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October 12, 2013

Connaughton ND's wild card

Pat Connaughton is Notre Dame’s man of many hats.

When head coach Mike Brey needs scoring, he turns him loose from three-point range.

When Brey needs defense, he’ll match the Arlington, Mass., product against the opposing team’s top scorer, or perhaps a bruising four-man.

When he needs rebounding, he’ll pair Connaughton up with one of his three big men and go small because the 6-foot-5, 214-pound junior can play larger than his dimensions indicate.

Brey even had him using dribble penetration early last season, which led to Connaughton more than doubling his assist total from 30 as a freshman to 75 in 2012-13.

Now, with the Irish moving from the Big East to the ACC, match-ups - particularly at the four-spot - will be much different.

When in doubt, call on Connaughton, Notre Dame’s wildcard.

“At the beginning of last year, he drove it probably too much, and then at the end of the year, he settled into being a shooter,” said Brey, who watched Connaughton nail 15-of-24 three-pointers in the Big East tournament.

“He started off the summer and through the fall being a shooter off of guys that can pass the ball. He can still drive, but he turned down too many jump shots that we got for him last year. I think he’s been more aggressive and confident as a shooter.”

Confidence and Connaughton go hand-in-hand. It was no surprise in 2011-12 when the then-rookie’s entrance into the starting lineup coincided with a nine-game Irish winning streak. He set career highs in scoring (23) and rebounds (11) in a 17-point victory over Marquette, and then tossed in 21 points four games later against Villanova.

Connaughton scored in double figures seven times in an 11-game stretch before tailing off at the end of the regular season. Then came the Big East tournament and, buoyed by Brey’s encouragement to let if fly, Connaughton nailed 6-of-8 from beyond the arc against Rutgers, 6-of-10 versus Marquette, and 3-of-6 against Louisville. An incredible 25.8 percent of the 58 three-pointers made by Connaughton last season came in the three-game Big East tournament games.

He finished the season averaging 8.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists while connecting on a solid 37.7 percent of his 154 three-point attempts. Just as importantly, he finished second to Jack Cooley in rebounds (164) and defensive rebounds (139) while posting a 75-to-31 assist-to-turnover ratio.

“I’m excited for this year because there is a lot more asked of me, whether it’s rebounding so we can play smaller, or whether it be defending the best player or a bigger player than me,” Connaughton said.

“Whatever it may be, it’s exciting because when more is asked of you, it’s a lot easier to deliver more and be more of a reliable guy night-in and night-out.”

This season, Connaughton will play the three-spot alongside two of Notre Dame’s bevy of guards, or slide to the four-spot when the Irish tap into a three-guard rotation among Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant, Cam Biedscheid and Demetrius Jackson (and possibly freshman Steve Vasturia).

“The ACC is renowned for a little bit more athletic four-man that might not be the big bruiser that the Big East provided,” Connaughton said. “It will be a challenge for me, and something I think I can take advantage of.”

“He’s going to have to guard some four-men, but he can guard anybody,” Brey boldly proclaimed.

Connaughton’s face lights up when talking about not only the individual challenges ahead, but the change from the Big East to the ACC.

“It was a really cool thing for us veteran guys to have played in the Big East, which was arguably the best basketball conference, and now changing over to arguably the best basketball conference in the ACC,” Connaughton said.

“When you think of college basketball, some of the names that ring out are the Dukes and the North Carolinas.”

And when Mike Brey thinks of versatility, he chooses Connaughton as Notre Dame’s wildcard.

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