SOUTH BEND – From afterthought to inside presence overnight.
Before the impact of Notre Dame’s second straight run to the Elite Eight had time to sink in, Mike Brey had his priorities mapped out.
The future waits for no one.
Right at the top of the Irish men’s basketball coach’s to-do list was a meeting with Martinas Geben.
The 6-foot-10, 255-pound junior forward had every reason to be unsettled about what his next move might be. Emphasis on the word “move.”
His first two seasons had been spent primarily on the bench, watching Zach Auguste become a dominating force in the paint.
Last year, Geben appeared in 16 games, averaging 1.4 points and 0.9 rebounds. Hardly numbers that indicate a logical progression into that of a prime-time contributor.
“There’s no question, he contemplated transferring,” Brey said of Geben during Tuesday’s media day.
That’s why Geben was the first player Brey met with after Notre Dame was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament.
“I said, ‘Martin, I know you’ve had two tough years,’” Brey said of the native of Lithuania. “‘No. 1, I appreciate your (always positive) attitude. I know you’ve thought about reinventing yourself somewhere else. If you feel you need to do that, I’d love to help you with that; I’m here to support you.
“‘But let me say this: We’re going to start workouts next week. If I see you in anything other than a white shirt (starters wear white shirts) the rest of the way, I’m going to kick you out of this gym. You’re our starting big guy. You need to carry yourself like that… You think about that.’”
Brey, ever the communicator who can reach a player on his level, had one parting piece of advice.
“Being from Lithuania, he likes American slang,” Brey said. “I said, ‘Hey Martin, one last thing before you leave: The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.’”
Two days later, Geben gave a thumbs up to the philosophy, and offered his commitment to the 2016-17 season and beyond.
“I realized that Notre Dame was more than a basketball decision,” Geben said. “It’s a lifetime decision.”
He’s aware of the two-year development stages that preceded successful upperclassman ventures by previous post players Jack Cooley and Auguste. Geben knew that a new role would take a new body, so he shed 20 pounds and significant body fat that went with it. He took this reinvention to a four-game Italian exhibition tour (playing professionals) in August and averaged double figures in points and boards.
In other words, casually seated in the Irish locker room exactly two weeks before the first exhibition game, Geben seemed to be in a pretty good place.
“(The last two years) took a lot of patience and perseverance,” said Geben. “I decided to stay positive.
“I’m much more confident now. The trip to Italy helped. I have a higher bar set for me.”
The bar may be higher, but the requirements are simple: Screen off the ball to get scorers V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia open; rebound; play post defense.
Geben calls himself “the dirty-work guy.”
After battling with Auguste in practice the last two years, Geben has a new challenge this year. Former Irish player and current assistant coach Ryan Humphrey (graduating in 2002), a big man who spent some time in the NBA, is still physically able to swat some of Geben’s shots, and push him around inside.
“That’s what makes me better,” Geben said. “I never get to have an easy practice. (Humphrey) challenges me physically and mentally.”
“I’m out there to remind (Geben) I’ve been through what he’s been through, and I’ve been where he’s trying to get to; let’s just continue to work,” said Humphrey. “We have a growing relationship. Every day he’s going to get better, somehow, some way. I’m invested into his future.”
So are the Irish. All of a sudden.