By Mike Grenier
---- — PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The grind of a Big East Conference basketball season can at times be overwhelming for a freshman no matter how talented he is.
Zach Auguste knows the feeling. A promising 6-foot-10 rookie out of Marlborough, Auguste has had his ups and downs while coming off the bench for Notre Dame this season.
But regardless of how he’s playing, Auguste says he feels fortunate to have Pat Connaughton in his corner. For one thing, Connaughton had his own initiation into big time college ball last season and can guide him through the rough spots.
“He’s definitely helped me already,” Auguste, who is averaging 3.8 points in limited minutes, said of Connaughton after Providence College drubbed the No. 21 ranked Fighting Irish, 71-54, here over the weekend. “He gave me a lot of advice, especially early in the season. He went through it as a freshman and the stuff he told me helped me a lot.”
The fact that Connaughton is also a Massachusetts kid – he comes from Arlington and led St. John’s Prep of Danvers to a state championship two years ago – has proven to be a massive bonus for Auguste.
“Pat is a funny guy,” said Auguste. “Being from Massachusetts, we relate to a lot of things that the other kids on the team don’t (understand). I mean, just the way we talk, with the (Boston) accent. Pat has to hear it from the guys every now and then, and I can relate.
“But you know what? We just had a Dunkin Donuts open up in South Bend (Indiana). A lot of guys didn’t know about that, but we can tell them that’s a spot to go to and that we’re really familiar with (being from New England).”
In retrospect, Notre Dame could’ve used gallons of coffee prior to the Providence game because it never did get the wake-up call it needed. The Friars made a 20-5 team look awful and Connaughton, who has a very solid sophomore season (8.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg), was way off his game. He didn’t take a single shot in the opening half and then missed all four of his shots from three-point land in the second half. He ended up scoreless in 27 minutes.
This game hurt a little more than most because Connaughton had family and friends in the stands in what amounted to his homecoming game for the season, but losses at this time of the season are particularly disturbing for a team that thinks highly of itself. There’s a sense of urgency with the season winding down and Notre Dame positioning itself for the best possible seed in the NCAA tournament.
Just minutes after the lopsided loss to Providence, Connaughton was already thinking about how crucial last night’s Big East game at Pittsburgh would be.
“That’s a game we have to get because to lose two in a row in this league would hurt us tremendously,” he said.
Every Fighting Irish player must have looked at himself in the mirror prior to the Pitt game because the team played with a sense of urgency in a 51-42 road win. Granted, it was an ugly looking game that had Notre Dame missing its first 11 shots and falling behind, 19-3, but Connaughton nailed a pair of threes to get the Irish going and it turned out to be a methodical but satisfying win. Connaughton finished with seven points and six rebounds.
“We were down 19-3 but we were getting good looks,” junior guard Jerian Grant said after Notre Dame improved to 21-6 overall, 9-5 in the Big East. “The two quick threes by Pat (Connaughton) gave us our confidence back.”
Connaughton’s scoreless outing against Providence a couple of days before was mystifying considering his body of work this season. His scoring and rebounding numbers are up from last season and he’s more than doubled his assist total (65 compared to 30 last season). A week before the Providence game, he played 56 minutes and finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists in a 5-overtime win over Louisville in what was the longest regular season game in Big East history. It was easily the grittiest game in his career and certainly one of his best.
“It was a great feeling,” Connaughton said of nationally televised 104-101 marathon comeback win over Rick Pitino’s Louisville club. “No one on the team and no one who was there will ever forget it. To be a part of that, it was like winning a state championship. You’ll always live with it and you’ll always be able to look back on it.”
However, Connaughton also injured his ankle in that game and Notre Dame was forced into yet another overtime contest four days later against DePaul. He had seven points in an 82-78 win that night and there was speculation that the ankle was hurting a bit more than he let on.
As usual, Connaughton was assigned to guard the opposing team’s best offensive guard/forward (Bryce Cotton, as it turned out) against Providence . But the game got out of hand pretty quickly and it was hard to tell whether the ankle was a factor for Connaughton. He pretty much dismissed the issue after the game.
“It’s alright,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes. It’s a day-to-day type of thing. It hurts a little bit but there’s nothing you can do about it. It gets loose with the adrenaline of a game. It should not hold me back from what I need to do.”
While it’s still relatively early in his career, Connaughton is already seen as a team leader even by the older players. They’ve seen him grow into a more versatile, assertive player this season.
“Last year he took more threes,” senior starter Tom Knight said of Connaughton. “This year he’s not afraid to take it to the rack to score against the good defenders in the Big East.
“Overall, he just has more confidence,” added Knight. “He knows he’s one of our go-to players. He knows he has to play well for us and I think he’s embracing that role. I just love his presence on our team every day.”
Connaughton acknowledged that the coaching staff has been more demanding of late, challenging him to do more as the season progresses. For one thing, the coaches feel he’s passing up too many open shots and playing a little too unselfishly.
You’d better believe he’s heard the message loud and clear.
“I’ve got to be more consistent,” he said. “I didn’t score a point (against Providence). Consistency is something I have to work on. That’s what (the coaches) have been on me for. That’s what it’s all about.
“There’s always more progress to be made. You can never be satisfied at this level,” he added. “There are guys out there who work day in and day out and that’s something you have to think about. When you’re not working, there’s somebody else who is working. That’s something that has to drive you from the start.”
No one is questioning his work ethic or desire to excel at Notre Dame. Connaughton has been a Dean’s List student and is on a pace to graduate before his four years are done. And he’s done it while playing two major sports — he transitions to baseball (he was 4-4 with a 3.18 ERA as a starting pitcher his freshman year) as soon as the basketball season is over. Not many student-athletes in Division 1 can keep up with those kinds of demands, so he’s pretty happy with his first two years in South Bend .
“As you’re going through it all, you just want to keep improving,” said Connaughton. “You want to keep doing more and more. But starting out freshman year, if you’d told me I’d be doing this, I would’ve said it’s not a bad thing whatsoever.”