SOUTH BEND — Through all the comings and goings of guys, all the talk about that old guy, or this old guy or those new guys, he’s kind of been the forgotten guy on the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.
For everyone who wanted to know how the Irish might replace graduated seniors Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell and Martinas Geben or how all the new faces would be incorporated into a program that usually doesn’t play many of them, senior power forward Elijah Burns likely never wondered.
Never wondered about his minutes or his role or his place. At least, not publicly. All Burns said Thursday he wants to do his help the team anyway he can. If that’s as a starter, fine. If that’s as a reserve, fine too. Same with playing major minutes or minimal minutes.
Actually he does, but only about winning, something Burns helped the Irish do against Chicago State, 89-62, with a big night. A career night.
Burns scored a career-high 15 points and added five rebounds in 17 minutes as a reserve, but the contribution was more than just numbers on the stats sheet. What Burns did was stabilize a young team that got a little wacky against an overmatched opponent. He was a calming, experienced presence after Notre Dame (2-0) saw its 18-point lead shaved to six and then disappear altogether late in the first half. He played like a captain, played like a leader. Just played with no worry about anything except what he wants most — success.
“Just doing anything my team needs me to do,” he said afterward. “Rebound, talk, defend, whatever they need me to do I’m going to contribute and that’s what I’m going to do.
“I just want to win games.”
While Burns brought a sage-like presence to a team that really needed it, freshman Nate Laszewski continued to do steady stuff in his first full week of college basketball contests. Laszewski piggy-backed a 12-point debut two nights earlier with another 12 on Thursday. Amid any craziness or confusion, he just kind of plays with the same predictable pulse.
Burns and Laszewski were factors in a late 5-0 spurt to close the first half — Burns had a lay-in in the lane and Laszewski added a late 3 — and also were key in a 12-0 run to start the second half. That gave the Irish some much-needed breathing room before the final 20 minutes morphed back into coach Mike Brey becoming a mad scientist with the minutes and the rotation and what different combinations (dizzying to keep track of) were on the floor.
Less than three minutes remained in a lopsided game, but Burns still was doing what he does — talking. On the bench, and seated next to Laszewski, he was counseling the kid one what he may see from a certain set sometime down the line. Maybe next week. Maybe next month. Maybe after the New Year when Atlantic Coast Conference play starts. There might be times — a lot of them, actually — when the young guys are better than the old guys and need to play. But that won’t stop Burns from serving as a mentor to guys like Laszewski. The older guys, guys that are now gone from the program, taught him. He feels he has to do the same, whether he’s playing 17 minutes a game or seven.
“It’s been fun for me,” Burns said of trying to get a grip on the rotation. “I look at it as I’m the glue for everybody else. “Whatever lineups Coach puts in, just try to be there for the young guys and for the old guys, just try to be a calming voice for the team.”
The Irish never trailed for the second-straight game and led by as many as 32. It looked early on that this would be a breeze. Notre Dame needed less than five minutes to open a double-digit lead. It jumped to 17-6 following a John Mooney right-handed jump hook in the lane. The advantage ballooned to 18 points. But the open shots that were falling earlier suddenly stopped, and it was as if the Irish didn’t know how to respond. Brey kept running different lineup combinations through to maybe find some semblance of a rhythm, but nothing really clicked.
After going up 28-10, Notre Dame found itself tied at 35. The Irish missed seven-straight shots and went nearly five minutes without a bucket against a team that has averaged 6.8 wins the last five seasons.
Burns broke the drought with a power move inside. And when Laszewski drained a deep 3 just before the halftime horn, Notre Dame was up five, 40-35. The scene in the Irish locker room at intermission was a little different than two nights earlier. That night, opening night, Notre Dame led UIC by 23. Almost everything came easily. On Thursday, not much did for a long stretch. That was new. That was frustrating.
“It wasn’t an easy halftime,” Brey said. “We’re going to have many frustrating halftimes where it’s not going good or we’re down. We had to talk through stuff.”
Not surprisingly, Burns talked.
“I knew we’d be fine,” Burns said. “We just had to come out and bring some energy.”
Laszewski led the Irish in scoring with 12 points in the opener and looked just as comfortable the second time through. He connected on a quick 3 after checking in, then showed off some inside skills with a rebound, follow bucket and subsequent free throw. There’s a lot to like about his game. A lot.
“It’s been ups and downs,” he said of his first week of game action. “It’s helped having the upperclassmen’s support and my teammates believe in me. It’s been a good start so far.”
Laszewski worked as a reserve for the second-straight game, but didn’t take long to get going. He checked in at the 15:05 mark of the first half, then stuck his first 3 from the top of the key at 13:42.
“It’s a huge confidence boost,” Laszewski said. “But my teammates, even if I miss the first, they’re telling me the next one’s going in.”
The Irish wore their traditional road — blue —uniforms on Thursday because of additional uniform issues for Chicago State. The Cougars’ road uniforms didn’t arrive in time for their opener Tuesday at Indiana. Chicago State wore gray uniforms Tuesday and Thursday.
Having tinkered with the starting lineup for five games — three in the foreign tour exhibition of the Bahamas in August and two preseason exhibitions —Brey locked into the same lineup that opened about 48 hours earlier against UIC. That meant freshman Robby Carmody, the first freshman to start the season opener at Notre Dame since 2002, was back in the top five.
Brey again looked at a lot of guys early. He went 10 deep the first 10 minutes of the first half. He also realized that he’s probably playing too many guys. That will have to change. Somehow. Some way.
“I’m learning too,” Brey said. “That’s all something I’m trying to get a feel for.”
Brey played 11 combinations the first 20 minutes. Like Tuesday, some worked and some didn’t. Most didn’t because certain groups didn’t defend. That’s why the lineup sometimes turned over with two and three guys checking in at the same time. And why it changed again to start the second half.
Burns and Laszewski and Dane Goodwin started the second half with senior Rex Pflueger and junior T.J. Gibbs.
“The group that ended the half and started the second half defended,” Brey said. “That helped us.”
• NOTRE DAME 89, CHICAGO ST. 62
At Purcell Pavilion
CHICAGO ST. (0-2): Jacob 4-9 4-4 12, Bowles 5-8 4-5 15, Harris 3-7 6-8 13, Strickland 4-8 3-4 13, Shaw 3-7 0-0 6, Odiase 0-0 0-0 0, Szpir 1-2 0-0 2, Bigirumwami 0-1 1-2 1, Bell 0-5 0-0 0. Totals 20-47 18-23 62.
NOTRE DAME (2-0): Mooney 3-4 0-0 7, Pflueger 3-8 0-0 9, Carmody 2-7 4-6 8, Gibbs 4-9 0-0 10, Harvey 4-8 2-4 11, Durham 1-4 0-0 2, Laszewski 4-8 1-1 12, Burns 5-6 4-5 15, Nelligan 0-1 0-0 0, Hubb 2-7 1-1 6, Djogo 1-1 0-0 2, Goodwin 2-8 2-2 7. Totals 31-71 14-19 89.
Halftime—Notre Dame 40-35. 3-Point Goals—Chicago St. 4-14 (Strickland 2-4, Bowles 1-2, Harris 1-3, Bigirumwami 0-1, Shaw 0-1, Bell 0-3), Notre Dame 13-40 (Laszewski 3-6, Pflueger 3-8, Gibbs 2-7, Mooney 1-1, Burns 1-1, Harvey 1-3, Hubb 1-4, Goodwin 1-6, Nelligan 0-1, Carmody 0-3). Fouled Out—Jacob. Rebounds—Chicago St. 28 (Jacob 11), Notre Dame 40 (Harvey 7). Assists—Chicago St. 11 (Shaw 4), Notre Dame 18 (Pflueger 5). Total Fouls—Chicago St. 20, Notre Dame 18.