SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The most important player in the ACC, and maybe anywhere, completed his post-victory interview duties on the Purcell Pavilion floor. Jerian Grant then briskly walked toward the tunnel that led to the Notre Dame locker room, his hands raised to meet those of the euphoric well-wishers lining his path. A few steps before he reached the door, the 6-foot-5 senior spotted two little children along a rail: a girl in a pink polka-dot shirt and a boy clutching a stuffed bunny rabbit. These were Irish assistant coach Martin Ingelsby’s twins. They knew the team’s star, and the team’s star knew them. So Grant raised his left arm for another high-five.
The twins, completely oblivious, looked away.
Consider it the only missed connection on what might have been the most exhilarating night of Grant’s career, one that should place him on the top line of the most luminous names in the game this year. In a college basketball season fraught with muddy pace and lackluster offense, few games have been more entertaining than the one No. 4 Duke and No. 8 Notre Dame mustered on Wednesday, ending in a crackling 77-73 triumph for the Irish. And few evenings, if any, will offer a blow-for-blow individual match like this. JahlilOkafor, the Blue Devils’ star freshman center, did nothing to dissuade anyone that he is the best player in the ACC and beyond. By the end, Jerian Grant was standing right beside him.
“He’s balling out of his mind right now,” Notre Dame center Zach Auguste said.
With every deft spin on ballerina feet or 270-pound bull rush to the rim that fed a 22-point, 17-rebound effort, the 6-foot-11 Okafor affirmed everything everyone knows about him. He is ridiculously good. He resides in the country’s 99th percentile of raw talent. Okafor may be, by sheer ability, the best player in his league or any other. It is also true that he may not be the most valuable, not when there is a player like Grant making the argument he did Wednesday. It’s the same argument he has made over and over in a redemptive senior year: His top-10 team would be lost without him, because Grant does everything to make Notre Dame what it is.
On Wednesday, it was 23 points and 12 assists and six rebounds and three steals in 40 minutes against Duke. It was having the ball in his hands on every consequential possession and making every consequential play. It was him feeding teammate Steve Vasturia from the high post in a zone offense, leading to two go-ahead free throws with two minutes left. It was scooping up his own lost dribble for a shot clock-beating jumper with 67 seconds to go. It was Grant spying Vasturia alone in the corner and, despite the sophomore having missed his previous four shots, confidently feeding him for a roof-blowing three-pointer with 22 seconds to play. And it was also emphatically swatting a Duke layup attempt five seconds later.
Notre Dame entered the night with the most efficient offense in the country. That offense runs on one primary principle. “Whatever Jerian wants to do,” Irish coach Mike Brey said.
“Coach and the guys give me a lot of confidence to make whatever move I want,” Grant said. “Making plays late-game is something I know I can do.”
There’s obviously a bit more to it for Notre Dame (20-2, 8-1 ACC), which is off to its best 22-game start since 1973-74. But maybe not much more. It’s a bit of blasphemy, it seems, to suggest that anyone other than Okafor, the player ticketed for the top of the 2015 NBA draft, should be considered the best there is. But best doesn’t necessarily equate to most indispensable. Going into Wednesday, Grant’s Win Shares total of 5.0 -- an estimation of how many victories thus far were attributable to his contributions -- tied for the national lead with Utah’s Delon Wright. Okafor’s 3.9 Win Shares barely bettered Grant’s offensive total alone (3.8). An advanced stat might not convince any college coach to choose Notre Dame’s lead guard over Duke’s precocious big man with the first pick in a draft. But it at least creates reason to ponder.
Grant entered the game 10th in the nation in assists per game (6.2), and he scored or assisted on 21 of Notre Dame’s 29 field goals against Duke (17-3, 4-3). What he does for others is the jet fuel for this attack. To best explain this dynamic, please stifle an eye roll and listen to New England Patriots fan Pat Connaughton. “(Rob) Gronkowski, when he’s not catching the ball and hurting you himself, he’s taking away a lot of defenders, because they have to pay attention to him,” Notre Dame’s senior forward said. “It’s the same way with Jerian. You have to pay attention to him night in and night out, whether it’s offensively or whether it’s defensively. He’s going to guard your best guy and he can score on your best guy.”
The confidence this approach imbues in teammates is remarkable. Well into the last minute Wednesday, Vasturia had scuffled. He missed all four of his shots from the floor. The Irish were all but playing four-on-five with him out there. So it is an absolutely amazing decision for Grant to rise up for a shot, see a defense collapsing and then willingly dish to Vasturia for the most momentous shot of the night, that late three from the corner. Even more amazing is that Grant predicted it would happen.
“Steve had his hands ready, spotted up,” the Irish guard said. “About a minute or two before that, I came up to him in a timeout and I said, ‘Steve, be ready, a big shot is coming for you.’ He said OK. You see what happened.”
What happened Wednesday is what has happened often enough with the ball in Jerian Grant’s care. “God, he loves the moment,” Brey said. “He is such a bright-lights, big-game guy.” But what happened Wednesday is inconsequential if it doesn’t presage what will happen in March. Any legitimate definition of a successful season for Notre Dame basketball includes playing into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. That is something the program has not managed since 2003. That is something incumbent upon Grant most of all to rectify. The wins against Duke and North Carolina are nice now -- they’re useless without the postseason progress that Grant must lead.
But this is what he came back to do: reset the standard for this program. It’s been a little more than a year since Grant was banished for the 2014 spring semester due to an academic transgression. He watched from afar as Notre Dame spiraled to a 6-12 ACC debut campaign. This night, and this season, have matched the vision he had for his return. “I definitely wanted to win more,” Grant said. “That was the main thing coming back. They struggled last year in the ACC, so to come back and get a lot of wins was the most important thing for me. I couldn’t have imagined it any better, besides being undefeated. We’re out here, we’re getting wins, and it’s exciting.”
He might realize there is nothing to get too excited about, not just yet. When Duke’s last shot hit the back of the rim and caromed away as the buzzer sounded, the most important player in the building turned his attention to a Notre Dame student section packed from floor to ceiling. Without a trace of emotion on his face, Grant held up two hands, palms to the crowd. It was one last assist: Stay back, he was advising the crowd. Stay back.
“It’s not an upset,” Grant explained later. That, of course, depends on your perspective. But even on this rousing night, it was no surprise that hundreds of students gone berserk stayed put. Everyone around here follows whatever Jerian wants to do.