Feb. 26, 2015
Pat Connaughton sank into an overstuffed black leather recliner in the University of Notre Dame men's basketball player lounge after a tough 65-60 loss to Syracuse on Tuesday night.
Determination, not defeat, came to the forefront of Connaughton's thoughts, determination to finish strong in a season in which the Irish have vaulted into the top 10.
A 6-foot-5 senior wing, Connaughton dealt with the sting of defeat too often last season, 17 times too often for the fierce competitor.
But the burn of a 15-17 season a year ago is providing the bright lights of a brilliant season in 2014-2015.
If the hottest fires forge the toughest steel, Irish coach Mike Brey's team has forged a precious mettle this season.
Notre Dame is 24-5 this season, including a 12-4 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame's six wins on the road this season in ACC action are an Irish record for most road victories in conference play. Last season, the Irish were 1-8 in hostile ACC venues.
Last season, the Irish were 6-12 overall in the ACC. Notre Dame has already locked up a double-bye in this season's ACC Tournament.
Notre Dame's turnaround is one of the best in ACC history. North Carolina enjoyed a nine-game swing, going from 5-11 in 2010 to 14-2 in 2011. Notre Dame has the second-best turnaround in ACC history (6-12 in 2014 to 12-4 in 2015), a plus-seven. Connaughton said the Irish players didn't dwell on defeat during the offseason. They built on it, they let the pain turn into motivation and they answered the bell when the current season opened up.
"It's a matter of the guys in the locker room, the desire to win that the guys have," Connaughton said of Notre Dame's historic ACC flip. "Going through last year didn't hurt the cause this year. It helped it.
"When you go through a year like that, you find out a lot about your team, you find out a lot about the guys you go to war with every single night. You've got some guys in that locker room who came out of last year older. They got more mature. They got tougher. As a whole, we not only didn't want to repeat last year, we wanted to end it completely and turn this thing around to the way Notre Dame basketball has been and will be for years to come."
While the work has been hard to pull off the turnaround, figuring out the reason has been easy for Brey.
"Leadership," Brey said in a one-word response to the reason for the change. "I think it comes back to Jerian (Grant) and Pat (Connaughton).
"You feel really good about their leadership and how they've set the tone with us. And when they've taken a bullet, they've kind of bounced back quick."
Freshman Bonzie Colson, who has emerged as a force in recent games for the Irish, echoed Brey's thoughts that senior leadership has fortified the Irish this season. "Jerian and Pat are great leaders," Colson said. "They have been solid for us, on and off the court. The leadership on this team has been our rock. We can count on it. It's always there for us in practices and in games."
Junior post Zach Auguste said the Irish have the character and the toughness to fight back from the loss to Syracuse. The Irish will be tested again Wednesday at Louisville.
"We just have to continue to work hard," Auguste said. "We can't have slip-ups on defense. We made some errors against Syracuse, and we made errors on offense, too. I think we just have to play through it. We can't have bad body language. We stayed together against Syracuse, but we didn't execute the way we needed to." In addition to leadership, Auguste loves the togetherness the Irish have nurtured this season.
"No matter what we go through, we're still going to be together, we're still going to be brothers," Auguste said. "We have each other's backs no matter what. "We have the mental toughness to deal with a game like this, and we have each other," Auguste continued. "We're eager to get back in the gym. We have a long week to prepare for the next game. Really, we just have to execute."
Colson expects the Irish to continue to outwork opponents.
"We bounce back," Colson said. "What's great about this team is we're a brotherhood. No matter what, we're there for each other. We just have to take it game by game and day by day. We just have to keep grinding and getting better offensively and defensively. If we do that, we should be fine."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent