CLEVELAND — Three months after Notre Dame’s season ended, it was almost as if Pat Connaughton could still hear the basketball bouncing.
He was staring down the barrel of Major League Baseball. His athleticism and his low-90s fastball made him scouting catnip. He heard more than enough comparisons to Chicago Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija. He was pretty much penciled in for the early rounds of the draft.
But it was hard for Connaughton not to check his rearview mirror.
He could see himself walking off the floor at the Greensboro Coliseum, his 19 points, 5 rebounds, and three 3-pointers all footnotes in Notre Dame’s season-ending loss to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament last season. The Fighting Irish lost 13 of their last 18 games and the taste was still sour.
Connaughton saw the carrot that baseball was dangling in front of him. But when he weighed whether to make the leap to the pros, he couldn’t see himself leaving basketball behind just yet.
“When it came down to making a decision, there really wasn’t a decision for me to make,” Connaughton said. “I kind of knew the whole time in my heart I wanted to come back. I wanted to not give up on basketball, let alone on this team and this university, before I thought it through.”
Ultimately, the Arlington native and St. John’s Prep alum was drafted in the fourth round by the Baltimore Orioles, but Connaughton put baseball on hold to return to Notre Dame with the hopes that the Irish would find themselves exactly where they are now — in the Sweet 16 set to face Wichita State on Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena.
He returned this season as a better shooter (a career-high 43 percent on 3-pointers and 47 percent from the floor), a better rebounder (7.3 a night), and a better leader.
“I’ve not had anyone better,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “He’s one of the all-timers, maybe the best I’ve ever had.”
In Notre Dame’s run to its first ACC championship, Connaughton averaged 14 points in three games, including a 20-point assault on North Carolina in the title game.
Sitting two wins from the Final Four, Connaughton explained why a seemingly difficult decision came so easily.
“To be able to do that and to be able to have the year that we’ve had and to be able to put ourselves in the position to make an even deeper run in March kind of shows the exact reasons I came back, and shows that it paid off and I made the right decision,” Connaughton said.
If only for a day last year, Brey found himself on pins and needles about where his program was heading.
He wasn’t sure which way his centerpiece Jerian Grant was leaning, with the weight of a half-season suspension pulling him down and the prospect of an NBA career tugging him in a different direction.
But the tug-of-war didn’t last long, and knowing the people Grant had around him, Brey figured it wouldn’t.
“Jerian maybe thought about it in December, after he left us for a day,” Brey said. “It was, ‘He’s coming back.’ His dad, mom, coaches [all said], ‘Get your butt back there, graduate, finish.’ ”
Knowing how close Grant and Connaughton were, Brey knew Grant’s decision would impact Connaughton.
They both arrived at South Bend in 2011, Grant making a name for himself slashing through defenses at DeMatha High School in Maryland, Connaughton an all-around weapon for St. John’s Prep, averaging 22.5 points, 17 rebounds, and 8 assists as a senior. Their first two seasons, the Irish won a combined 47 games and reached the NCAA Tournament both years. Last season, with Grant out, they missed the tournament for the first time since 2009.
Even if they had golden opportunities ahead of them, it wasn’t the legacy they wanted to leave behind.
“We came in together,” Connaughton said. “We played together, we have gone through a lot, and we have similar interests, and those interests include winning, and I think with the way that we’ve gone at things since freshman year, we weren’t satisfied on the way last season ended, obviously myself being a captain last year and having to go through a stretch where I wasn’t a good enough leader to put our team in those situations.
“Then to see the way Jerian felt about not being there to be able to prevent it as well, it made us that much closer.”
The lightbulb went off at the same time.
“It wasn’t a joint decision,” Connaughton said. “But at the same time there was always that half kidding-half serious, ‘Well, if you’re not coming back, I’m not coming back. Let’s do this together. Let’s make sure that we write our own history in Notre Dame basketball as a collective one.’ ”
For the first time since 2003, the Irish find themselves in the Sweet 16. The last time they reached the Elite Eight was 1979.
“We’re not done here at Notre Dame,” Grant said. “We’ve done some good things but we really haven’t made history, we really haven’t left our legacy, left our mark. That is something that both of us really wanted to do. We’re not done yet, but I think we’ve really started to do that.”
Connaughton has been a rock for the Irish, playing in all 137 games since his freshman year and starting all but 16 of them (his current streak of 118 straight starts is the second-longest in school history). But his leadership, Brey said, has been transcendent.
“I really felt certainly we were going to get Jerian back and you felt you could have a year to get back to the NCAA Tournament,” Brey said. “But I felt just as strongly, maybe more strongly, that it would be Connaughton’s team and voice. He has led just fabulously from June on. It’s his voice, it’s his demeanor, it’s his tone.”
This time a year ago, things were different for Connaughton. Different game, different jersey, different stage. He was in Westfield, Ind., digging his spikes into a mound at Grand Park under partial clouds and 33-degree weather.
Two weeks removed from the disappointment of the Irish’s basketball season, he was working out the kinks on the mound. He faced 18 batters, three of them tagged him for hits, four of them worked him for walks. He managed to strike out three of them.
He was pitching in front of a scattered crowd of 422 people, but it still mattered to him
“The work that you put in when no one’s watching often comes out when everyone’s watching,” Connaughton said. “When you’re on the mound and there’s not many people there, it’s a cold, rainy spring day in South Bend, Indiana, you can still find yourself in jams, you can still find yourself in competitive situations where you need to step up in order to put your team in position to win that game.”
“Those games are just as important to practice and keep the pressure on, so when you get to a stage where there is people watching, even if it’s a different sport, you’ve put yourself through some pressure situations and you’ve put yourself in a situation where — the line I always like to use is winners win, no matter what it is, no matter how you affect the game, whether it’s shooting, whether it’s doing the little gritty things that no one likes to do, at the end of the day the most important thing is winning.”
Whether it was the pressure of a season-defining game or the pressure of a life-changing decision, Brey knew he didn’t have to worry about how Connaughton would handle it.
“The thing about Pat is, everyone told him leading up to the baseball draft, ‘Do not say you’re coming back to play basketball. It will hurt your draft status,’ ” Brey said. “And his dad and him say, ‘We’re not going to BS about that. We’re coming back, we’re going to finish this thing.’ Pat loves to play basketball.
Now his options are opening up, with chatter he might be drawing looks from the NBA.
“He’s intrigued about what the NBA thinks about him,” Brey said.
For someone who’s played both sports, Connaughton doesn’t see it as a matter of choosing one over the other. Instead, he’s chosen to go as far as both roads will take him.
“If I had a sport that I liked more, I would probably be playing a single sport right now,” Connaughton said. “So the way I look at it is I’ve been playing both of them my whole life, I don’t want to burn a bridge before I see what’s across that bridge, and I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t give up on one before I saw it through.”