Notre Dame freshman Matt Ryan unfazed by starting role

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Bouncing his hands about his knees before leaning forward to rub his calves, Notre Dame freshman forward Matt Ryan seemingly couldn’t sit still as he found himself in a spot Wednesday for the first time in his collegiate career.

Sitting on the home bench with the house lights out waiting for the Purcell Pavilion public address announcer to call his name (… a forward from Courtland Manor, N.Y ...) Ryan looked to be fighting a losing battle with his nerves minutes before his first collegiate start in an Atlantic Coast Conference contest against Georgia Tech.

But it was quite the opposite. Ryan insisted afterward that he was as cool as it was cold outside, and it was downright bitter. Starting his first game was a big deal, yet Ryan looked at it as just another game for him to do his job.

“I’m just very calm,” he said. “If I get too antsy, then I’ll go out there and mess up. I just try to stay calm and play my game and just do what I’ve done.”

On Wednesday, he had to do more. Ryan worked his way into the rotation for his ability to shoot it and keep defenses guessing. Stepping into the starting lineup against a physical Georgia Tech team meant that the 6-foot-8, 220-pound Ryan also would have to rebound.

It’s almost as if his starting spot depended on it.

“I had to stay on the boards,” Ryan said.

Not even three minutes into his first start, Ryan looked overmatched trying to box out beefy power forward Charles Mitchell, who used his 6-8, 260-pound wide body to discard Ryan under the basket before snatching an offensive rebound and finishing with an easy stick-back.

Maybe Ryan wasn’t ready for that rebounding role. Or maybe he was just getting started.

“After that, I said, ‘Not anymore,’” Ryan said of being bullied. “It’s all about boxing out, being in position and going and getting the ball. I had to stay on the boards.”

Ryan stayed in the game and stayed on the glass. When it was over, he had career highs for minutes (35) and rebounds (7) to go with 10 points as Notre Dame moved to 11-5 overall, 2-2 in the ACC with a 72-64 victory. His presence helped open the floor and gave guard Demetrius Jackson room to work. It allowed power forward Zach Auguste the chance to get back to his screen-roll game that worked so effectively last March. It allowed Ryan and guard Steve Vasturia easy avenues to drive.

But all of that offense was predicated only on Ryan being able to hold his own on the defensive end. Had he not done that, he wouldn’t have had the chance to have such a big night, and the Irish might be back to the search stage in terms of a starting lineup.

Instead, Ryan’s there to stay as Notre Dame prepares for Saturday’s trip to No. 9 Duke.

“That was a great step for all of us, to be confident that we can hold our own on the backboard when he is our so-called four-man,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “We’re going to ride that.”

And ride Ryan’s physical presence, his potential to make shots and his willingness to stick his nose into the middle of everything and compete.

“The one thing about Matt Ryan, he really fights,” Brey said. “Physically, he’s ready and then he has that New York edge about him.

“He’s a pain in the (butt). I say that lovingly.”

Cameron karma

In an effort to change the karma heading into Wednesday’s game following Saturday’s loss to No. 20 Pittsburgh, Brey refused to shave for a couple days.

Afterward, he said the “stubble karma” did the job. But what might work Saturday to change Notre Dame’s karma at Cameron Indoor Stadium? When the Irish played in the place last February they were handed their most lopsided loss – 90-60 – during Brey’s tenure.

“You would hope now that this nucleus has been in that atmosphere, they won’t be as wide-eyed,” Brey said. “It’s unique, as we know. I would hope that they’re more able to handle it because they’ve experienced it.”

That also goes for Ryan, who’s not so wide-eyed to what he’s walking into. During his junior year of high school at Iona (N.Y.) Prep, Ryan made an official visit to Duke for an ACC showdown against Syracuse. It was the game where Orange coach Jim Boeheim was ejected in the final seconds for running wildly onto the floor to protest an official’s non-call.

“The place was going nuts,” said Ryan, who committed to Notre Dame the summer before his senior season. “It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere. We’ve just got to stay calm and play our pace, play our game and continue to fight on the boards.”

Brey believes that playing at Duke is one of the perks that helps his program as a member of the ACC. Much like playing in Madison Square Garden was circled every year on the Irish hoops calendar when they were in the Big East, playing in Cameron Indoor Stadium is one of THE games on the schedule.

“”It’s so powerful to play in Cameron and to play Duke,” Brey said. “Those are great endorsements of our program as you’re trying to be consistent in this league like you were in that other league.

“Great for our fans; great for our program.”

Colson competes

Moving Ryan into the starting lineup Wednesday was only half of the winning equation for the Irish. That meant someone had to sit, and that someone was sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson.

Two games after connecting on eight of his nine shots and scoring 16 points with four rebounds in a record-setting 28-point win at Boston College, Colson found himself on the bench for the first time this season.

The sophomore handled the new role like he’d been around the program for decades. No wondering. No worrying. No pouting when Brey brought him into the corner basketball office earlier in the week and told him he was going to make the change.

“He said, ‘Coach, whatever we need to do to get a win,’” Brey said. “That’s how pure he’s been. He’s very mature, very secure. It was almost like, ‘Don’t worry about my psyche.’”

Knowing that, Brey was able to have some fun with Colson about embracing a super-sub role off the bench.

“I actually said, ‘What are you going to do? How are you going to strip your warm-up off? You going to do it like Superman?’” Brey said.

Even though he didn’t start Wednesday, Colson was in the game early in each half. He came in for Auguste at the 15:05 mark of the first half, and returned at the 13:11 mark of the second before finishing with eight points and four rebounds in 17 minutes.

It was the fewest minutes Colson has played since getting 15 in the season opener.

Crazy conference

Brey returned to his office late Wednesday night to start preparation for Duke, which lost earlier that night on the road at Clemson, which was coming off an upset win over No. 21 Louisville. Those surprise scores followed last week’s road losses by then-No. 4 Virginia to two unranked teams — Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.

Welcome to the wild and wacky ACC, where this much is certain — nothing’s certain.

“Our league, we certainly don’t have it figured out, but not a lot of other people do either,” Brey said. “You’re hovering around .500 in this league, you’re going to be in the mix (for an NCAA tournament bid).

“Our strength of schedule is driving us and keeping us in good position.”

Currently in ninth place in the 15-team league, Notre Dame carries a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 44 and a 31 strength of schedule (SOS). It also has five league games remaining against current ranked teams.

“It’s the good and the bad of a league like this,” Brey said. “You’ve got opportunities.”

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Notre Dame forward Matt Ryan made his first career start, and enjoyed a career night, Wednesday against Georgia Tech.Tribune Photo/GREG SWIERCZ