Notre Dame men's basketball: Burgett makes big jump

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Seated during media day near the spot where he spent almost all of last season on the Notre Dame bench, sophomore power forward Austin Burgett pondered what people would see differently from him this winter.

“Hopefully playing,” he said.

Joking aside, Burgett attempted to answer the question in all seriousness.

“I honestly don't know,” he said. “I just want to contribute. I can help.”

Burgett has been all business two games into the 2013-14 season. Should he play 18 minutes Sunday against Indiana State (1-1), Burgett would match the total number of minutes he logged all last year — 60 — in three games.

No Irish player has taken as big of a leap as quickly as the 6-foot-9, 227-pounder from Avon, Ind. He's gone from end-of-the-bench, mop-up guy to a rotation mainstay. During the first two games, both Irish victories, the guy teammates call “Burg” has been one of the first reserves called into action.

Last year, he was one of the last.

“It's nice to get on the court instead of being in practice being blue (a reserve) and getting beat up every week helping them prepare,” Burgett said. “It's nice to get out there and play against different people.”

As preseason practice commenced, Burgett appeared on the outside of the rotation looking in. But when classmate Zach Auguste suffered a broken left hand during a mid-October workout, the Irish needed another big to work as a top reserve. Given the chance to do more with the starters in practices and then again in games — he started the first exhibition against Indianapolis — Burgett proved that all the time spent watching and waiting last season was put to good use.

Burgett impressed by fitting seamlessly with the core group. He did so by keeping it simple. He rebounded. He made the occasional open shot. He moved the ball to the right guy at the right time. He screened to free up the perimeter of Eric Atkins, Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant. He defended.

Burgett showed enough during Auguste's absence to maintain his spot in the rotation. When another sophomore — swingman Cameron Biedscheid — decided to grow his game and sit out the season to preserve a year of eligibility, Burgett was guaranteed to remain a key guy.

Burgett scored seven points in 24 minutes, both career highs, in the opener against Miami (Ohio). He delivered another seven points with two rebounds in 18 minutes against Stetson. He scored all of 11 points last season.

“Austin Burgett has had a huge impact for our basketball team,” coach Mike Brey said. “He's going to be very important to our season.”

Important because even though the Irish carry four power forwards on the active roster — a fifth, freshman Austin Torres, is likely to follow Biedscheid and sit out the year — only Burgett has the unique skills to play the “stretch-four man” spot. He helps space the floor by stepping out and making perimeter shots while also doing the dirty-work duties required of guys his size.

It's a role that's been manned by former Irish Tim Abromaitis, Rob Kurz and Scott Martin, who served as a mentor to Burgett last season. While Abromaitis and Martin were scorer's first, Burgett's game has a lot of Kurz in it in that he looks first and second and sometimes even third to help spring someone else before looking for something for himself.

“Our three veteran perimeter guys love playing with Austin Burgett,” Brey said. “That's all I need to say.”

Brey also doesn't have to say much to Burgett during games, though early in Sunday's contest against Stetson was an exception. Checking in at the 14:09 mark, Burgett quickly turned it over forcing a low-post entry pass to Garrick Sherman. Later, he whiffed trying to hit Auguste with a high-low look. Brey found Burgett at the under-12 minute timeout and reminded him to settle down and just play the way he's capable.

Brey also allowed him the freedom to play through those mistakes, something that might not have happened last season.

“Those were very un-Austin like,” Brey said. “With Austin right now, I don't want him thinking he's on a yo-yo because he's really important to us.”

Having that trust from the head coach allows Burgett to play with the all-important free mind instead of wondering if the next minute on the floor might be his last. Following the early struggles, Burgett delivered a baseline drive that he finished with a two-handed dunk.

“Like Coach Brey says, just don't play out of your character, just do what you do in practice,” Burgett said. “I feel like when I come out there, I'm not trying to do too much and just let the game come to me.”

Had Burgett's thought process been different, this might have been his first season of college basketball. With the smallest of chances to see meaningful minutes on a veteran team loaded with frontcourt contributors last season, Burgett was offered the opportunity to sit out as a freshman. He declined.

Long before that decision, Burgett talked with his father, Terry, and the two reached another — college was a four-year time in Burgett's life. Regardless of what happened on the court, South Bend would be his home only for those four years.

“Even if I did sit out, I'm not going to stay here five years,” Burgett said. “I've always thought if I'm not good enough to play after four years, then what's another year going to do?”

So far, a whole lot.

 Notre Dame's Austin Burgett has been a mainstay in the Irish rotation. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN