Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson likely out for Syracuse game

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

He covered the short walk from the locker room to the trainer’s room, and then back some 25 minutes later, with no noticeable limp or pronounced problem.

Working out later in Purcell Pavilion, he did a few light sprints at seemingly full speed. He also attacked the other leg exercises prior to Monday afternoon’s practice with the same energy and focus with which he approaches every opportunity to be on the basketball court.

All looked fine with Notre Dame junior captain Demetrius Jackson just over 48 hours after he was helped off the floor following a right hamstring injury.

Coach Mike Brey doesn’t plan on having the former Marian High School standout available for Thursday’s key Atlantic Coast Conference game at Syracuse.

“It would be a miracle to come back,” Brey said.

But….

“I guess miracles happen, especially at Notre Dame I heard,” Brey said.

A Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) performed Monday afternoon on Jackson’s right leg revealed what Brey expected - a moderate hamstring pull. There is no muscle tear, which likely would have kept the point guard out for weeks.

Brey prefers to take zero chances. Jackson still will make the trip Wednesday to central New York.

“You don’t want to bring him back too soon,” Brey said. “We can’t count on him Thursday. We’re not going to rush it.”

Brey prefers Jackson to sit and reevaluate the leg Friday in advance of Sunday’s home game against Wake Forest. For now, that’s the plan. But plans sometimes can change, especially in the 72-window between Monday’s practice and Thursday’s game. Jackson, who was not made available to the media, sure looked ready. But Brey’s not budging.

“We’ve got to be really, really careful with this,” he said.

Jackson was hurt chasing a loose ball just over two minutes into Saturday’s game. He has made 57 consecutive starts. He leads the Irish in scoring (16.6) and assists (5.0) and is second in minutes (34.4). On Monday, he was one of 20 named by the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) to the preseason watch list for the Oscar Robertson Award, given to the nation’s top player.

If Jackson does miss the first game of his collegiate career because of injury, it won’t be unfamiliar territory. Notre Dame actually spent part of last week’s practice windows leading into league home games against Virginia Tech and Boston College working without Jackson, who sat out some of the sessions to rest his legs after logging so many minutes so early in conference play. The Irish then played the final 37 minutes of a game they won by 27 without him.

Brey is leaning toward shifting sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson back to the starting lineup. Colson has averaged 20.6 points and 7.6 rebounds the last three games while coming off the bench as the team’s sixth man.

Going against the Syracuse trademark 2-3 zone defense, Notre Dame now needs another ball-handler to work alongside junior captain Steve Vasturia. Freshman guard Rex Pflueger likely will make his first career start in his first career visit to the Carrier Dome.

That the 6-foot-6, 198-pound Pflueger has taken his rotation opportunity and run with it makes the potential loss of Jackson, who basically runs everything for the Irish, a bit more bearable. Pflueger’s development gives the Irish some options, and flexibility, on both ends of the floor that they would otherwise not have had if Jackson had gone down, say, a month ago.

“We’re in a much better position because of how Rex has emerged for us,” Brey said. “I’m really thrilled with what he’s given us.”

Pflueger has played major minutes in each of the last three ACC games. He logged a then-career best 23 minutes in the win at Duke, played 18 in last week’s home win over Virginia Tech and then stepped in for Jackson on Saturday for a career-high 32 minutes. He also scored a career-best 11 points.

Pflueger gives the Irish another big guard option to pair with the 6-5 Vasturia, who becomes the main initiator of the offense. Pflueger has raced into a main role in the rotation because he now can take better shots and better care of the ball. Regardless of what he does on offense, he continues to guard. And compete. And battle.

“Sometimes it’s like having two Vasturias on the floor, the way he’s played,” Brey said. “Certainly that’s powerful. He’s really a key for us and he’s really a key with Jackson down.”

That wasn’t the case when he arrived from his native California in June. But the more Pflueger worked at point guard, either as a backup with the starters in practice or running the second team, the more his confidence soared. The more he’s worked, the more the game doesn’t seem to move as quickly as it did when he arrived.

“Coach has always told me that I’ve been playing a little bit too fast, just to slow down with my offense, and then I’ll be fine,” Pflueger said.

Sophomore guard Matt Farrell, who has seen minimal minutes since ACC play commenced, would rotate into the role as the lone guard off the Irish bench. After playing at least 10 minutes in 10 of the 11 non-conference games, including a career-high 23 in the early-December win at Illinois, Farrell has not seen double figures in minutes for any ACC game. His high in league play is seven.

“I’m just going to continue to do what I do,” Farrell said. “Sometimes it’s confusing; it’s hard to stay ready because you don’t know what’s going to happen. But I’m just doing whatever I can do to stay positive and help the team win.

“We’re just going to play Notre Dame basketball and try and get a win.”

Rankings roulette

Four consecutive ACC victories – one shy of tying the school record set last season – were enough for Notre Dame to climb back into the Associated Press Top 25 poll this week.

The Irish are ranked for the first time since the end of November at No. 25. But Brey couldn’t care less.

“We may be the first program to rescind the rankings,” Brey said, only half-jokingly “We don’t want it. We want to stay under the radar. Next week’s football signing week. Come catch up with us in two weeks.”

Notre Dame was ranked as high as No. 17 earlier this season but slid out of the Top 25 for the last eight polls after losing two of three games at the AdvoCare Invitational over Thanksgiving.

The Irish (14-5; 5-2 ACC) remain unranked in the USA Today/Coaches poll, but did gain a little more traction. After not receiving any points in the poll the previous week, Notre Dame garnered 20 this week.

The Irish are one of six ACC teams ranked in the AP poll.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson, center, is helped off the floor Saturday by trainer Skip Meyer and sophomore power forward Martinas Geben after suffering a right hamstring injury.Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN