Game in Indianapolis special to Notre Dame's Hoosier hoopsters

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — One last final exam required Matt Gregory on the Notre Dame campus by 9 Friday morning before the freshman could do something that would be repeated often across the quad — pack a bag and head for home after finishing the first semester of college.

A native of Avon, Ind., Gregory’s journey south would fall some 15 miles shy of his parents’ house. On Friday afternoon, he jumped on a charter bus to downtown Indianapolis with the No. 21 Notre Dame men’s basketball team for Saturday’s game against Purdue (5:15 p.m., Big Ten Network) in the fourth-annual Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Gregory has been to the arena many times. He’s sat way up in the 200 level for NBA games. He was on the floor as a member of the Indianapolis Cathedral High School boys’ basketball team that played for a state championship in 2013.

On Saturday, he returns as a walk-on (non-scholarship) member of the Irish. For an Indiana kid to play a college basketball game in the epicenter of the state that holds the game in such regard is one heck of a hoop dream.

“It’s a great way to end finals week,” Gregory said. “It’s just a big building. When we walked in there to practice for the state championship, it was empty and you really get a sense of how big it is when you’re the only ones on the court.”

Gregory also remembers the view from the rafters.

“You realize how small the court looks,” he said. “But it’s just a different feeling being on the court. It’s going to be great.”

Gregory has plenty of company among Hoosier native teammates looking forward to playing in the state capital. For as long as he’s been at Notre Dame – now 15 years – coach Mike Brey has centered much of his recruiting up and down the Interstate 95 eastern corridor. Occasionally, he would add a kid from the Midwest.

While the I-95 corridor remains fertile recruiting ground – four of the five Irish starters hail from somewhere near that line – Indiana has become more of a priority. Including Gregory, five of the 13 Irish call home Indiana — junior Austin Burgett (Avon) and sophomores V.J. Beachem (Fort Wayne), who continues to recover from a foot injury and might not play Saturday, Demetrius Jackson (Mishawaka) and Austin Torres (Mishawaka). In his previous 14 seasons, Brey’s rosters carried a total of only five players from Indiana – Scott Martin (Valparaiso), Luke Harangody (Schereville), Chris Thomas (Indianapolis), Luke Zeller (Washington) and walk-on Dan Lustig (Alexandria).

“For a while we didn’t do much in Indiana (but) this state has been important to us,” Brey said. “We’ve been pretty strong in this state lately.”

It took Brey less than a month when he was hired in the summer of 2000 to understand the bond between basketball and Indiana. He also recognized something about programs that differed from many around the country.

“The coaches in this state are great teachers,” he said. “They run their program more like college programs. It fits great with how we try to play.”

Brey knows the importance of Saturday’s game. If the Indiana Irish didn’t play at Bankers Life in high school, they likely played AAU with or against one of the nine Hoosier natives on the Purdue roster.

“Our Indiana guys, this is big for them, man,” Brey said.

Jackson knows the floor well from his days as an Indiana high school all-star. He also played in last season’s win over Indiana.

“It’s just a great arena, a great atmosphere,” he said. “It’s just exciting to be home playing against hometown people.”

Burgett grew up going to Pacers games when the building was known as Conseco Fieldhouse. He still cannot bring himself to refer to it as Bankers Life. Every time Burgett sets foot in the building, he has the urge to grab a ball and start shooting. Everything about it just hollers hoops.

“I really enjoy that place,” said Burgett, 2-0 in Crossroads games during his time at Notre Dame. “The way the arena is built, it just feels like everybody is on top of you.”

Torres was a member of last season’s squad, but sat out to preserve a year of eligibility. Now a regular in the rotation, Torres will see his first-ever game action at Bankers Life. One of his closest friends and former Penn High School teammates, Mikey Szrom, attends Purdue. He counts several Boilers – Basil Smotherman, Bryson Scott and P.J. Thompson – as buddies.

“I’m really looking forward to playing against them,” Torres said. “It’s always been a dream of mine in high school to make it down there.”

Gregory never seriously dreamed of playing a college basketball game at Bankers Life. He knew after graduating valedictorian of Cathedral last summer that he would attend Notre Dame. He would major in biology. His basketball experiences likely would consist of campus pickup games. But Gregory’s prep coach, Andy Fagan, kept in running touch with Irish assistant Anthony Solomon since spring. If Notre Dame was looking to add a walk-on following the graduation of guard Patrick Crowley, Fagan asked that the 6-foot-6 Gregory be considered.

Gregory received one of 12 calls in the fall for tryouts.

A week later, coordinator of basketball operations Harold Swanagan phoned. Gregory remembers little of the conversation other than the part where he was told he was on the team.

“That was crazy,” Gregory said. “I had a five-minute conversation with Swan and I sounded really calm, but internally, that was not how I was actually feeling.

“I was pumped.”

Brey prefers to award walk-on roster spots to upperclassmen who have handled the highs and lows of college life and understand how to stay steady through it all. But a freshman? They’re too new to it all to be so level-headed.

Brey then spent five minutes in his office with Gregory and knew he was someone who could fit. Not only could he play, but he was so mature he seemed more like a senior.

“The stuff he talks about is that of a young man,” Brey said. “He’s a team guy. He gets it.”

He’s also gotten in as the Irish have rolled to a 10-1 record the first month-plus of the season. Gregory has scored four points with three rebounds in 13 total minutes over eight games. As Notre Dame closed out its Atlantic Coast Conference opener against Florida State with an 83-63 victory, he was on the floor. It seemed a dream.

“If you would have told me that I would be playing in an ACC basketball game about a year ago,” he said, “I would have told you that you were crazy.”

Gregory will have plenty of family and friends in the arena stands Saturday. His grandparents and parents will get the good seats closest to the floor. His buddies can hoof it to the nose-bleeds. He may play. He may not. He does want something out of the trip, something more important to the bigger picture of what might become a special Irish season.

“Last time I was there, we lost,” he said of the 2013 state championship against Carmel. “Hopefully we can change that this weekend.”

Notre Dame sophomores Demetrius Jackson, left, and Austin Torres cherish the chance to play a college basketball game Saturday against Purdue in the capital of a hoops-crazed state.SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN