CHESTNUT HILL – It was a strange scene in a narrow corridor of a nearly deserted area of the Conte Forum on the campus of Boston College Sunday night.
While former St. John’s Prep star Pat Connaughton was holding court with hundreds of well wishers upstairs following a triumphant homecoming game, Notre Dame head basketball coach Mike Brey was the last person out of the locker room.
If you didn’t know any better, Brey could’ve been mistaken for a custodian who’d just finished cleaning out the place. The reality, though, is that Brey is the custodian of the Fighting Irish and he’d just seen Connaughton clean up against BC with a team-high 17 points to go along with five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers in 40 minutes as ND (14-12) picked up its first road win, 73-69.
“Yeah, I just told Pat that Miami is his other home town, by the way,” said Brey, who has helped turn Connaughton into an indispensable asset for Notre Dame over the last three seasons. “That’s where we’re playing (Wednesday night) and I’d like to see him play just the way he did against BC. I said to him, make believe Miami is your other home town.
“But seriously, to see him deliver the way he did tonight? With all those people in the stands, a lot of players would’ve been distracted,” added Brey. “I’m proud of the way he handled it, but I’m not surprised. He set the tone for us early in the game. He was just fabulous.”
Connaughton, a junior guard/small forward and a first-time captain this season, drained his first five shots and had 11 points by halftime. He had a dry spell with five consecutive misses in the second half before coming up with two clutch baskets and a pair of free throws to help seal it for the Irish.
As for the homecoming part of the deal, he couldn’t have dreamed up a better scenario. Decked out in an Arlington shirt, he couldn’t wait to visit family, friends and fans who have followed him through every stage of his career, including his 1,700-plus point stint at the Prep, a school he led to the Division 1 state title three years ago.
At BC Sunday, Connaughton drew a louder reception in pregame introduction than any player from the home team.
“I told the media in South Bend (earlier in the week) that I would probably get a better ovation here than I do at the Purcell Pavilion in South Bend,” joked Connaughton, who was able to coax extra tickets from his teammates. “I couldn’t tell you how many people are here, but we can go out there and count them if you want. I tried to act serious (while hearing the ovation), but I did smile, so that didn’t work out. It was just so cool.
“I have to give credit to my teammates for the game. The big guys were screening for me and that allowed me to get the ball, and Eric (referring to point guard Eric Atkins) was distributing. We had chemistry on offense and defense. At the end of the day, it was all them.”
Leading the ACC in minutes, defensive rebounds
Connaughton is well into the second half of his career at Notre Dame, but his career trajectory hasn’t reached its apogee.
He’s improved every year, particularly this season with the numbers taking a dramatic leap over a solid sophomore campaign, from 8.9 to 13.2 ppg, and from 4.7 rebounds to 7.4. He leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in defensive rebounding (6.5 per game) even though he’s only 6-foot-4 and taking on prime big-man recruits from Duke, North Carolina and other traditional power schools.
“It’s been better,” Connaughton said of his junior season. “It’s been more consistent. Freshman year was okay and I showed flashes as a sophomore, but I was never consistent. It’s better right now but there’s still much more that I can build on.”
Jay Williams, the ex-Duke great who now does a heavy schedule of games as a commentator for ESPN, has paid particular attention to Connaughton’s approach to the game.
“In my job, I see games all over the country. I see all the (major) teams and all the big time players,” Williams said off camera during a short halftime break Sunday night. “The thing that’s most impressive about Pat, I think, is his mentality. I think 80 percent of the guys I see have an immature approach to the game. Pat is in that other (20 percent). He’s here to work on his game all the time. If I were to shake his hand before a game, he would acknowledge me, but he’d be distracted. He just wants to focus. That’s a great asset. He’s a great asset to that team.”
Connaughton has turned the difficult challenge of playing a full 40 minute game into a routine achievement, something that simultaneously amazes and amuses his teammates. He leads the ACC in minutes played because Brey simply can’t afford to take him out of the lineup.
“As you probably already know around here, Pat is a machine,” said senior forward Tom Knight. “We’ve been shorthanded this season, so it’s 40 minute Pat for us. He’s just been a warrior.”
“I get to play a lot of minutes, but I think what Pat does is more impressive,” said point guard Eric Atkins, who ranks second in the ACC in minutes played. “Pat is often playing down low, banging against the big guys. That’s tougher than what I have to do.”
Still, it’s his rebounding that is the most extraordinary part of his game. Seeing his size – or lack of it – two years ago, no one could have predicted he’d have this kind of rebounding impact in an elite conference.
“He’s exceeded expectations, no question about it,” said Notre Dame assistant coach Rod Balanis. “He’s the best 6-foot-4 rebounding guy I’ve ever seen, and I’m 43 years old and seen a lot of guys.”
Eye on future in baseball, basketball
Virtually every time Notre Dame has been on national TV this season, one of the announcers invariably brings up the subject of Connaughton the baseball player. A right-handed pitcher, Connaughton was named a Top 50 prospect by Perfect Game and he’s also on Baseball America’s Top 100 list. The speculation is that Connaughton will be drafted and could opt sign a pro contract. Under the rules, he could still return for his senior basketball season at Notre Dame, but there are no guarantees.
Naturally, the ND coaches would love to see him be a four-year player. With Atkins graduating this spring, Connaughton would be the ideal veteran off guard to go along with Jerian Grant, who left the team after 12 games this season due to an academic issue. Grant was averaging a team-high 19 points when he left.
“I think Pat’s plan is…well, he will probably be a high draft choice in baseball,” said Balanis. “He might go play rookie ball this year, but we have a trip to Italy in August and I think he plans to be on that tour with us. We’d be looking good with Connaughton and Grant in the backcourt next season. I’m confident he’ll be back. I actually think he could play professional basketball if he put his mind to it. Basketball is his first love.”
Connaughton insisted after the BC game that he hasn’t thought that far ahead. Ultimately, it’s his decision to make, but he seems in no particular hurry. He’s enjoying his Notre Dame experience.
“It’s the basketball season,” said Connaughton. “I do what I can (in terms of baseball) in my free time, but right now it’s about basketball. I’m looking forward to the baseball season, but not until basketball ends.”