Waiting game for Notre Dame freshman guard Rex Pflueger
Midnight would eventually come and go, but time has a tendency to not really matter when you seek solace in a sanctuary.
That’s why Notre Dame freshman guard Rex Pflueger left behind the bass beat bouncing out of a victorious locker room soon after Tuesday’s game against Stony Brook.
That’s why he stood quietly against a wall in an inner-ring hallway of Purcell Pavilion, cradling a basketball late that night as he waited for a manager to unlock the basement practice facility door.
That’s why he planned to spend an hour on his workout, but wound up staying closer to two.
When Pflueger feels like he needs a break from basketball or books, he retreats to The Pit to clear a cluttered mind and again feel good about his game and his future.
“I just like to go in there and shoot a little bit, be by myself,” Pflueger said. “It’s honestly the best place for me because I get to ponder everything going on in my life.
“It’s really the best place for me to go to get away from everything.”
These are trying times for myriad reasons for Pflueger, entrenched inside final exams this week for the first time as a college kid. The demands can be demoralizing. He turned in two research papers Thursday. There’s an eight-page assignment due Tuesday. Three final exams will consume his Wednesday and Thursday.
Then there’s basketball. Pflueger continues the fight to figure out where he best fits. He knew when he arrived from his native California that school would be a challenge. It’s what he signed up for. He didn’t expect basketball to be the same.
“It’s definitely hard because I’m a competitor,” he said. “I know I can contribute to this team. I just have to wait for that moment.”
Of the three members of Notre Dame’s freshman class, nobody arrived with a higher ranking than Pflueger, a consensus Top 100 prospect (he was slotted as high as No. 83). As a senior at national powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif., Pflueger averaged 17.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 3.0 steals.
Former high school teammate Stanley Johnson, a June lottery pick of the Detroit Pistons after one year at Arizona, predicted to the Tribune last spring that given a chance, Pflueger could be the Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year.
While the roles of classmates Elijah Burns and Matt Ryan have become clearly defined, Pflueger remains in neutral. Ryan is one of the first two reserves off the bench and has appeared in every game (4.9 ppg., 1.4 rpg., 14.9 mpg.). Burns is sitting out the season to preserve a year of eligibility.
As for the 6-foot-6, 198-pound Pflueger and his 43.5-inch vertical leap, his season has been defined by maybe.
Maybe he’ll get meaningful minutes. Maybe he’ll sit and watch. Heading into Sunday’s game against Loyola (Ill.), Pflueger has appeared in four of eight games. He’s averaging 1.5 points and 1.0 rebounds in 5.8 minutes. He’s the ninth man in a rotation that rarely works past eight. That doesn’t mean he’s entirely off the head coach’s radar.
“He’s right on the edge; he’s been really good in practice,” Mike Brey said. “It’s just hard to get him in there now. I’m very proud of how he’s handled things.”
“That’s the cold, hard reality of college basketball for some guys,” Brey said. “It’s like, ‘Whoa ...' It's not easy.
Pflueger doesn’t do easy. The more he sits, the more he’s driven to better his game – to defend even harder, to take even better care of the ball, to get to a point where Brey has to look his way.
“It makes me even more motivated to compete,” he said. “That’s just always been my mentality, just go hard in anything I do.”
Competition constantly challenges Pflueger. When sophomore guard Matt Farrell jumps from the blue (reserve) team to the white (starters) team, Pflueger assumes point-guard duties for the blues in practice. That means taking ultimate care of the ball, getting them into an offensive rhythm and dealing with the dilemma that is Demetrius Jackson.
All of that would make others want to retreat. Not Pflueger.
“People fear when they see him coming down the court on the other team,” Pflueger said. “I’m not afraid to play against anyone. I just look at it as an opportunity to prove myself even more.
“When I have to go through it every single day, it really helps build my confidence.”
On the bench during games, Pflueger pays close attention to junior guard Steve Vasturia. The way he moves and cuts without the ball, how he uses a screen set by a teammate here or a jab step to freeze a defender there to get open and then how he is seemingly always, always in proper defensive position.
When Farrell runs the blue team, Pflueger often is matched against Vasturia.
“He’s extremely athletic, but it’s a lot more than that,” Vasturia said. “Rex plays as hard as anybody. He has a certain toughness that’s definitely needed at this level.”
Defending has never been an issue; Pflueger has been a capable lock-down guy since he arrived. How does the rest of his game, especially offensively, best fit this group? Is a shooter/slasher or a slasher/shooter? He would like to see sooner than later, but he also understands that it’s a process. He looks no further for proof of that than sophomore Bonzie Colson. At this time last year, Colson had racked up three DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision). He was in the same spot as Pflueger – on the outside of the rotation looking in.
Colson’s window of opportunity cracked in mid-January. He ran with it. He’s now a starter.
“He got his opportunity and just seized the moment,” Pflueger said. “That gives me something positive to look forward to and keep working hard.”
Two games following Sunday close non-conference play for Notre Dame. After that, the Irish will get four days to get home. It will be the first time in months that Pflueger will be back home under the California sun.
His mind will be back in Northern Indiana. Even if fans haven’t seen it, he’s come a long way in a short time, and cannot wait to see how the rest of the journey unfolds.
“Notre Dame has made me a better all-around basketball player,” he said. “Notre Dame is my new home.”
• WHO: Notre Dame (6-2) vs. Loyola (Ill.) (5-3).
• WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).
• WHEN: Sunday at 2 p.m.
• TICKETS: Available.
• TV: None. The game can be seen on ESPN3 and WatchND.tv.
• 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: Loyola has been idle since a 68-65 home victory Dec. 5 over Creighton. Senior guard Milton Doyle led four Ramblers in double figures with 17 points. He also had eight rebounds and eight assists. … Prior to the win, Loyola lost two of three (to Toledo and North Carolina-Asheville) at the Great Alaska Shootout. … A transfer from Kansas, Doyle leads the Ramblers in scoring (14.4), assists (3.7) and minutes (29.4). He’s also second in rebounding (5.3). … This is Loyola’s second true road game following a 75-51 loss last month at New Mexico. … The Ramblers average 67.1 points per game and allow 64.4. … Loyola returns four starters and eight of its top nine scorers off last year’s team that finished 24-13, 8-10 and sixth place in the 10-team Missouri Valley Conference. … The Ramblers won the CBI championship with a two-game sweep of Louisiana-Monroe for the school’s first postseason championship since 1963. It was the Ramblers’ first postseason appearance since 1985. … Loyola was picked in preseason to finish fifth in the Valley this season. The Ramblers received one first-place vote. … This is the first visit to Notre Dame from a Missouri Valley school since Indiana State posted an 83-70 victory on Nov. 17, 2013. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 29-2, including 21-1 at home. The Irish have won the last four meetings since a loss on Jan. 24, 1994. This is the first time the teams have met since a 107-68 Irish victory on Nov. 22, 2000. … Notre Dame takes the rest of the week off for final exams before returning to action Saturday against Indiana at the annual Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis.
• WORTH QUOTING: “You’ve got to keep trying to give him hope and have him focused on the big picture. There’s a lot of good things for his development in practice not translating to game minutes now (but) you’ve got to stay ready.”
-Irish coach Mike Brey on freshman guard Rex Pflueger.