Freshman Matt Ryan becoming more than shooter for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

A trio of NBA scouts assigned to the upper press box of Purcell Pavilion found a few available seats in the main media area for Sunday’s second half between Notre Dame and Loyola (Ill.).

There under the east basket, they had a good view of Irish freshman guard Matt Ryan, who was a factor on both ends in an 81-61 victory.

Watching Ryan run the floor and spot up in the corner on one offensive possession, one scout turned to his colleague and wondered if Ryan’s talent might be limited to just shooting the ball, which he can do and do really well with ridiculous range.

Back in the summer, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey voiced a similar concern. Watching the 6-foot-8, 217-pound Ryan during June workouts, Brey wondered if they would have to devise ways to hide him defensively come the regular season. Could he stay in a stance? Move his feet? Guard? Compete?

“I thought he’d be more of a liability,” Brey said.

And now?

“Nope,” Brey said following Sunday’s game, which saw Ryan prove a thing or two or three defensively. “He’s tough, man. There’s a great toughness about him. He’s physical. He gets his chest on people. He knows how to rotate over and help his teammates; a lot of young players don’t know how to do that.

“He was ahead of where I thought he’d be defensively and he’s picked up teaching and coaching.”

And because of that, in addition to what he does from distance, Ryan remains a key guy for Notre Dame (7-2) with Atlantic Coast Conference play closing quickly.

“He’s just a weapon that we will have to play and he may end up playing more and more because it’s an amazing weapon, the shot,” Brey said. “He just really believes.”

Ryan believes he can shoot it and shoot it well, maybe better than anyone on the roster not named V.J. Beachem. On Sunday, he made a career-high four 3-pointers in 19 minutes. But he also believes that he can hold more than his own defensively. That was an area of daily emphasis during his days at Iona (N.Y.) Prep. Gaels coach Vic Quirolo might call for a four-hour practice one day during Ryan’s senior season; defense would be the focus for all but 30 minutes.

“Hopefully, I can continue to learn here, too,” Ryan said.

Ryan’s already been better with guarding. Earlier in the year if he found himself matched against Demetrius Jackson’s guy on a switch, odds were that the guy would be past him in an instant. On Sunday, he switched on Jackson’s guy and kept him in front.

“A few months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that,’ Ryan said. “I’ve definitely improved defensively. That’s going to be the side of the court where I’m going to have to continue to make strides.”

Ryan’s defensive determination allowed Brey to leave him on the floor for nearly half the second half. He was part of a small lineup featuring sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson as the lone big that ripped off a 28-5 scoring run. It also saw the Irish work strictly in 2-3 zone defense with Ryan manning a backline corner spot.

“They’re pretty good in zone,” Brey said of the look of Jackson and Steve Vasturia up top with Beachem, Colson and Ryan on the back line. “That was probably the most efficient lineup. That lineup is pretty potent.”

Ryan scored a career-high 14 points Sunday. He also grabbed a career-high five rebounds, all on the defensive end.

“I’m very comfortable in a zone,” he said. “It makes boxing out hard because guys are just flying in full speed. We’ve got to know where everybody is.

“Other than that, I think we’re good.”

Press pass

Working almost exclusively in the 2-3 zone defense Sunday also saw Notre Dame roll out a 1-2-2 fullcourt press, which isn’t really like a traditional all-out pressure defense.

It’s more token pressure that forces the other team to read and react. Quickly.

“If we can get a steal, we’ll get one,” Brey said. “We don’t really trap, we just want you to make some basketball decisions. Some people, you’ll get turnovers because they’ll brain-lock and won’t make a basketball decision.”

Once teams do make a decision and solve the press, they have to make yet another one when the Irish throw in the zone. Before teams realize it, the 30-second shot clock is half gone.

“It’s an interesting rhythm to be in, to use the shot clock to your advantage against teams,” Brey said.

Loyola never did figure it out. After shooting 45.2 percent from the floor and 50 percent from 3 for 34 points in the first half, the Ramblers stumbled to 40.7 and 41.7 percent for 27 points in a second half that also saw them commit seven of their 10 turnovers.

Reunion doings

The professional basketball paths of former Notre Dame standouts Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant crossed for the first time last weekend when Grant and the New York Knicks visited Connaughton and the Portland Trail Blazers.

Both rookies finished with an identical stat line Saturday – DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision) – in a 112-110 Knick win.

For Grant, a first-round draft pick in June traded twice on draft night, it was the first DNP-CD of his career. Heading into this week, he was averaging 5.5 points, 1.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 24 games. He was shooting 38.1 percent from the field, 19.2 percent from 3 and 82.2 percent from the foul line.

Connaughton, who owns the Notre Dame record for career games played (139), rarely has played the first month of his NBA career. He’s averaging 0.8 points and 0.2 rebounds in six games. Connaughton logged a career-best four minutes in the season’s second game.

New York opened the week 11-14; Portland was 10-15.

Week ahead

With finals week in full swing, Notre Dame takes two full days and part of a third away from basketball to concentrate on academics. An optional practice is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon for players who can make it while Brey hopes to have his full squad back for practice Thursday night.

“I don’t want them worried about basketball,” he said. “I’m realistic. If I can have Thursday and Friday, I’ll take that and then we’ll head on down the road.”

Down to Indianapolis for the annual Crossroads Classic contest Saturday against Indiana (tip at 2 p.m.).

The Irish generally prefer to practice the day before the game on site, but that won’t be possible. The Indiana Pacers have a home game Friday against the Brooklyn Nets at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Road trip

Exam week and the break in the practice-game-meeting routine will allow Brey to get out Tuesday and recruit.

Brey is scheduled to head for Canada and watch 7-1 center prospect Thon Maker (Athlete Institute) play against The Hill Academy in Brantford, Ontario, some 65 miles southwest of Toronto.

Maker’s AI teammate, 6-7 wing Nikola Djogo, signed with Notre Dame during the early period last month. A consensus Top 10 talent and likely one-and-done college prospect, Maker also is considering Arizona State and St. John’s. He’s also listed Indiana, Kansas and Kentucky.

Maker is expected to visit Notre Dame sometime during ACC play. He is expected to wait until spring – or later – to sign.

Notre Dame currently does not have a scholarship to offer prep seniors.

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