A moment of relative significance on an otherwise average November evening awaits Notre Dame junior guard Matt Farrell.
A little before 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Farrell’s name will bounce out over the Purcell Pavilion public-address system when introduced as one of the five starters for the exhibition opener against Division II Mercy (N.Y.) College. With former guard Demetrius Jackson off to the NBA a year early, it’s Farrell’s turn to take the basketball and run an Irish team coming off a school record 56 wins the last two years.
It’s a spot the 6-foot-1, 178-pound Farrell always believed he could get to, although he wasn’t sure eight short months ago that it would happen here.
But careers that seemingly look headed toward a dead end have funny ways of working out. Farrell may prove that better than anybody who’s passed through the Irish program during coach Mike Brey’s 17 seasons. He’s gone from a guy ticketed to transfer to THE guy expected to direct what is annually one of the country's most efficient offenses.
How does that feel?
“It’s definitely different,” Farrell said with a smile last month during media day. “I’m more comfortable out there knowing I’m not out there with Demetrius now. I’m out there running the team.
“This is my team.”
A rotation regular during non-league play last season – his 10 points and four rebounds in 23 minutes basically helped win the game at Illinois – Farrell fell out of favor the deeper Notre Dame ventured through Atlantic Coast Conference play.
With Jackson sidelined by a hamstring injury and Farrell the only other true point guard on the roster, he played only 11 scoreless minutes in a late-January loss at Syracuse. He logged 120 seconds against Wake Forest, then five meaningless minutes in the wipeout loss at Miami (Fla.). A run of five straight DNP-CDS (did not play, coach’s decision) followed. Farrell started thinking hard about starting over elsewhere.
“He and I talked in February about if it would be best for him to go somewhere else,” Brey said. “I said, ‘Matty, we’re not there yet, man. You’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing. Let’s see how this thing finishes, see what Demetrius does.’”
Jackson held THE key to Farrell’s future. If he returned, Farrell likely would again be the odd-man out. If Jackson felt the call of the NBA too strong to ignore, well, there might be a place for Farrell.
Would Jackson go? Stay? He wasn't saying anything for certain.
“As close as me and Demetrius were, I don’t know if I was getting a straight answer out of him at the time,” Farrell said. “I was like, ‘Bro, you’ve got to help me out a little bit. I’m in a weird spot.’”
It would get even weirder in March.
Hours before Notre Dame opened NCAA tournament play against Michigan at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Brey huddled with his staff in a conference room of the team’s midtown Manhattan hotel and laid out his postseason plans. He preferred two point guards in the starting lineup to help Jackson with his workload. He pegged Farrell for the first start of his career at the most important time of the season.
“You could only imagine the expressions on my assistants’ faces,” Brey said. “It was an interesting time when I said, ‘We’re doing this.’ There were some rumblings when I got up to walk out.
“I turned back and said, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together and he’s starting. No more debates.’”
Farrell started all four NCAA Tournament games. He averaged 6.5 points and 1.25 assists in 26.7 minutes, way better than his career averages of 2.0 points and 0.6 assists in 10.1 minutes. He played with confidence. With swagger. With a belief that he belonged.
Two days after Notre Dame lost to North Carolina in the East Regional final, Jackson jumped to the NBA. He was all out. Farrell was all in.
He responded with a solid summer. He got himself into better shape. He learned to become more of a leader. Found his voice. He was more confident in his game. In his teammates. In his place in the program.
“We gave him the ball,” Brey said. “Like, you’re the guy. We don’t want any indecision.”
And no looking over his shoulder. Freshman guard T.J. Gibbs was a priority recruit in case Jackson did leave a year early. Gibbs is good. He’s going to play. A lot. Sometimes alongside Farrell. Sometimes alone. If Farrell struggles, Gibbs is talented enough to step in and start.
But now that Farrell’s doing what he felt all along he could do, he’s not going to give it up so easily. Just knowing that he’s a main guy has helped him settle in and play the way he likes to play. Different doors to his game also have opened. He’s more confident coming off screens looking for his shot, or making a play to help someone find their sweet spot. He’s also determined to defend. Nobody took more charges the first few weeks of practice.
He’s ready. To prove his first start at home Tuesday is just the start. To prove he can play.
“Last year it was tough for me to do that, Farrell said. “I’ve definitely got more freedom. It’s time to go.”