Shedding his defender with an escape dribble to the right during the final practice session of the summer last week, Notre Dame sophomore-to-be Rex Pflueger fired up a mid-range jumper.
The ball bounced off the back of the rim before Mike Brey blew his whistle, ending a 5-on-5 halfcourt scrimmage situation.
“That’s a great look!” Brey called to Pflueger.
That the shot didn’t fall mattered little to the head coach. That Pflueger has become more confident in his offensive game the second time around to look for said shot is key as the Irish move into the 2016-17 season.
A year ago, Pflueger carved his Irish identity on the defensive end. Coming off the bench in a reserve guard role for 29 of his 30 games, Pflueger often was pointed in the direction of the other team’s best perimeter player.
See him? Go guard him.
Anything the 6-foot-6 Pflueger gave Notre Dame on the offensive end (like the seven points in 23 critical minutes in the win at Duke) was a bonus. That should change this season. Pflueger plans to look more for his shot. Look more to get out on the break and use his 40-plus inch vertical. Look more to rebound. To play-make. To score. He has to if he wants to play more than the 13.1 minutes a game he logged last season.
“I don’t want to be lopsided on one side of the floor,” Pflueger said of being so one-dimensional last season. “I’m looking to expand on the offensive side. I should be more aggressive this year.”
Brey pushed for that transformation late last year. As Pflueger headed to the scorer’s table from the bench in the NCAA tournament East Regional final against North Carolina, he looked back to Brey, who barked, “Don’t be afraid to shoot the ball!”
Pflueger went scoreless without a shot attempt in five minutes as Notre Dame’s drive to its first Final Four since 1978 fell one game short for a second-straight season.
“Getting that Elite Eight experience under my belt really helps with my confidence,” Pflueger said.
The only basket Pflueger scored in six postseason games goes down as one of the biggest in program history. Time was set to expire on Notre Dame’s season in a second-round NCAA game against Stephen F. Austin before Pflueger slid into an open space to tip back Zach Auguste’s miss with 1.5 seconds remaining and secure a 76-75 Irish win.
It earned him a “One Shining Moment” cameo.
The following week back on campus was a blur for Pflueger, who received well-wishes from seemingly everybody. That hoopla ceased until he returned home in the spring to Southern California, where family members and friends told their tales of watching the play all over again.
“It’s amazing, all the people coming up to me and my parents telling me how crazy it was,” Pflueger said. “I had at least 20 people tell me that they jumped up and hit their heads on the ceiling after that time, which I don’t believe.
“But it was cool to see and hear the reaction and know that people are following me back home.”
Pflueger’s ready to be more than that tip-in dude. In Demetrius Jackson (15.8 ppg.) and Auguste (14.0) Notre Dame needs to replace its top two scorers off last year’s team. Pflueger can help on one end and still be a constant on the other.
“I feel like more of a veteran already,” he said. “We have a lot of guys on our team who can score, which is exciting, but the thing will be, how do we lock down when it comes to the defensive side?”
Pflueger will have an answer.
The all-important July evaluation period was nearly over, which meant first-year assistant coach Ryan Humphrey could stop living out of his suitcase and wondering where he was when he’d awake in yet another hotel room in yet another city hosting yet another crazy AAU tournament.
As Humphrey reflected on July following last week’s practice, he ran through his mental Rolodex remembering all the places he’d been the previous three weeks.
“Man, I’ve been all over,” he said of an itinerary that took him recruiting to Spain, to North Augusta, S.C., Spartanburg, S.C., Houston, Orlando and Fort Wayne. “I’ve been everywhere.”
Unlike fellow first-year assistant Ryan Ayers, who had been through the July grind during his previous stop as an assistant at Bucknell, Humphrey was experiencing it all for the first time. And he liked it.
“It’s been fantastic,” he said. “I’ve been on one side of it; now I’m on the other side of it.”
Ayers and Humphrey kept their boss on his recruiting toes. They threw a lot of new names, new ideas, new ways of evaluating prospects at the veteran coach.
“They’ve got a lot of energy, man,” Brey said. “I trust them because they played for me. If it was a guy outside the program saying he’d fit, I’d say, well, maybe you need some growth time.
“These guys really get it.”
Humphrey was quick to credit the assistants he and Ayers replaced – former Irish coaches Martin Ingelsby and Anthony Solomon – for building a solid recruiting foundation. But he also admitted it’s time to build off that. Doing so is easier to recruit a kid to Notre Dame as a Notre Dame graduate.
He and Ayers both have the pulse of the place.
“Coach has been great with allowing us to have a voice,” Humphrey said. “We’re not going to bring in certain types of kids or suggest bringing them in if they don’t fit what he wants in the locker room.
“At the end of the day, it’s about them being successful, but it’s about this program being successful.”
Lost in the shuffle of the summer staff changes – three former Irish have moved into coaching/administrative roles – was the promotion of the one non-Notre Dame graduate who has been with Brey for his entire time in South Bend.
Brey promoted Rod Balanis to associate head coach. It’s the first time Brey’s had someone with that that title on his staff since Sean Kearney served as associate head coach during his nine-year run with Notre Dame.
Balanis started as the coordinator of basketball operations during Brey’s first season in 2000. He served that role for three years before moving into an assistant coaching spot. He’s coached both the Irish bigs and guards during that time.
When Ingelsby left in May to become the head coach at Delaware, Balanis also took on the role of recruiting coordinator.