NOTRE DAME, Ind. - As the Notre Dame basketball team prepares for its first season of play in the ACC, it does so with one of the most experienced backcourts in all of college basketball. The Irish have seniors Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant back at their respective one and two guard spots and junior swingman Pat Connaughton will be right there with them.
The experience in the backcourt may be as valuable as ever this season - especially considering the Irish will go to a new conference a season after losing the dominating front court presence of Jack Cooley. The void of double-digit point and rebounding production will be sorely missed, but Connaughton says there is no extra pressure on he and his frontcourt mates this season.
"I think there is more on us to just be consistent," said Connaughton. "We don't really feel that as pressure. We feel it's more of an opportunity to kind of show what we're made out of. We've been working at it the last couple years and it's something you guys have seen in spurts here and that and it's something we've really been working on to make more consistent night-in and night-out."
Connaughton, an Arlington, Mass native, grew up in the back yard of Boston College and was in middle school when BC made the jump from the Big East Conference to the ACC in 2005. It's a jump that he never would have thought would one day be in store for him at Notre Dame.
"When you think of Notre Dame you always think about the Big East and it being the best basketball conference in America," Connaughton said of the move to the Atlantic Coast Conference. "It's cool, because now we get to play in the next best basketball conference in America. It's really unique for us guys that are going to be able to play in both."
Connaughton averaged 8.9 points and 4.7 rebounds a game as a sophomore last season. His on-court roles are not likely to change drastically this season, but Irish head coach Mike Brey is likely to use employ Connaughton in an even more versatile capacity based on matchups against different players once the ACC schedule rolls around.
"Coach talks about me guarding bigger guys playing a little bit of a smaller line up with me at whatever position," said Connaughton. "I think that will really help me balance it, because I'll be near the rim and I'll be able to get a few loose ball layups or whatever it may be to get my outside shot going and work inside-out and stuff like that."
Connaughton's training regimen has to stay diverse due to his work on the mound each spring as a pitcher for the Fighting Irish baseball team. His physique has continued to develop over his first two years with two teams at Notre Dame.
"The job that our strength coach, Tony Rolinski, has done with me has been great," said Connaughton. "I'm beefed-up, stronger, faster (and) quicker to play at this level. It's really helped me and benefitted me and I think that's something I'll be able to show on a more consistent basis this year."
As versatile as the 6-foot-5 Connaughton has been on the court and transitioning to baseball, the Irish hope to add some versatility of their own on the hardwoods this season with the addition of freshman guard Demetrius Jackson. Connaughton expects the local Mishawaka-Marian High School product to add a lot to the guard rotation this season.
"His explosiveness and really his ability to do whatever you ask him to do (are) very unique as a basketball player," Connaughton said of his freshman teammate. "That's something that will also benefit us going into the ACC - being able to play a little bit smaller and being a little bit quicker and being able to add that element that maybe we didn't have the last few years."
That added element could be invaluable as Notre Dame moves to a conference known for great athletes and great guard play. Brey said recently that rather than change his team's style to suit the ACC he wants ACC teams to have to adjust to Notre Dame's style of play.
"I think our style this year is just what we've become known to do - taking care of the ball and a high assist to turnover ratio and stuff like that," said Connaughton. "I think we've got three veteran guards and a lot of young guys that have been taken under our wing. I think we'll be able to push the ball a little bit more and do some things that maybe we didn't do as much of but we still did in spurts."
The Irish host their first exhibition game against the University of Indianapolis on Oct. 28 at Purcell Pavilion. Another exhibition game follows at 9 pm on Friday, Nov. 1 against Tusculum. That game is the night before Notre Dame's home football game against Navy. The regular season tips-off on Nov. 8 when the Irish host Miami-Ohio.