It was pretty clear early in the ACC college basketball season that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were going to struggle when top-scorer Jerian Grant was forced off the team due to an academic issue. But perhaps no one would have expected the Fighting Irish to sink to 15-17, 6-12 in the ACC, playing in the 12/13 game to open the ACC Tournament.
But without Grant, that’s where Notre Dame found itself Wednesday afternoon, and the Fighting Irish’s stay in Greensboro, NC was a short one. Wake Forest advanced to the second round with a 72-64 victory over Notre Dame. The Demon Deacons (17-15, 6-12) move on to face the Pittsburgh Panthers on Thursday. Notre Dame, meanwhile, won’t appear in any postseason tournament given its overall record, and head coach Mike Brey must now contemplate what really was a lost opening campaign for Notre Dame in the ACC.
It all started out in very promising fashion for the Fighting Irish, who announced their presence in the ACC with authority by beating Duke in South Bend. That was Notre Dame’s ACC debut, and it was done without Grant, who left the club in late December. The win offered some hope for Fighting Irish fans that maybe things wouldn’t turn out that bad. But as the season wore on, not having Grant affected Notre Dame in a number of ways. Beyond simply missing his scoring and everything else he brought to the table, it forced additional minutes on other players who perhaps weren’t ready to play that much, it hurt Notre Dame’s depth and it took away a key offensive option for the Fighting Irish to turn to late in close games.
As a result, Notre Dame lost six ACC games by seven points or less, including a 63-61 loss at North Carolina in the regular-season finale that, had the Fighting Irish won, really could have turned their mindset in a positive direction and sparked a deep run in the ACC Tournament. Notre Dame also lost a two-point game at Florida State and fell by four at home in overtime to Pittsburgh. You have to believe that despite the best efforts of the players who remained, having Grant would have at least spun a couple of those games in Notre Dame’s favor which would have made a big difference in the regular season.
Grant is likely to return next season, but the Fighting Irish lose four seniors (Patrick Crowley, Garrick Sherman, Tom Knight and Eric Atkins). It’s impossible to know if getting Grant back in 2014-15 will have the same effect he could have had by being on the team all along this season. And the conference only gets tougher next season, with Louisville replacing Maryland as the 15th team. The final word on this Notre Dame season is that the Fighting Irish were a probably a bit better than their final record, and with Grant they could have gone .500 in their first ACC season. Instead, Grant departed and we’ll never know what might have been for Notre Dame.