LAS VEGAS – Last fall, I happened to be passing through South Bend, Indiana, and invited Mike Brey to lunch. Even at this relatively late stage of his career, Brey, 55, was giddy about the start of his team’s first season in the ACC. The plan – the hope – was to take the identity he had worked so hard to establish in the Big East and carry it into the new league. A school like Notre Dame isn’t going to collect a bunch of one-and-done lottery picks; but by being older, tough, smarter and more efficient than their opponents, the Irish had consistently been in the top tier of a very good league.
The plan, alas, was upended. The hope, dashed. All that remained were the memories of an ugly 15-17 season (6-12 ACC) that saw Notre Dame fail to make any type of postseason tournament for the first time since Brey got there in 2000. When the season ended with a 12-point loss to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament, Brey called the returning players into his hotel room and set the tone for the path ahead. “We should be pissed as we prepare for next season,” he told them.
Brey did not seem pissed when we visited again last month during the LeBron James Skills Academy. That is not his way. Besides, like every coach during summertime, he was full of sunny optimism. If redemption is going to be theme for Year 2 in the ACC, then it is one the team should wear well. That’s because its most important player will be back after committing a bad mistake that derailed the program midway through last season.
Jerian Grant, a 6-5 shooting guard, was averaging 19 points per game when he was suspended in December because of an academic issue. Grant could not be enrolled in school during the second semester, but Brey stayed in touch with Grant consistently. “We probably spoke every other day,” Brey said. “There was speculation that he was going to put his name in the draft because he was having an all-league year when we lost him, but that was never an option. He was always going to finish.”
Grant was part of that meeting in Brey’s room after the loss to Wake Forest. (It had been the first game Grant attended in person following his suspension.) He got nothing but encouragement from his coach, as well as his teammates. “I told Jerian, ‘There’s no grudges here, man. We’re moving on.’ His teammates were patting him on the back,” Brey said. “Jerian learned a lot, and he learned it the hardest way. Every game we had, they’d put his name on the screen and explain why he wasn’t there. So he had to keep hearing about it.”
If Grant can pick up where he left off, then Notre Dame has a chance to write a much better story in 2014-15. The other key returnee will be 6-5 senior swingman Pat Connaughton, who averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds while shooting 38 percent from three-point range last season. Connaughton is an elite pitching prospect who was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball amateur draft in June. The Orioles agreed to let Connaughton come back to Notre Dame so he can finish his degree and continue to play baseball and basketball for the Irish. Because Connaughton spent part of the summer pitching for the Orioles’ summer league team in Sarasota, Grant had to take more of a leadership role during off-season workouts, which Brey hopes will serve as a foundation of leadership. Brey told me he believes Grant and Connaughton will be “two of the top 12 to 15 returning players in the ACC” next season.
As painful as Grant’s suspension was, there were benefits too. “Our young guys had to play,” Brey said. “They weren’t ready, but they did play.” Now they have to grow up. That begins with 6-1 sophomore Demetrius Jackson, a natural point guard who was pressed into playing major minutes at the two spot. Junior forward Zach Auguste started 13 games and was a productive rebounder, while junior forward Austin Burgett averaged 15 minutes off the bench. Steve Vasturia, a 6-5 sophomore and three-point shooting specialist, is a good candidate for a breakout year. Brey also hopes to get contributions from two of his freshmen – 6-9 forward Martin Geben, a Lithuanian, and Bonzie Colson, a 6-5 swingman from Massachusetts.
With all this uncertainty, the Irish could use some extra practice. That’s exactly what they’re getting this summer during their 10-day trip to Italy, which began on Tuesday. Brey knows the ACC won't be any easier with Louisville having officially joined the league on July 1, but at least his team is in the process of putting the past in the past. “I wanted to go in with momentum we had in the Big East, and on paper I felt we could. That didn’t happen,” Brey said. “Now I feel like it’s a similar situation as our first year in the Big East – fighting for an identity in a new league. We’re not making major changes, but we are a work in progress.”