Notre Dame's Sherman rejects praise for effort

South Bend Tribune

Approached recently during a team weight-room session by the head coach, Notre Dame fifth-year senior center Garrick Sherman wanted no part of the conversation.

Sherman listened as Mike Brey talked of how proud he was of his captain and his season to date, especially after last year’s struggles and uncertainty. Sherman fell out of favor and the rotation early in conference play and registered four DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision) over six games, with two points in eight games before resurrecting his first season in South Bend with 17 points in 22 minutes during the five-overtime epic with Louisville.

Sherman carried that confidence into his final year. He has been the most consistent low-post presence since the first day of practice way back in late September. But he’s still had his ups and his downs and has gone ’round and ’round trying to figure out what the Irish can do to be better than their current record of 14-14, 5-10 in the ACC heading into Wednesday’s home game against Georgia Tech (13-14; 4-10).

The Kenton, Ohio, native leads the Irish in scoring (13.8), rebounding (7.5) and blocks (19), all career-best numbers. One of three Irish to play and start all 28 games, he’s shooting 50.2 percent from the field, second in the ACC, tied for third in the league with six double-doubles for points and rebounds and averaging a career-high 28.3 minutes. All those numbers and the accolades and praise ring hollow for someone who expected more out of himself and the team this winter.

Sherman has been part of the NCAA Tournament each of his first four seasons. Barring a sprint-from-nowhere, Cinderella run in next month’s ACC tournament, there will not be a fifth visit. And that hurts, no matter how much Brey admires the individual effort.

“It’s tough to appreciate it at 14-14,” Sherman said earlier this week. “I feel partly responsible for this, so it’s been tough in that respect.”

What has been a tough season was made even more so 15 days ago in the opening four minutes of the double-overtime home victory against Clemson. Battling for a rebound, the 6-foot-11 Sherman snatched the loose ball, only to have it ripped away by a Clemson player. In the process, he also yanked Sherman’s right pinkie finger at an awkward angle. That caused a chip fracture and dislocation.

Surgery likely will not help the healing process, so Sherman can play, but must deal with the pain. And that’s been a problem. He plays with the finger heavily wrapped in practice, but doesn’t brace it extensively during games to avoid drawing attention to it. With or without the tape support, Sherman still cannot properly grip the ball with his right hand. If he tries too hard to make sure the ball doesn’t slip out, his finger throbs.

He’s supposed to keep the finger straight at all times — good luck with that at this time of the year and in the ACC — and each time he accidentally bends it to make a fist, the finger dislocates.

“It’s annoying,” he said. “It’s been frustrating. I’m still trying to learn how to play with it.”

The simple solution should be to limit Sherman’s role until he can better figure out a way to play with the injury, but neither of the other two Irish power forwards (Zach Auguste, Tom Knight) have shown they can consistently offer the same kind of productive minutes be it with points, rebounds or defense. So Sherman has had to go it alone in the post.

Prior to the injury, Sherman was leading the ACC in field goal percentage at nearly 53 percent. The last time he had 10 properly-working digits, Feb. 8 against North Carolina, he scored 17 points on 7-of-11 from the floor with six rebounds. In the four games with the injury, Sherman is shooting 33 percent (13-of-39) from the field. That has included a 3-of-11 effort against Clemson and 4-for-12 showing in Saturday’s 21-point meltdown at No. 12 Virginia. He’s failed to score double figures in each of the last four games, the longest stretch this season.

“He’s struggling,” Brey said. “Some of the stuff he usually makes around the bucket, we haven’t been able to get that.

“It’s not going to get any better and he’s just going to have to play around it.”

Sherman did just that Saturday. Lost in Virginia’s 25-0 scoring avalanche in the second half was that Sherman played 25 minutes against the league’s top defensive team and had zero turnovers. That’s a big step for someone who leads the team with 73 turnovers and routinely struggles to find the open man when pressured in the low post.

When Sherman’s been good with the ball, the Irish typically have been good on offense. When he’s struggled to figure it out, so has everyone else. But the Irish have simplified their offense since the North Carolina game. They now run more specific sets to free Eric Atkins and Pat Connaughton, and require the bigs to set screens and roll to the basket for opportunities instead of making decisions with the ball away from the rim.

Even now, double teams continue to cause double problems for Sherman.

“I need to make the easy pass out of it,” he said. “I just have to be more patient and not try to force a pass or try to score right away.”

Home on Wednesday for the first time since that Clemson game, Notre Dame closes the regular season with three games in six days. Sherman is guaranteed only one more afterward. Given his injury and the Irish struggles and a long journey of a collegiate career that has included stops at two schools and participation in three different leagues (Big Ten, Big East, ACC), Sherman’s not ready for it to be over.

“I guess I’m just kind of addicted to it,” he said. “I always feel like we can win the next one. I’m too arrogant to admit that this season has been a disappointment.

“We still have games left to play, so there’s still something to salvage from the season.” 574-235-6153 Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame's Garrick Sherman (11) is second in the ACC in field goal percentage. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)