Burgett has big voice in Notre Dame hoops success

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH — Months before two seniors became the unquestioned leaders of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, it was a junior in waiting whose voice had the strongest say.

Back when the Irish still were wounded and wondering from last season’s 15-17 showing, he was the one who made sure the train got moving in the right direction.

Junior reserve power forward Austin Burgett may be one of the forgotten reasons why eighth-ranked and No. 3 seed Notre Dame took a 30-5 record into Saturday’s third-round NCAA tournament game against No. 6 Butler (23-10) at CONSOL Energy Center, with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.

When the Irish needed to look to someone last spring during unforgiving team workouts, they looked to Burgett.

“He was our leader all last spring and leading up to the summer,” assistant coach Anthony Solomon said. “He was the coach away from the coaches with his teammates, and they responded well to him.”

Senior Pat Connaughton served this season as the team’s lone captain. But when issues within the team arose, Brey often leaned on a leadership council that included fellow senior Jerian Grant and Burgett, the later of whom has appeared in 66 career games with five starts. His presence on the court hasn’t always been needed, but his voice has.

“Austin can be very quiet, but when he does speak, they will listen, because they know he knows,” Solomon said. “He understands the system and how we want to do things.

“He doesn’t just talk it. His actions speak.”

Burgett knows what it takes to fit into the program, knows what it takes in terms of effort every day. He knows how to keep a level head, even though it might not mean getting many game minutes. Knows that a team as good as Notre Dame can be only as good as the guys on the back end of the rotation, who help keep the positive vibes flowing by avoiding any negative thoughts of ‘me.’

Connaughton and Grant are main reasons why the Irish have already set a modern-day record for wins. But none of this likely would have been possible without the leadership this time last year from Burgett. With Connaughton off pitching for the Irish baseball team and Grant in academic exile, Notre Dame needed someone to step in and be the program’s strongest voice during spring workouts that featured only six returning players.

Burgett was that guy.

Every day in the gym as Solomon helped break down and build the Irish up with endless defensive drills, there was one guy he could lean on.

Burgett.

It was Burgett who made sure everyone was on time for every workout, which wasn’t always a given after all the losing the previous few months. It was Burgett who made sure the effort and energy levels remained at a high level throughout every slide and help and recovery and box-out drills. Two hours a day. Every day.

“It was rough,” Burgett said. “Coming in every day, we figured it was just going to be open gym, but was just brutal.”

With seniors Eric Atkins, Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman done and with Connaughton and Grant gone, Burgett was fine being the guy to make sure it all kept moving in the right direction.

“He was the main guy; he was our leader,” said sophomore V.J. Beachem. “We really appreciate his voice then and now with our (reserve) squad.”

An accelerated heart issue cost Burgett four games last season, but no longer is an issue. He had big plans this year. So did the coaching staff, who had planned to plug him in as the stretch-4 man the Irish haven’t had since Scott Martin. Burgett logged double figures for minutes in each of his first three games, but the more he played, the more he just didn’t seem to fit. He couldn’t make a shot (1-of-11 from 3 this season), couldn’t get a rebound (1.4 per game), couldn’t make a difference.

Burgett lost minutes early in the year to freshman Martinas Geben. Come Atlantic Coast Conference play time, another freshman, Bonzie Colson, was given an extended look. Burgett was left on the outside of the rotation looking in.

Burgett entered Saturday’s game having logged DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision) in each of the last four games, six of the last seven and 12 of 15. He had not played double-figure minutes since getting 11 against Purdue in late December.

Frustrating? Absolutely, but not something that’s been much of a bother given the team’s recent run.

“As long as we’re playing well, it’s OK with me,” he said. “I’m happy for the guys and really excited for the year we’ve had.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame teammates Austin Burgett (left) Austin Torres (center)and Martinas Geben celebrate an overtime basket and foul in a win over Georgia Tech, Jan. 3 at Purcell Pavilion. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)