Can Austin Torres hustle into role for ND?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

He was not part of the plan while spending his first season in college basketball learning the game, growing up and getting better, then seemingly slipped even further back from the pack last spring.

It took Notre Dame’s four-game foreign tour of Italy in August, where there was no concern about the rotation or game pressure or the final score, for former Penn High School standout Austin Torres to show how far his game has come.

Torres earned minutes in Europe by keeping it simple. He rebounded. He defended. He blocked some shots and finished others with dunks. He bounced around and above the rim in a way the program hasn’t seen since former first team All-Big East selection Ryan Humphrey patrolled the paint and simply worked and willed himself into a first-round NBA draft pick.

By the time preseason arrived, Torres was a lot more on the mind of coach Mike Brey than he had been months earlier.

“In the spring, I wasn’t sure where it was going to go with him,” Brey said of the sophomore with four years of eligibility remaining. “I’m really encouraged where he’s at.”

Where he’s at heading into Saturday’s exhibition opener against NCAA Division II Minnesota-Duluth (2 p.m., no TV) at Purcell Pavilion isn’t anywhere near being a starter or a major-minute guy or even one of the first off the bench. He’s worked this preseason at small forward behind senior captain Pat Connaughton and freshman Bonzie Colson. If the regular season started tonight, Torres might be the 10th man in a rotation that rarely stretches past nine.

But if he can translate the effort and energy offered in Italy and carried through to preseason practices, Torres could carve a role this winter. Say three minutes of hard work here, four minutes of all-out hustle there.

“Those are the things that are going to get me on the floor,” said Torres, who averaged 18.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks his senior season at Penn. “I’ve established a role and just have to make sure I emphasize that role throughout the whole season.

“It definitely gives me a lot of confidence.”

As it does Brey. Having committed to Central Michigan early in his senior year at Penn, Torres was offered a scholarship to Notre Dame and accepted only hours after his close friend and AAU teammate, sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson, offered his verbal. Package deal, some snickered. But the more Brey followed Jackson around the AAU circuit in the summer of 2012, the more he liked Torres’ bounce and energy and untapped athleticism.

He could be, Brey thought then, Dennis Rodman lite, a guy who doesn’t worry about hunting his shot or scoring points but whose relentlessness can be contagious.

Brey shed the Rodman comparison in September in favor of a current NBA guy who thrives on being a hustle guy – Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried, who was a key reason why the United States national team captured the gold medal at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

Brey has shown Torres clips of the way Faried, who lead USA in rebounds at 7.8 per game while shooting 63 percent from the floor, operated in Spain - rebound, screen, roll to the hoop, block shots, take charges, rim run. Other than an occasional trip to the free throw line or to set a screen, there’s no reason for Torres to stray far from the paint. Ever.

That, Brey told Torres, is how he has to play if he wants to see the floor this season.

“It really gives me a lot of energy that Coach has that kind of faith in me and really believes I can be that type of person,” Torres said. “I just have to reflect that. It’s something that will get you a role.”

Torres knew he wasn’t ready to offer much last season. His game was too green. His body needed work. His knee needed to be cleaned out and underwent arthroscopic surgery in September. His practices became games. The weight room became his laboratory. He improved his eating habits, which tend to occasionally slip when he misses breakfast. Torres now carries 230 pounds – up 12 pounds from last season - on a near-chiseled 6-foot-7 frame.

He now at least looks the part of a high-level Division basketball player. Now can he play like one?

“He’s going to help this team flying around making plays above the rim,” Jackson said. “He’s a really exciting player. I’m happy for him.”

During an October scrimmage, Torres created enough space around the rim to snare a missed Jerain Grant jumper and finish with a two-handed dunk. He later leaped over everyone to tip in a Connaughton miss. He even disrupted an inbound pass by being active and aggressive on defense.

“The activity, the bounce around the bucket is what we need,” Brey said. “I keep telling him, ‘You’ve got a spot if you do these things and keep it simple and not try to do too much,’” Brey said. “Like, he’s carving his niche. I think he really understands.”

Torres wants to work. He wants to play. He believes there is plenty to prove. To others. To himself. He may have that chance.

“I’m just going to make sure I go out,” he said, “and do my thing.”

Sophomore Austin Torres has a chance to see minutes this season for the Notre Dame basketball team.SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN