Burgett doing what needs to be done for Notre Dame men

South Bend Tribune

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Required in his leadership role to split up sides during summer pickup sessions, Notre Dame junior captain Pat Connaughton sometimes strayed from the script.

Wanting to stay on the court as long as possible — which means winning — Connaughton surely would look to load his squad with experienced guys. But one of his first picks often was someone who played all of 60 minutes last year in his first college basketball season.

Sophomore power forward Austin Burgett was a relative mystery to those outside the program prior to the start of the 2013-14 season. But when it came time for summer pickup runs, the 6-foot-9, 227-pound Burgett often was an understood commodity.

“He’s an athlete and has a toughness about him that really brings another element to our team,” Connaughton said of the Avon, Ind., product. “He’s very good at all facets of the game. That makes him very easy to play with.

“The biggest thing for him is he’s always doing something that needs to be done. He’s out there going to do whatever it takes to win.”

For Burgett, that means working in whatever role is required. For the first time in his collegiate career, he may start a second straight game Tuesday when Notre Dame (11-7, 2-3 ACC) visits Florida State (12-5, 3-2). After working as a main reserve for 12 games, Burgett slid back into the starting lineup Sunday against Virginia Tech. He scored two points with two rebounds, an assist and a steal in 25 minutes.

Burgett’s previous two games — losses at Georgia Tech and at Maryland — allowed him to make another push for a starting spot. He scored a career-high 11 points — the same number tallied in 18 games all last season — with five rebounds against Georgia Tech. He had nine points and two rebounds against Maryland.

In both games he continued to do what he does, and continued to be easy to play with. He rebounded, set screens, blocked shots, defended, hit open shots and never tried to do something his game simply won’t let him.

“It’s a good thing just knowing that the guys know that I’m going to do what I do and I’m not going out there and do something crazy,” Burgett said. “I’m not going to force anything.”

That wasn’t the case earlier in the season when Burgett earned his first career start in a home game against Army. Seemingly ready for an increased role following a solid couple of weeks of work, Burgett picked up two fouls in nine seconds and spent the rest of a disappointing day scrambling to do something.

He played 20 minutes in the 33-point Irish victory but had twice as many fouls (four) as points (two). Afterward, coach Mike Brey wondered if Burgett could handle the starting role after laboring through what he termed “one of those days for him where everything went down the tubes.”

And it did.

Starting left Burgett in a little bit of haze. After the quick early fouls, it was something he could never shake.

“I got out of the game; I don’t know what was going through my head,” he said. “I was just thinking, ‘I gotta stop fouling.’”

Seeing extended minutes for the first time in his career, Burgett seemingly played — and fouled — as if making up for lost time. He fouled out of consecutive games against Indiana State and Santa Clara, and then picked up four infractions against Army.

That forced Burgett to realize that he needed to be a little smarter about his game if he wanted to be in the game. He had to move his feet a little quicker, didn’t have to close out on shooters with such recklessness and just do more to make sure he stayed on the court.

On Sunday, Burgett was effective early against Virginia Tech. He drew a charge. He forced a turnover. He was active around the rim and was part of a small lineup that Brey rode in the second half. But his game seemed to flatten out and he fouled out for the third time this season.

“I think he’s been better with that,” Brey said late last week. “We need him in the game.”

Burgett showed why in the conference opener against Duke when he slid over from the weak side and used his 37-inch vertical leap to swat the shot of freshman phenom Jabari Parker. The play juiced the Purcell Pavilion crowd and made Burgett an instant hit on social media. For days afterward, he received texts and tweets from classmates home for winter break about the play.

It was a special sequence for someone who spent nearly all his freshman season watching. But Burgett won’t get wrapped up in that one moment. He wants more.

“You’ve got to forget about that and move forward,” he said. “It was great, but we have (13) more games in the ACC that I feel are more important. Ever since the ACC started I’ve been growing in confidence.”

Solid showings on the road against Georgia Tech and Maryland allowed Brey to start Burgett on Sunday. Losses to each ACC team left little reason for the Irish to feel good, but the work of No. 20 was a bright spot. He played like the stretch-four man Brey envisioned would run with the role previously embraced by the likes of Rob Kurz, Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin, who mentored Burgett last season.

In many ways, Burgett has started to play like Martin in ease and confidence and simplicity. His game remains raw, but may be ready to take off.

“That’s the one thing I don’t want to lose sight of,” Brey said. “He’s played pretty darn well for us and given us good stuff.

“We have to nurture him, nurture his confidence because he can really be a great shot in the arm for us.”

Notre Dame forward Austin Burgett gets on the floor for a loose ball during men's NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)