Notre Dame freshman Matt Ryan finds rotation role

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – One of the last to leave the locker room after his first big college basketball effort, Notre Dame freshman wing Matt Ryan stepped into an HP Field House back hallway sporting a stylish pair of sunglasses.

No matter that the Central Florida sun, which has been a daytime constant during Notre Dame’s stay at the 2015 AdvoCare Invitational, had set some four hours earlier.

“It’s always sunny here in Florida,” Ryan said with a smile.

Ryan’s immediate basketball future looks just as bright following his career night Friday against Iowa, which ended in a 68-62 Notre Dame victory. That bounce-back win following a quarterfinals loss to Monmouth bumps the No. 17 Irish (4-1) into Sunday’s fifth-place game (approximately 7 p.m., ESPNU) against Alabama (3-2).

The 6-foot-8 Ryan spent the first four games of his college career figuring out where he best fit in the rotation and on the floor. He often was the seventh man or eighth man in the mix, but never really found much of a flow when the game mattered. His minutes were minimal.

On Friday, coach Mike Brey made a strong statement when he called on Ryan less than four minutes into a gotta-have game. The Irish needed his size, needed his ability to stretch the floor, to move the ball at the right time to the right guy, to defend. To compete.

Ryan typically checks into games alongside sophomore guard Matt Farrell. Against Iowa, Ryan headed to the scorer’s table alone. Message sent – he’s the sixth man, a role that Brey wants him to run with. Fast. Far. Now.

Barely 24 hours after logging seven scoreless minutes in the Monmouth loss, Ryan registered career-highs for minutes (26) and points (11) to help Notre Dame bounce back. Despite being tagged for two fouls the first three-plus minutes he was in the game, despite crunch time coming down to the execution of game situations, the freshman remained on the floor.

Brey had no plans to take him out. Same might be said Sunday against Alabama, Wednesday at Illinois and with each subsequent game on the schedule.

“He’s got to be a key, key guy for us,” Brey said. “There’s a toughness about him. He’s got to play a lot of minutes for us. I’ve learned that over two nights.”

Notre Dame continues to lean on a starting lineup that features power forwards Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson. But as this season goes deeper, the best lineup could be one that features either Auguste or Colson as the lone big with Ryan in the second big role that Pat Connaughton made work so well.

The Auguste-Colson pairing still occasionally bogs everything down. That changes with Ryan in. The ball moves. The spacing improves. The floor opens and begs for the Irish to do what they do best – move the ball, attack and flow.

“When we can spread people out like that and get into the lane and get shots, it’s really hard to guard,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “We’ve shown that.”

While his ball-screen defense and overall awareness on that end of the floor still needs work — same could be said for the entire Irish team — Ryan isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves (if he was wearing any) and get his hands dirty.

On Friday, he was asked to check lanky 6-foot-9 Jared Uthoff. Ryan held his own to the point where he was comfortable enough defending in the low block to jump inside Uthoff’s head with a little trash talk.

“I consider myself a shooting guard, but at 6-8, 220 (pounds), I’ve got to be on the boards, defend bigger guys like Pat did last year,” Ryan said. “Sometimes I don’t realize how big I am out there and I’ve got to battle.”

Ryan also doesn’t always realize that it’s OK for him to do what he does best in the offense — shoot it, sometimes from ridiculous distance. One of the 3-pointers he hit Friday against the Iowa zone was well behind the line. The NBA line.

Later in the second half while pushing the ball up the floor on a steal, Ryan dribbled up and nearly dribbled into a shot that was closer to halfcourt than the 3-point line. Think former Irish guard Jerian Grant’s shot against Duke last January. Or some of Kyle McAlarney’s ridiculous looks — and buckets — against North Carolina in Maui in 2008.

Ryan hesitated ever so slightly in hoisting it before deciding to move it. During the next break, junior guard Demetrius Jackson approached Ryan with a demand — if you’ve got that shot, shoot it. Even from there.

Jackson speaks from experience. Back in an early-September pickup session prior to the home football game against Texas, Ryan stepped a foot, maybe two or three, just inside halfcourt with Jackson all over him defensively. He ignored the guard’s hand in his face and buried a ridiculous-distance 3.

Jackson wanted to see it again.

“I said, ‘Meech, easy, easy. Not yet,’” Ryan said. “If I hit one or two, then I’ll pull a deep one. Those deep shots, I can make those, but I’ve got to pick my spots.

“If we have momentum, that’s going up.”

In time. For now, Ryan just wants to build off his big game with another solid effort and get the Irish a second tournament win before heading home. That may mean getting more shots. That may mean battling on the boards. Regardless, he plans to push forward by carrying Brey’s message to the team following the Monmouth loss – play poor.

“That’s our mindset,” Ryan said. “All the success this team had last year, it’s kind of been lingering over our heads. Now we lost, it lit a fire under us.

“It will give us some momentum.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

AdvoCare Invitational

Fifth-place game

• WHO: No. 17 Notre Dame (4-1) vs. Alabama (3-2).

• WHERE: HP Field House (5,000), Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

• WHEN: Sunday at 7 p.m. (approximately).

• TV: ESPNU.

• RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

• ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

• WORTH NOTING: Shannon Hale scored 20 points as Alabama beat Wichita State, 64-60, on Friday. … Notre Dame opened AdvoCare Invitational play with a loss to Monmouth before beating Iowa. Alabama opened with a loss to Xavier. … This game follows the tournament championship between Dayton and Xavier, which starts at 4:30 p.m. … Three starters return off an Alabama team that finished last season 19-15, 8-10 and tied for eighth place in the Southeastern Conference. … Seven of the Crimson Tide’s 12 available scholarship players are underclassmen. … Avery Johnson is in his first season as coach after seven years in the NBA. … Alabama was picked in preseason by the media to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC ahead of only Missouri. … The Tide rank 13th in the league for field goal percentage (.415) and last for scoring margin (-4.4) and rebound margin (-10.6). They hold opponents to 39.5 percent shooting from the field, 36.7 percent from 3. … Alabama also has victories over Kennesaw (Ga.) State and Louisiana-Lafayette. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 3-1, including victories in the last two meetings. … This is the first time the teams have met since a 99-85 Irish victory on Dec., 7, 2006 in South Bend. … Notre Dame is 46-71 lifetime against the SEC. … Notre Dame’s next win will be the program’s 1,800th. … Notre Dame plays Wednesday at Illinois in the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

• WORTH QUOTING: “We’re still disappointed about (Thursday), but Iowa is a great resume win. If we can play our basketball and beat teams like Iowa, we’ll be fine. We’ve got to get out of here 2-1.”

-Notre Dame freshman wing Matt Ryan.