Notre Dame freshmen find their hoops fit

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Everything about the game still seems the same for Notre Dame freshman wing Matt Ryan, but so much of it has changed.

When he was a high-school hot shot, Ryan could could get any shot he wanted at any time. He could drive it to the hoop or tap into his specialty and shoot it from distance. Really long distance. He could defend or take a series or two on that end off.

All that evaporates when you go from high school to college. Ryan learned that Friday in the exhibition opener against St. Francis (Ill.). Operating in limited minutes as a reserve, the 6-foot-8 Ryan found a way to matter by going for eight points and five rebounds in 13 minutes during Notre Dame’s 87-56 victory.

“One thing the guys have helped me do is play within the offense,” he said. “Coming from high school, everybody is used to having their shot whenever they wanted. Now you’ve got to pick your spots; you’ve got to play hard defense. You’ve got to do everything to help the team.”

Ryan didn’t wait long Friday night to do what he does best to help. The fourth reserve into the rotation, Ryan checked in at the 11:58 mark of the first half. Forty-six seconds later, he had his first bucket – a 3-pointer – in transition.

“Matt Farrell did a great job finding me,” Ryan said. “I was trailing the play and he just hit me in stride. I got to knock down my first shot, which is great.”

What wasn’t in Ryan’s eyes was his final stat line. He took eight shots. He made two. He feels every shot he takes is going in and when they don't, it doesn't sit well. Neither did one of his shots, which drew nothing but air. So he was eager to get back in the gym early Saturday and get the stroke feeling good again.

“I’ll fix that,” he promised.

Listed as a guard, Ryan plays with the size of a solid small forward. At 6-foot-8, 217 pounds, he doesn’t carry the typical slight build of a freshman new to the college basketball world. He battled on the boards Friday.

“Jumping’s not my strong point, but if I can contribute on the glass, five rebounds, that’s pretty solid for me,” Ryan said.

It was a solid debut for Ryan and classmates Elijah Burns and Rex Pflueger. None played major minutes as coach Mike Brey took a long look at all the pieces, but what time they did get, they delivered. Pflueger had three points and a rebound and defended in 11 minutes while Burns, just back to full-go in practices after suffering a concussion two weeks ago, had two points and a rebound while being a vocal presence on the floor in 10 minutes.

“Our freshmen are very good players,” Brey said. “They feel they belong.”

Rotation roulette

All 12 scholarship players saw first-half action before Friday’s game became one-sided. Brey fielded eight lineup combinations in the opening 20 minutes. He likely will do so again in Thursday’s exhibition finale before he and the staff take a hard look at how the rotation shakes out leading into the Nov. 13 opener against St. Francis (Pa.).

There may be a dozen ready and willing contributors. The chance that all play consistent minutes is not an option for a coach who prefers no more than eight in the core group.

“When the guys came in the game, they stayed in character and did what they’ve been doing,” Brey said. “They’re all doing what they’re supposed to do. They’ve made it hard on me. That’s a good thing.”

Should the regular season start today, the Irish likely would work with a rotation of starters Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia in the backcourt, V.J. Beachem on the wing and Auguste and Colson on the front line with a reserve rotation of guards Farrell and Ryan and either Martinas Geben or Austin Torres as the second big. It might be Geben first off the bench one night, Torres the next.

Burns and Pflueger still could factor into the mix, as could senior captain Austin Burgett.

The balancing act could be tricky moving forward.

“That’s a big key for us as a staff, to keep guys engaged that maybe aren’t getting the minutes early and have them ready ‘cause you’re probably going to get a chance,” Brey said.

Stepping out

Working alongside Auguste in the starting lineup continues to be an adjustment for Colson after the Irish operated with one big on the floor at one time for the majority of last season.

A year ago, Colson often subbed for Auguste as the Irish worked with a look that included four perimeter players around one big man. If the Irish go with two bigs for stretches this season, Colson knows he needs to become a little more perimeter oriented while still keeping an interior presence.

“It’s a little different with Bonzie in there,” Jackson said.

Colson led the Irish in scoring Friday with 12 points on five-of-six shooting, most of those high percentage looks. He also connected on a corner 3-pointer.

After going 1-of-7 from distance last season, Colson looked like a natural.

“That’s what everybody’s been saying,” he joked. “I’ve been working on my game. Being able to space the floor out to the 3-point line is something Notre Dame does. I’m just trying to work around there and fit that spot.”

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