Another ACC defensive test awaits Notre Dame men's basketball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Enduring the first Arctic blast of a Midwest winter and impacting college basketball games by doing more than score are two drastically different scenarios handled in similar ways by Notre Dame freshman guard Rex Pflueger.

In each case, the kid from Dana Point, Calif., just keeps doing what he’s doing.

In trading the sun and surf and sand of the Pacific Ocean for bone-chilling winds and snow, Pflueger simply pulls on another sweater and embraces the environment of his new snow-globe home.

From a basketball standpoint, the kid who averaged 17.0 points a game as a high school senior in Southern California knows there’s more to the game than shooting and scoring and putting his 44-inch vertical leap on display around the rim.

The 6-foot-6 Pflueger has charged into the rotation by doing work on the defensive end. He may have learned some tough lessons offensively the last few months in terms of taking care of the ball, but he’s always been able to guard.

“I know that if my game’s not going well on the offensive side, there’s no excuse for my defensive side,” Pflueger said prior to Monday’s practice in advance of Wednesday’s suddenly critical Atlantic Coast Conference home game against Georgia Tech (11-5; 1-2). “I’ve always prided myself that if I’m not scoring, the guy I’m guarding isn’t going to score.”

Pflueger isn’t scoring (four points the last 12 games) but he’s in the rotation because he guards. Long one of the last off the bench through non-conference play, Pflueger now is one of the first. He was the second reserve in last week at Boston College and the third in Saturday in the home loss to Pittsburgh.

Pflueger has played nine minutes in each of the last two games after a combined 14 the previous four. He’s likely to remain in the mix because he’s determined to keep his guy in front of him, move his feet and offer an Irish outfit desperate for more of a defensive presence exactly that.

“If I have a job, I want to get that done,” Pflueger said. “Defending my guy and making sure he doesn’t score is my job and that’s what I’ll do to benefit my team.

“You’ve got to have that mentality that you want to lock down and guard.”

A new week brought old news to a Notre Dame team that hasn’t been able to do that in two of its three league games. The latest kenpom.com rankings have the Irish (10-5; 1-2) slotted at No. 214 nationally for adjusted defensive efficiency (104.5 ppg per 100 possessions). NCAA stats slot Notre Dame 126th for team defense (68.6 ppg.), 185th for field goal percentage defense (43.0) and 325th for 3-point field goal percentage defense (38.7).

The defense was asleep at the switch to start the game and the second half against Pittsburgh. That allowed the Panthers to hit their first six shots and bolt to a 15-2 lead in the opening four minutes. Pittsburgh then ballooned a six-point halftime advantage to 13 in less than three minutes to start the second half. Only when it got really desperate did Notre Dame do some tough stuff, like Bonzie Colson drawing the first Irish charge 30 minutes into a game they twice trailed by 18.

“We’ve got to find it somewhere in ourselves to have that edge and play harder and stay disciplined,” Colson said. “We need to come out strong and play like it’s our last game. We all need to grow up in a way.”

Coach Mike Brey ventured down an unusual path during his post-game comments. Maybe it’s time for a change as to how the Irish start games and start halves. Maybe the five that the Irish have fielded to begin every game and every half this season soon won’t be the same five.

“When you’re 1-2 in the league, everything’s up for debate,” Brey said.

Openly considering a lineup change has been rare for Brey. Prior to Saturday, Brey really hadn’t used his post-game forum to publicly ponder change in nearly seven years. Change often is considered and ultimately made behind closed doors and away from open microphones.

In 2008-09, Notre Dame was pegged in preseason as a possible Final Four sleeper. That train jumped the tracks with a seven-game losing streak. That included a 26-point loss to No. 15 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in an early-February game. Afterward, Brey insisted that all starting spots were open to evaluation. Change certainly was coming.

Prior to the next game against then-No. 5 Louisville one move was made. Brey returned guard Tory Jackson to his starting role. Jackson came off the bench against UCLA and played well in going for 17 points and three assists in 37 minutes.

Notre Dame then beat Louisville by 33 points. At the time, it was its largest margin of victory in a conference game for a team that won three of its next four.

What change might come if at all against Georgia Tech? Brey mentioned that Pflueger and junior Austin Torres may be asked to do more of that early in games and in halves. Both are on his mind more because both bring an energy to the defensive end that has too often been lacking at the start of games and halves.

“You always think about that, always consider that,” Brey said. “We’ve got to keep growing Pflueger.”

And keep trying to get better defensively every day. Like it was last week, much of the recent practice reps centered on defense. On habits. On footwork. On positioning and communication. On being disciplined in rotations. On just being more connected.

“We know that we need to be better,” Pflueger said. “We just have to go prove it and get everyone in synch and play our game.

“It’s kind of a mental test playing defense now.”

One that Notre Dame has no choice but to ace.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (10-5 overall; 1-2 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (11-5; 1-2).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Wednesday at 9 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: ACC Network (WMYS, Channel 69). The game also can be seen on the internet via 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: Nick Jacobs, Adam Smith and Quinton Stephens all scored 16 points as Georgia Tech registered its biggest victory in the five-year tenure of coach Brian Gregory with a 68-64 win Saturday at home over then-No. 4 Virginia. The Yellow Jackets led by as many as 15 points and outrebounded the Cavaliers, 41-29. It snapped a seven-game league losing streak dating back to last season. … Georgia Tech opened ACC play with road losses to North Carolina and No. 20 Pittsburgh. … Georgia Tech’s roster carries five transfers, including two fifth-year graduate transfers in Smith and James White, who played last season at Virginia Tech and Arkansas-Little Rock. … The Yellow Jackets average 77.5 points, allow 70.8, shoot 45.8 percent from the field and outrebound opponents by an average of 8.9. Ten players average at least 13.9 minutes per game. … Georgia Tech was picked in preseason to finish 13th in the ACC. … Redshirt sophomore guard Travis Jorgenson played at the same New Hampshire prep school (New Hampton) as Notre Dame senior captain Zach Auguste. … Georgia Tech returns three starters off last year’s team that finished 12-19, 3-15 and 14th place in the ACC. … The Yellow Jackets are 4-16 on the road in ACC play over the last two-plus seasons. … The Yellow Jackets lead the all-time series 7-5. The Irish have won the last three by a total of 13 points (including one in double overtime) and are 3-1 as conference colleagues. … Notre Dame leads the ACC and ranks sixth nationally in field goal percentage (.506). ... Notre Dame visits No. 9 Duke on Saturday before closing January with three of four at home. … The Irish look to avoid losing consecutive games for the first time this season.

WORTH QUOTING: “Bouncing back after losses is something this group will have to be good at. They’ve already had to do it and they’re in it again.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey