SOUTH BEND – Daily draws on his college basketball experiences have been common for second-year Notre Dame assistant coach Ryan Ayers.
If an Irish player is struggling with his shot, Ayers relates. He also did. If a player is wrestling with his role, Ayers understands. He also did. If a young guy wonders how to make the transition from high school to big-time college basketball in one of the nation’s toughest conferences, Ayers knows. He did it back in the Big East. If a recruit asks how to balance books and basketball, Ayers offers advice. He graduated from the Mendoza College of Business with a marketing degree in 2009.
The 31-year-old Ayers has seen and done much of what today’s players go through. It’s one reason Mike Brey wanted to hire his former guard when an opening arose on his staff in the spring of 2016. But there’s one aspect of Ayers’ days as a Notre Dame player that he didn’t expect to tap into as a coach. At least, not so soon.
Heading into Tuesday’s Atlantic Coast Conference home game against Boston College, Notre Dame (13-10; 3-7 ACC) had lost seven-straight games. It matched the longest losing streak under Brey since the Irish lost seven straight in 2008-09.
Ayers was a captain that season. His senior season. It was hard to handle then as a player, but even harder now as an assistant.
“There’s only so much you can do,” Ayers said. “You wish you could do more to help your guys. You wish you coached this better or wish you said this to them or didn’t say that to them.
“You just feel for these guys a little more.”
The losing streak that Ayers experienced as a player was different than the current one. Back then, the Irish roster was nowhere near as depleted. They didn’t lose their best player to injury for two months. They didn’t lose their second-best player to injury for five of seven games. The rotation didn’t dwindle to seven scholarship players.
That year, they just couldn’t figure it out while going 26 days without a win. This year’s Irish had gone 30 without a win heading into Tuesday.
“We just had a bad stretch of luck,” Ayers said of ’08-’09. “With everything these guys have been going through with the injuries, these guys have played their butts off. The ball bounces one or two ways in a few of these games, it would have been a different story.”
Ayers feels most for the Irish who see the end of their college careers closing quickly – graduate student Austin Torres and seniors Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, Martinas Geben and Matt Gregory. The younger guys always have next year to work toward. But those veteran five, as Ayers did, may have to accept that their final seasons will end in a way nobody imagined.
They still believe they can get to the NCAA tournament a fourth-straight year, but every setback is a step back from that goal.
“I totally understand what they’re going through,” Ayers said. “I’ve been there before and you have to keep the hope there. That’s what keeps you going.
“You owe it to yourself and you owe to the guys around you to keep fighting.”
While most of the Irish headed to classes Monday morning, freshman swingman D.J. Harvey and trainer Skip Meyer set out for Chicago.
Harvey was examined by the medical staff of the Chicago Bulls for the bone bruise suffered Jan. 16 to his left knee. Brey had hoped to have Harvey back last week for Saturday’s game at North Carolina State. But the knee didn’t respond as expected. Thus, the second opinion 100 miles away.
“Even riding the (stationary) bike late last week bothered him,” Brey said. “We were discouraged. We thought we could make some more progress.”
Harvey did not play Tuesday. Brey hopes to have him back for Saturday’s home game against Florida State, but that might be wishful thinking. Could be this week. Could be next week. Might be later this month. Averaging 5.8 points and 2.9 rebounds in 18.2 minutes, Harvey has missed five games since suffering the non-contact injury late in the first half of the double-overtime loss to Louisville.
Nothing like it
Following Saturday’s loss at North Carolina State in a game that Notre Dame trailed by 30, Brey talked of previously having to handle these hard times. That was in reference to the 2013-14 season, Notre Dame’s first in the ACC. That year, the Irish lost their best player, Jerian Grant, to academics before going 6-12 in the league.
That was nothing like what Brey has had to handle this year, where injury and ineffectiveness have left the veteran coach scrambling for ways to figure it out. He hasn’t.
“It’s been my biggest challenge being a head coach 23 years,” he said.
A challenge in that the Irish have fielded seven different starting lineups in the nine games since Colson was lost Jan. 2 with a broken foot. Other injuries and issues with tired guys needing to steal some needed rest have created a constant juggling act of having enough healthy bodies to go 5-on-5 in practice.
“It’s been dysfunctional from that point,” Brey said. “You just try to manage it as best as possible and see if you can get a league win to maybe turn the tide a little.”
Ayers arrived for work Monday morning sporting his favorite Philadelphia Eagles shirt on the heels of the team’s first Super Bowl victory the previous night.
Raised in Columbus, Ohio while his father, Randy, was the head coach of Ohio State, Ayers moved to the Philadelphia suburb of Blue Bell, Pa., when he was 12 years old. That’s when he became an Eagles fan. He attended games at Lincoln Financial Field and the long-since-gone Veteran Stadium.
“You just kind of dive right in and you’re a part of it,” Ayers said. “I am all in. Fly Eagles, fly.”
Ayers spent the latter stages of the Super Bowl exchanging can-you-believe-this texts with fellow Eagles fans/Notre Dame graduates/Philly-area natives Torrian Jones, Martin Ingelsby and Steve Vasturia. There were plenty nervous moments as New England looked to tie it on the final drive until Tom Brady’s Hail Mary pass fell incomplete.
“It was a really cool thing to celebrate with those (ND) guys,” Ayers said. “Maybe the good luck for the Irish will change because the Eagles won the Super Bowl.”