Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant is playing like a consensus All-American. He entered Monday night’s game vs. No. 18 North Carolina second in the ACC in scoring (17.4 PPG), behind only national player of the year candidate Jahlil Okafor of Duke. He leads the ACC in assists (6.2 APG) and assist-to-turnover ratio (4.6). Monday, however, was not his night, but you wouldn’t know it by the final score.
The 13th-ranked Irish (15-1, 3-0 ACC) escaped Chapel Hill with a 71-70 win despite a scoreless drought of nearly nine minutes late in the second half and a difficult night from the Irish's star. The Tar Heels (11-4, 1-1) stormed back from 11 points down to take a 70-69 lead with 2:07 left after Grant fouled out. He finished the evening with his worst performance of the season, shooting just 1 for 8 from the field (including 0 for 4 from behind the arc) and recording eight total points. But a layup from Zach Auguste with 1:08 left sealed the win and pushed the Irish to their best start in 15 seasons under head coach Mike Brey.
Auguste’s contributions (a game-high 18 points on 6-for-10 shooting and six rebounds) highlight why Notre Dame is now 3-0 in league play in either the Big East or ACC for the first time. It is employing a next-man-up strategy to perfection.
Team leader Grant fouls out after an aberrational poor performance? No problem. The Irish can rely on significant scoring elsewhere and still give themselves a chance to win. It’s what championship teams are built on, and Notre Dame is built to compete for an ACC championship.
The Irish received double-digit scoring from three players, Auguste, Demetrius Jackson (15 points on 6-for-11 FG) and Pat Connaughton (16 points on 4-for-7 3-pointers and nine rebounds). But this is nothing new for Notre Dame, a team with five players averaging at least nine PPG.
Notre Dame shoots 55 percent from the floor as a team and better than 40 percent from the 3-point line, making it the most efficient offense in the country per 100 possessions. The Irish create opportunities as well as any team in the conference and know how to make teams pay for letting them get open looks. In Chapel Hill Monday, the Irish shot 46 percent from the floor and 43 percent from deep.
The Irish held UNC to just 37 percent shooting from the floor and just 25 percent from three. Perhaps the Dean Dome over the past few years is not as intimidating a place for visiting teams as it traditionally is, but any time you defeat a Roy Williams-coached team in his own building you’re doing something right. And to top it off, Brey's squad got its 15th win of the season a year after it notched just 15 wins total.
On Monday, Notre Dame did almost everything right. Offensively, the Irish spread the ball around and made the defense work. Employing a four-guard set, all of whom are threats from deep, they force opponents to stretch defensively and can get open looks inside and out. And the hardest part for defenders is it doesn’t matter who has the basketball. They all make plays, even when their star player doesn't.
The ACC has three other legitimate conference championship contenders in No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Virginia and No. 5 Louisville. Notre Dame has the athletes and the scoring threats to compete, but its lack of depth may come back to bite it. If anything, it will be tested against the ACC guantlet. Only six players see substantial minutes for Brey’s squad, which could hinder it in close, pivotal games down the stretch.
The Irish get their first true gut check on Saturday when they host Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers, who have exceeded expectations this season despite losing two starters from last year’s team that had a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Expect Grant to bounce back to his normal, dominant self on Saturday, but if he doesn’t, Brey & Co. need not worry. Things are different this season. Someone else will step up.