The Notre Dame Fighting Irish Men’s Basketball Team went on a tear in the 2014-2015 season. They were one of the best basketball teams in program history. They had camraderie, brotherhood, energy, passion, and a TON of skill. They had made it to an Elite 8 for the first time in 36 years. They were ever so close to being only the second Irish team to ever make it to a Final Four. They were even destined for more than that, but unfortunately, that came to a halt.
Yes, I know we are not talking about this season’s team. However, we need to mention this team before we can go any further in discussing the almost 2015 champions.
In the 2013-2014 season, the Irish were jumping into their inaugural season in the ACC. With the Big East as we know it disbanding, lending itself to the Big East Conference that we know now (the “Catholic” conference plus Butler), the Irish were added to the ACC in a move that made sense in all aspects besides actual geographic location. Academically, there are some solid schools in the ACC. The athletics were also an step up across the board of all 26 varsity sports that Notre Dame has. Also, and very importantly, the ACC agreed for Notre Dame to remain independent in football so long as they played 5 ACC teams each season. Good with us #IndependenceForever.
In January of 2014, the Irish hosted their first ever home ACC game. It was also their first ever ACC game period. However, the conference probably was hazing us because we had to play Duke. Of course we did. However, the Irish shocked one of the conference’s and nation’s blue blood programs. It also led to this absolute poster of a dunk.
Unfortunately, that would be the highlight of a pretty dysmal season for the Irish. Jerian Grant had to sit out all of conference play because of academic ineligibility. The Irish were only 6-12 in conference and 15-17 overall, finished 13 out of 15 in the conference, and got knocked out by Wake Forest in the first game of the 2014 ACC Tournament. They also didn’t just play one game, they were the first game of the whole tournament that year, so the Irish were literally the first team knocked out of the ACC Tournament. With a below .500 record, the Irish season was done; there was not chance for even an NIT bid. 2013-14 was overall a season to forget, but fortunately, the players did not forget about it.
At the beginning of the season, I don’t think anybody could have anticipated what was going to happen later in the season. A lot of the same players came back. Pat Connaughton was back, and so was Zach Auguste. Jerian Grant came back for his last season in absolutely awesome showing of teamwork and looking at the bigger picture for a team end goal. Demetrius Jackson, the up and coming player that hailed right from nearby Mishawaka Marian High School was in his sophomore year. Then, there was a new addition that we will discuss even more later, Bonzie Colson II. He was a three-star recruit out of New Bedford, MA. He had a bit of hype, but not too much, but Bonzie was waiting to come out of his shell.
The Irish had a modest start to the season, going 13-1 and before we got to New Years Day. In that span, they started to get some attention by winning an OT thriller in the ACC-B1G Challenge against power Michigan State. It was a fantastic atmopshere in Purcell Pavilion. Additionally, the boys went into the Crossroads Classic that happens every year in Indianapolis. They absolutely trounced Purdue 93-64. At this point, the Irish were turning some heads and holding strong in the Top 25.
Once we got to the New Year, the Irish hosted Georgia Tech in a Double OT game (unfortunately it always seems like a slog against those guys). The Irish won the game, and Jerian Grant made a MONSTER DUNK that was nothing short of beautiful.
The Irish were on a roll when they got to the true turning point in the season. January 28. 2015. Notre Dame vs. Duke. Purcell Pavilion. Both teams put on a show that was back and forth. This game was one of my absolute favorite sporting events that I attended. We got the W against Duke, and we were showing to be an excellent team that not many wanted to mess with. The clinching bucket is one of my favorite things ever, but there are so many awesome shots.
Even in that game, Bonzie Colson came off the bench to have a block and 8 points. He was starting to show he would be a monster for four years.
After that, though, the Irish played the back half of their ACC schedule. In 9 games the Irish actually lost 3 of those. It was a bit of a letdown, so we did not really expect was about to happen next. I think we were all just happy to be competitive and have the #3 seed/a double bye in the ACC Tournament.
Ah, Greensboro, NC - the place where dreams came true. In the 2015 ACC Tourney, the Irish had a double-bye, so they didn’t have to play until the quarterfinals against Miami. They took care of them to get to the semifinals to face Duke. Now, the Irish played Duke again in Cameron Indoor this time after that January night. The Irish just ran into a brick wall, losing 90-60 in a game where Duke shot 81% from the field in the first half. Fortunately, the Irish shook that off to finish the season overall strongly.
Against Duke, the Irish had an absolute battle again. This time the game was to win the season series and get to the ACC Tournament final. Now, the Irish always had to keep Jahlil Okafor, the beast in the middle of Duke’s team. However, through some insane heroics and poise, the Irish won 74-64 to get to the final against UNC.
Now we have to remember these games are on consecutive nights, and we are right in the heart of Tobacco Road. To say that it seemed like a UNC home game was an understatement. The Greebsboro Coliseum was conservatively 90% UNC fans. It was wild, and overwhelming for a bit honestly. The Irish actually found themselves down by 8 points in the second half before absolutely running away with the game. They were passing in the most crisp way I have ever seen a team pass. Clutch shots were hit from Pat Connaughton, VJ Beachem, Zach Auguste, Jerian Grant, and Steve Vasturia. Everyone was getting involved and contributing to a comeback.
After it was all said and done, the Irish finally did it: they won the ACC Tournament. This was the first official conference championship win in program history. All those years in the Big East produced no actual Big East titles. In the second year of being in the ACC, the Irish got the win they needed. It was so damn incredible.
Next up was the NCAA Tournament. The Irish would’ve been a lock for the tournament, but as the winner of the ACC Tournament, they were the automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament. The Irish were a 3 seed that first played Northeastern. In a game with Northeastern trying to play the spoiler as a 14 seed, they fought like hell to make it a game. The Irish got the win to survive and advance literally. Next up in surviving and adavancing, they faced in-state foe Butler for a trip to the Sweet 16. It was back and forth that went to OT. The Irish prevailed in another nail biter. Pat Connaughton helped out big time by absolutely swatting a last second Butler shot so the game could go to OT. The team had to show resilience to get to the second weekend of the tournament, and they did just that.
Onto the Sweet 16 we go against darling of the last few years, Wichita State. They had Ron Baker as well as Fred VanFleet, and they were a tough team. However, the Irish took them to task after getting down in the second half. The Irish went on a run that was becoming tradition for this team to dismantle the Shockers to go to the Elite 8. Their next opponent: the number 1 seed in their region, Kentucky.
This was going to be an absolute showdown, and it was. Kentucky absolutely embarrased West Virginia in their Sweet 16 game that happened right after the Irish beat WSU. However, that emabarrasment did not actually happen. The Irish hung tough with the Wildcats that had a star-studded lineup that included the Harrison twins and Karl-Anthony Towns. However, the Irish held tough inside, forcing some bad shots on these forces from Kentucky. Zach Auguste held court in the paint. The guards shot well overall. Bonzie Colson got in the mix to mess with Kentucky’s head to get a steal and a block.
Even though the Irish were leading at the under-4 timeout, the Wildcats went on a run that mattered the most. They were up 68-66 with just seconds left. The Irish had to get a quick shot. At the buzzer, Jerian Grant threw up a prayer from the three point line, but the shot went long and wide. And just like that, a magical season suddenly was over. It didn’t feel real. As I reflected on the game, I was more just sad that this team that brought Notre Dame basketball back to some relevance while having so much fun and chemistry. It was a true shame not to be able to watch them play anymore basketball together. That was the last college game for Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant.
The reason I wrote about this team is because I firmly believe that if the Irish had the chance to cut down the nets to go to the Final Four that year, they were absolute contenders to win the national championship. They showed that they could beat Kentucky and really just about anybody in the country. They fell just shy.
The next week in the Final Four, Kentucky, a heavy favorite, was beaten by Wisconsin. We’ll never know how a Notre Dame-Wisconsin battle would’ve gone down, but I have an idea that they would’ve gotten the win. They already showed they could definitely beat Kentucky if gotten another shot at it. And on the other side of the bracket, Duke played Michigan State —two teams that the Irish have already beaten and were 3-1 against during the season.
Duke ended up beating Michigan State for a Duke-Wisconsin final, and Duke won. Even though the Irish beat them twice on the season, Duke still got the national championship. Thus, we dissect this season for Notre Dame Basketball, as showing they could beat the eventual champions. Notre Dame played well enough to win the national championship in 2015, and they were insanely close to that being a reality. It also wasn’t a pipe dream or a cinderella story. The Irish were really good, talented, and capable to get a championship. Even though the season came somewhat out of the blue, it was awesome to see the team buy into being a force.
I wanted to write about this team because they deserve it in this series. But, I also feel a strong connection to this team. I was in school at this time, and I was present in the pep band during the ACC Tournament win as well as for the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games. As a kid that loved watching Notre Dame basketball, it was like a dream seeing their success. To be directly involved with it and right in the thick of their final games was something I will always cherish.
So, even though they fell just shy, this team is one I would consider champions and should claim glory in our hearts and minds.