It's not very often that a professional athlete comes back to college to play a final season. As odd as it sounds, that is the exact situation that Pat Connaughton finds himself in.
Connaughton, no stranger to hectic offseasons as a dual-sport athlete, had an especially chaotic summer this year. After starting 10 games for the Irish baseball team, he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 4th round of the 2014 MLB Draft. He even made his professional debut, appearing in 10 games for the O's short-season A-ball affiliate.
Despite Connaughton's success on the diamond, don't be too quick to write off his basketball career. Connaughton agreed to a unique contract allowing him to play out his senior season with the Irish basketball team. When interviewed at Irish media day, he made it clear that he isn't mailing in his senior year:
"I think a lot of people are under the impression I came back just to finish out, but I came back here to see what happens with basketball. I want to go that route, see what happens with it. At the end of the day, I'll have a decision to make come the end of the year."
Mike Brey echoed these sentiments, even displaying confidence that Connaughton can succeed at the next level in basketball as well. The coach had nothing but compliments for his only returning captain:
"He's not coming back to play out the basketball string. He's intrigued to see who he is as a basketball player to make a living. He's never been able to concentrate on just basketball for seven, eight months. He is all about hoops. I've had NBA people inquire about him."
Clearly, Connaughton has his sights set high for his senior season. There is certainly much to be optimistic about with the Irish's most decorated multi-sport athlete since Jeff Samardzija. Heading into his fourth year a starter, Connaughton has shown discrete improvement every season. Jerian Grant's unforeseen absence last year thrust Connaughton into a new role -- an offensive focal point. He ended the season with career highs not only in every per-game statistic (including 13.8 PPG and 7.1 RPG) but also in each major rate stat, including FG%, 3P%, and FT%. Despite his increased usage rate as one of the Irish's main offensive threats, Connaughton managed to improve his efficiency as a scorer.
This career year seems even more sustainable when one examines the facets that make Connaughton's offensive game so effective. Connaughton shot 37% from deep last year, cementing himself as one of the best long-range shooters in the ACC, but he also flashed plenty of driving ability as the season went on. As Jabari Parker can attest to, Connaughton can finish at the rim, and his ability to knock down shots or take the ball to the hole can make him a defender's nightmare when he's on his game. With Grant back to slash through opposing defenses, Connaughton should see even more opportunity to increase his offensive productivity. Coach Brey is clearly excited about the 1-2 punch that his senior captains can provide:
"Grant and [Connaughton] are two of the better players, maybe two of the 10 best or 12 best returning players in the ACC."
Equally important to Connaughton's game is his defensive versatility. Connaughton will be the lynchpin in Mike Brey's rotation, guarding both frontcourt and wing threats as needed. Connaughton averaged over 37 minutes per game last year, and it is unlikely that he will see much of a respite this year. The loss of big men Garrick Sherman and Tom Knight have thinned out the Irish frontcourt, which will likely cause Connaughton to spend plenty of time at the "4" this year.
Mike Brey has expressed the desire to spend plenty of time in the 4-around-1 formation this year, which would allow the Irish to keep most of their scoring threats on the court at the same time. Connaughton's adaptability makes all of this possible. He is only 6'5", but he plays much taller with his immense jumping ability and athleticism. He spent plenty of time guarding much larger opponents last year, and Coach Brey remains confident that Connaughton can successfully guard power forwards for long spells.
As Notre Dame looks to put their frustrating inaugural season in the ACC behind them, Pat Connaughton will have to factor in as one of the pivotal figures. He may not fill up the stat sheet quite like Jerian Grant will. He may not provide quite the eye-popping athleticism that Demetrius Jackson will. What Connaughton will provide is a veteran presence that Mike Brey can count on in any situation. If the Irish are to return to the NCAA tournament, the dependability and flexibility of Connaughton will be absolutely crucial.