71 ERA last year.
Connaughton is a projected by both Perfect Game and Baseball America to possibly go in the first round of June’s MLB First Year Player Draft. Even if he is drafted, Connaughton could pitch in the minor leagues this summer and still return to play his senior basketball season at Notre Dame – and that is what both he and Brey expect he will do. (Current Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson did something similar, but he transferred from North Carolina State to Wisconsin to finish his football career).
The Irish baseball team was in Greensboro to watch Wednesday’s game. They started their spring break trip in Raleigh last week before playing at Appalachian State on Tuesday. Connaughton will be with the team when they face Duke in a three-game series in Durham this weekend.
Possibly the next most important Irish returnee is Zach Auguste. The 6’10 big man has been inconsistent in his first two seasons. He averaged 3.9 points in 12.8 minutes playing in 12 games as a true freshman last season and bumped that up to 6.7 points in 16.3 minutes in 30 games (13 starts) this year.
Like Sherman before him and even Cooley before that, Auguste has played in a reserve capacity, but showed flashes from time to time. He had his first career double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds in last month’s win over Clemson and had a strong showing with 14 points and nine boards to close the season against Wake. The post job is Auguste’s to lose heading into his junior campaign.
Atkins’ starting point job spot will be passed to sophomore to be Demetrius Jackson. The McDonald’s All-American averaged 6.0 points and 1.8 assists in 30 games as a true freshman. Jackson started 15 games this season, but he also missed two games due to a midseason benching by Brey when he neglected his academics.
Guards Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem, both freshmen, will also be back next season with a season of experience under their belts. Both are solid 3-point threats, but Vasturia showed the most growth in his game during the season when he began to look to drive the lane as well. Vasturia (5.0 ppg) got more experience with 27 games and 12 starts, while Beachem (2.4 ppg) played in 27 games with one start.
Small forward Austin Burgett will also be back next year. The 6’9 junior to be averaged 3.0 points in 28 games. He was forced to sit in January when he was diagnosed and treated for an irregular heartbeat. The condition kept him from ever showing his full potential this season.
The other piece of the puzzle that is yet unknown is local product Austin Torres. The 6’7 forward sat out his freshman season, but will look to give the Irish depth in the front court next year. He is a little bit of a “tweener” though. His game is built for the low post/power forward position, but his 6’7 size is built more for a swingman.
Who Will Return?
The ultimate piece of the puzzle heading into next season is the return of Jerian Grant. The 6’5 guard was averaging team-highs of 19.0 points and 6.2 rebounds through 12 games when he was expelled from school for academic reasons. There is no doubt the Fighting Irish missed that production in 12 ACC losses that were decided by an average of 7.9 points.
Grant and his father, former NBA player Harvey Grant, sat in the stands behind Notre Dame’s bench during Wednesday’s game at the Greensboro Coliseum. He was a fixture in the Irish lineup for the past two-plus seasons, but his absence in the last 20 games played a big part in Brey sending 12 different starting lineups to the floor.
Grant did not play as a freshman in 2010-2011, so he still has a season of remaining college eligibility. He plans to return to campus this summer and be with the team when it heads to Italy in August.