Notre Dame is struggling to cope with the loss of star guard Jerian Grant.
SOUTH BEND – Christmas and all that comes with it was barely 24 hours in the rearview mirror as members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team made their way back to campus for a scheduled practice the evening of Dec. 26.
The workout was expected to be one of the more challenging of the season following the events of Dec. 21. Up by eight points with 58 seconds remaining against No. 3 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden, an Irish team that has historically been good with the ball, and even better at figuring out game situations, could do neither when required. That sloppiness and uncertainty at winning time allowed the Buckeyes to race back for a 64-61 victory that left the Irish shocked and speechless.
A week that was supposed to be devoted to picking up those pieces became one where the focus was starting over. Completely over.
Less than 24 hours after Notre Dame lost to Ohio State, redshirt junior guard Jerian Grant, who was leading the team in scoring (19.0 ppg.) assists (6.1) and steals (2.0) announced on the school’s web site that he was no longer enrolled at Notre Dame “due to an academic matter that I did not handle properly.”
“I take full responsibility for my lack of good judgment and the poor decision that I made,” Grant said in his six-paragraph statement. “I have no one to blame but myself for the situation. I know and understand the expectations that go with being a student at Notre Dame and I did not live up to those standards.”
Grant is protected under federal privacy laws from fully explaining the exact nature of his academic misstep. Final grades for the fall semester were due the afternoon of Dec. 23. His statement appeared on the school website the previous evening.
There’s no way to know if Grant’s error occurred during finals week, which led into the Ohio State game, or occurred earlier in the semester.
According to the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, Irish coaches and players were aware prior to the game against Ohio State that the contest would be Grant’s last one of the season. He was allowed to play that night because the fall semester did not end until 48 hours later, when grades were due.
Grant’s wrongdoing is said to mirror that of quarterback Everett Golson, who led Notre Dame to the 2012 BCS national championship game before being kicked out of school in the spring for an academic assignment matter. Golson later admitted to cheating on a class project.
Cheating at Notre Dame, whether by a student or student-athlete, is not tolerated. When it happens, the student is almost immediately expelled. Like Golson, Grant will spend one semester (the spring semester) away from Notre Dame. He will be allowed to reapply and re-enroll for the 2014 fall semester, when he can finish his undergraduate work toward his degree.
Golson spent the fall semester away from Notre Dame, but is already enrolled for the spring semester. That’s the way it is at the school – students who are caught cheating pay a one-semester penalty, but usually are allowed to return.
“Jerian was treated like any other student, any other student-athlete,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “He was able to finish the semester and post as good of grades as he could.”
Grant was on track to graduate in the spring. Having sat out his freshman season to preserve a year of eligibility – Notre Dame does not recognize the term “redshirt” – Grant also was expected to bypass his fifth year for a chance at the NBA. His stock was slowly rising with his best collegiate season.
Now none of that is possible. The first team All-ACC preseason pick will spend the spring semester at home in Bowie, Maryland, return to Notre Dame in time for summer school (and for the team’s foreign tour of Italy in August) to finish work toward his degree.
But not before paying a massive price.
“I’m sad for the kid; I love him,” Brey said. “He’s done so much for our program. He made a mistake. My God, he is going to pay for it."
“I really feel he’ll come back better.”
The most pressing matter for Brey and the Irish becomes how to salvage a season that started with so much promise, before home losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State. A team that seemed a lock for the NCAA Tournament before everything started to slide early in the regular season must figure out some way to stay afloat in the ACC.
Fortunately for Brey and the Irish, they’ve been here before, four times over the last seven seasons. Notre Dame lost a key contributor (Tim Abromaitis, Luke Harangody, Scott Martin) three times to injury, including each of the last two years, but each time figured it in time to win at least 10 conference contests and make it to the NCAA Tournament. The other time, in 2007, the Irish lost Kyle McAlarney to an off-court matter (he was arrested for marijuana possession) but still put the pieces together to get to the NCAA Tournament.
The Irish went a combined 35-16 in league play without those four key guys.
Can the Irish do it again? There’s no choice.
“We’ve recovered from devastating blows, losing guys to injuries, suspension,” Brey said. “There is a little bit of a reference point.”
“This one’s going to be the hardest,” Brey said. “Jerian is so involved with everything we do on the offensive end of the floor.”
Nearly everything the Irish did offensively, especially in late-game situations, ran through Grant. He often delivered, and did it again with three critical baskets to help the Irish earn that eight-point lead against Ohio State. Grant was the only player who could go get himself something on the offensive end anytime he wanted. Nobody else on the squad has those skills.
How Notre Dame replaces Grant is a mystery that will be answered over the next nine games or so. By Feb. 1, Brey would like his team to have established an identity and to have established new roles for new faces.
“I don’t think you can say it’s one guy right now,” Brey said. “In three weeks, maybe there will be a guy and it will be answered by his play. It’s best for me to have a very open mind to all the guys.”
How the Irish might look is anyone’s guess. Notre Dame opened the season with two power forwards (Tom Knight, Garrick Sherman) in the stating lineup. That lasted four games after Knight had trouble rebounding. The Irish also started quick with sophomore power forward Austin Burgett working as Brey’s coveted stretch-four man that so many ACC teams employ.
But Burgett’s one start proved that he wasn’t quite ready for that role. From Dec. 1 to Dec. 21, Notre Dame opened with a starting lineup that featured freshman Demetrius Jackson as part of a four-guard look around Sherman.
Jackson needs to do more. Co-captains Eric Atkins and Pat Connaughton need to do more. Sherman needs to continue his solid work in the post. Sophomores Zach Auguste and Burgett need to do more. Knight needs to get right. Freshmen V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia each need to grow up in a hurry.
Grant’s departure and the uncertain health status of sophomore Eric Katenda (knee) leave Notre Dame with nine scholarship players.
All are going to get a chance.
As the initial shock of Grant’s departure abated, Brey found himself thinking more and more about roles and rotations and combinations. As devastating as the Ohio State and Grant losses were, he couldn’t wait to get back to work.
Brey has often been at his coaching best when everything seemed darkest. This may be yet another example. Nobody expects much out of this group, which is often the time the Irish have delivered.
“My mind is racing the last 48 hours,” Brey said prior to Christmas. “Here we go again. What are we going to adjust to? It kind of has you energized."
“Our track record is we’ve figured this thing out.”
Recruiting Efforts Continue
Notre Dame’s late-December schedule featured a gap between games (in Indianapolis on Dec. 14 and in New York on Dec. 21), allowing the Irish coaches to catch up with a handful of current high school juniors on the Irish's 2015 recruiting radar.
The night before the game against Indian at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Notre Dame checked in with Derrik Smits, a 6-10, 200-pound forward from Zionsville, Ind., and the son of former NBA player Rik Smits. The younger Smits made an unofficial visit in the fall.
Following the game against Indiana, Brey went recruiting on the East Coast, where he caught up with shooting guard Matt Ryan, a 6-5, 185-pound rising talent from Iona Prep in new Rochelle, N.Y.. Brey spent Dec. 16 at Ryan’s school watching a workout and was scheduled to return the next night for a game, but poor weather forced that contest to be postponed.
With only one game (Dec. 29 against Canisius) between Dec. 21 and Jan. 4, Notre Dame was able to keep track of two prospects closer to home – guards Devin Cannady (6-0, 170) and Jalen Coleman (6-3, 180).
Notre Dame has recruited Coleman since he was a freshman in high school in Indianapolis; he has since transferred to La Lumiere School in nearby LaPorte prior to the start of the 2013-14 academic year. Cannady, who is also getting looks as a quarterback, attends Marian High School, the alma mater of current Irish guard Jackson. Cannady is a semi-regular at Irish home games.
Brey has said the Irish are open to recruiting just about any position for 2015.