To declare Pat Connaughton ready for play in the rough-and-tumble Big East based upon a couple of non-conference home games against Detroit and Sam Houston State in mid-November would be premature.
To underestimate what Connaughton has done in the second and third games of his collegiate career would be shortsighted.
Somewhere in between lies reality - with a strong lean toward the former - considering just how dynamic and what an integral part of the winning formula Connaughton was Monday and Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion.
Connaughton sparked the winning rally in the second half against Detroit. A rebound on each end of the court helped the Irish take the lead against the Titans after trailing for the better part of 26 minutes. Two free throws with 6:39 remaining gave the Irish a 47-41 lead. His basket with 5:48 remaining made it a six-point game again. He added another bucket 22 seconds later. He snagged a key offensive rebound with 1:35 remaining to keep the Irish in possession with a seven-point lead.
Connaughton did most of his damage Wednesday night against Sam Houston State in the first half, which ultimately was when the outcome was determined. With the Irish leading 17-14 with less than eight minutes remaining, he hit a three-pointer to up the advantage to 20-14. He scored on a drive to the basket at 5:02 for a 26-14 lead. He nailed his second three-pointer 37 seconds later, and then another 28 seconds after that.
At the 1:30 mark, he hit his fourth three-pointer in a 5:30 span to help cap a 23-0 run that put the game out of reach by halftime despite the absence of Tim Abromaitis, Eric Atkins and Joey Brooks.
“Just talking to him when we recruited him and when he got to campus, he’s more mature than the typical 18-year old,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey of Connaughton, who also will help Mik Aoki’s baseball team on the mound this spring.
“There’s got to be something about the pitching and having the game on your shoulders and being in that environment where you’ve got to win it for your team that competitively puts him ahead of some guys’ experiences.
“He just really believes. He certainly has great physical gifts, athletic ability and strength as a young guy, and he believes he should be part of it. We’ve been nurturing him, but so have (captains) Abromaitis and (Scott) Martin because they know we need him.”
Nothing seems to faze the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder from Arlington, Mass., who averaged 23 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists as a senior at St. John’s Prep.
“The guys I play against in practice every day are some of the best players in the country,” said Connaughton in an attempt to explain his fast start. “So playing against the other guys is just like the same thing. It’s just another day of work.
“It’s still just the second and third games of my career. But then again, playing with these guys, they really believed that I could do it. T Ro (strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski) putting me through the workouts and getting me prepared for the college game has allowed me to do this.”
After a two-point, four-rebound debut against Mississippi Valley State, he scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds against Detroit, followed by a 24-point, five-rebound performance against Sam Houston State.
That’s a 12.0-point, 6.0-rebound average in three games and a 17.0-point, 7.0-rebound average in the last two. In his last 49 minutes of action, he’s scored 34 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.
The fact that he nailed 6-of-10 three-pointers against Sam Houston State after missing his first three in an Irish uniform has been a bit of a surprise to the Irish freshman.
“To be honest, that’s usually what it is,” said Connaughton of his typical game, which is a drive-to-the-hole style. “But Coach Brey always tells me when you’re open to shoot them, don’t think about it. That’s what I did tonight and the result worked out.”
Connaughton also gained bragging rights Wednesday night when his slam dunk with 3:44 remaining marked the first one of the year for the Irish. He was the fortunate recipient of a beautifully executed behind-the-back bounce pass from Jerian Grant.
“We were actually having a competition on the team (as to) who was going to have the first (dunk) of the actual season, not the exhibition games,” Connaughton said. “Jerian wanted it, but he gave the assist.
“Oh, it was gorgeous, it was perfect. All I had to do was jump. I didn’t have to do anything else. I just caught it and jumped.”
Connaughton’s jumping ability is a sight to see. Although he claims not to know what his actual vertical leap is, it’s clear that he is the best leaper on the team now that Carleton Scott is gone.
“That’s something I always wanted and that was something my dad always told me I had to work for,” Connaughton said. “Ever since fifth, sixth grade, when I started to get to the point when I wanted to dunk, he had me in the back yard working on it. He bought me a weight vest and set a wood ledge out there and said, ‘Jump.’ Once that was over, I would take off the weight vest and try to dunk for 30 minutes.
“Kids have always asked me, ‘How do you jump so high?’ You just have to jump. I know (my vertical jump) has increased a lot since I’ve been here, just based off Tony Rolinski. He said, ‘You’re going to have to work at it to do it, but I’ll help you.’ I’ve also put on 10 pounds and it’s solely because of him.”
Connaughton is playing like a veteran and has gotten starter’s minutes the last two games. He played 16 minutes in the second half of the Detroit game, and then logged 33 minutes (16 in the first half, 17 in the second) against Sam Houston State. But Brey isn’t overly concerned about whether Connaughton starts or comes off the bench.
“He’s going to play, whether he’s starting or coming off the bench,” Brey said. “Certainly by the minutes and how we rode him the other night, he’s going to be a key guy for us.”
He already is.