It's pretty easy to tell. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are excited to have Jerian Grant back.
"Having Jerian come back is huge", said junior Austin Burgett at the Irish basketball team's recent media day. "He's really a great leader for us."
Senior Eric Katenda agrees, "I feel like the expectations are a lot higher with Jerian back."
"I think [he's] going to bring a lot of energy. Jerian will be more of a vocal leader this year," endorsed Austin Torres.
After last year's failed campaign, with Grant serving a suspension for the second half of the season, you can certainly understand why. With Grant's suspension last year, following the demoralizing collapse in the Garden to then undefeated Ohio State, Notre Dame simply fell apart. Said head coach Mike Brey recently, "I don't know if I've ever had a tougher locker room to deal with."
It is hard not to pinpoint the back-to-back heartbreaking losses - first to the Buckeyes, then Grant to suspension the very next day - as the biggest reason for the team's slide. The Irish lost 13 games without Grant last season; 9 of those were by 7 points or fewer. It is hard to measure the impact of the loss of an individual player on his team's record, but when a team loses its lone go-to scorer in crunch time, it is impossible not to look at all those close losses without thinking "if only they had Grant..."
Not that the Irish were perfect with Jerian Grant in the lineup. They had dropped 4 games with him, including a major clunker against Indiana State. But with Grant, that team does not finish below .500. Does it get to 20 wins? Maybe. Does it make the tournament? Probably not. But without their best player? They never had a chance.
Brey agrees. "When we lost [Grant], we lost a playmaker that was involved with every play offensively. When he wasn't scoring it, he was setting somebody up."
Mike Brey could not lament last year's lost season too much at his team's recent media day, however, not when he was busy raving about his returning senior.
"He's come back and accepted responsibility to kind of run this team. He's been a machine. He's in great shape. Again, he's off the radar, which is great. He's one of the better players in college basketball."
Brey, never much of a salesman, may be underselling his senior shooting guard. Sports Illustrated enlisted an economist to project individual players' scoring (among other things) across the country for the upcoming season. Simply put, Dan Hanner's projections are very favorable to Jerian Grant. Not only does Hanner have Grant as the 11th leading scorer in the country, he predicts Grant to be the second most efficient scorer of high-usage players in the country, behind only Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky.
This is heady stuff for Grant, especially as he comes back from a half season off the court and treks through the ACC schedule for his first time. But while most know of Grant's talent (he was named preseason 1st team all-ACC last season), we likely have not seen the limits to his talent quite yet, as he has a legitimate pedigree, track record, and opportunity to be one of the best players in the country.
For a team like Notre Dame, having a player like Grant, someone who is just that good nationally, is far from an every year occurrence and could single-handedly be all the difference between a successful season and an unfortunate repeat of last year. And though he has yet to do so in his career thus far, a star player like Grant could mean not only making the NCAA Tournament, but carrying his team into the second weekend, a weekend seldom seen by Mike Brey's Irish.
These projections are, of course, premature, especially when thinking about March for a team that was irrelevant long before then last season. Grant needs to re-acclimate himself to game speed and help Notre Dame navigate a very manageable non-conference schedule relatively unscathed. He needs to get his feet under him in a new conference, a very tough conference with some road environments he has never experienced. Perhaps most importantly, Grant needs to get the Irish believing they can win again as the undisputed leader of this team.
We should not take these things for granted; the senior captain has a lot of work to do to regain his form and lead his team to relevance again. But if you find yourself thinking "this is the year" for Notre Dame to make some noise come March, you're probably first thinking of Jerian Grant. If Mike Brey or these projections are to be believed, you're probably thinking of just the guy who can pull it off.