It is not easy to identify a team that endured a tougher 48-hour stretch than Notre Dame last season. On Dec. 21, the Fighting Irish blew a prime opportunity at a signature nonconference win when they allowed then-No. 3 Ohio State to erase an eight-point deficit in the final minute. The next day, Jerian Grant announced in a letter that he was no longer enrolled at Notre Dame because of an academic issue and would not play the rest of the season.
This was a huge blow for the Irish: Over 12 games, Grant had averaged 19 points per game while posting a 132.3 offensive rating on 25.3 percent usage. Though the Irish managed to upset Duke to open ACC play, they lost eight of their next 10 games and finished near the bottom of the conference standings. Without a key cog in its perimeter corps, Notre Dame struggled during its first turn through the ACC far more than most anticipated in the preseason.
The Irish’s prospectus was rosier with Grant back in the fold this season, but few foresaw them rising as high as No. 16 in the Associated Press Poll before Christmas Day. Notre Dame moved to 12-1 with Monday night’s 91-66 romp over Northern Illinois in South Bend, Ind. How are the Irish doing it? The simple answer is scoring. Notre Dame has attacked its 13 opponents with the top effective field goal (63.4) and two-point shooting percentages (64.2) in the country and an offense that ranks second nationally in points scored per possession (1.16).
Grant has been particularly impressive. The 6-foot-5 senior has averaged a team-high 18.2 points and 6.3 assists while posting one of the top 12 offensive ratings in the country (138.2) on a 25.2 usage rate. Even though he’s not projected as a first-round pick in the upcoming draft, Grant is building a case for the title of “best guard in the country.” Serving as the top option on the nation’s No. 3 offense is a strong credential on its own, but consider that he recorded a season-high in points to date (27) against a talented Michigan State team (the game went to overtime, but Grant scored only two points after regulation).
Lest you think this has been a one-man show, Grant has been getting ample help from backcourt partner Demetrius Jackson. After spending last season getting his bearings, Jackson has blossomed into a scoring, distributing and posterizing backcourt force. He’s boosted his effective and true shooting percentages by double digits, sliced his turnover rate and increased his offensive rating by a significant margin. Jackson shone in Saturday’s 31-point win over Purdue in the Crossroads Classic, scoring 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting, including 3-of-3 from three-point range. He picked a good time to turn on his offensive game, as Grant managed only 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting.
With Jackson and Grant flourishing in tandem, it’s hard to fault coach Mike Brey for thinking that they are the best backcourt in the country. The Irish have also gotten efficient frontcourt production from Zach Auguste and reliable three-point shooting from Pat Connaughton (44.7 three-point percentage), V.J. Beachem (56.4) and Jackson (43.9). The abundance of offensive firepower has put Notre Dame squarely into the discussion for a favorable at-large bid and seemingly destined for a top-half finish in the ACC table.
For as promising as Notre Dame as conference play begins, there are reasons to suspect the Irish’s hot start is not sustainable. Brey’s team has allowed opponents to score 0.99 points per possession, good for 148th in the country. In two of the three games they’ve played this season against teams in Kenpom’s top 90, the Irish have yielded at least 1.19 points per possession. Notre Dame did put the clamps on Purdue on Saturday, but the four teams considered top contenders in the ACC – Duke (13), Virginia (3), Louisville (2) and North Carolina (17) – have outclassed Notre Dame on the defensive end.
The Irish may be able to shoot their way to victories in some conference games and Grant may be able to carry them in some others. But Notre Dame’s hopes of beating out the aforementioned teams in the conference race or advancing deep into March appear slim unless it tightens up the screws defensively.
It’s also hard to put too much stock into Notre Dame’s win-loss record. The Irish are undefeated, but their non-conference schedule checks in at No. 347 nationally, per Kenpom. Their league slate includes arduous road dates with the Tar Heels, the Blue Devils and the Cardinals and home meetings with the Cavaliers and Duke. One can appreciate what the Irish have accomplished while also having some trepidation about how they'll fare against more rigorous competition.