Can Notre Dame frosh Matt Ryan find zone against Syracuse?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Luck of the housing lottery draw delivered Notre Dame freshman forward Matt Ryan to the one dorm that sits isolated from everything on the western edge of campus.

Most nights, Ryan prefers to ease his 6-foot-8, 220-pound frame across a black leather couch in the team lounge and sleep than make the trek back to his room in Carroll Hall. When he wakes in the morning, Ryan figures he saves about 20 minutes of walk time to class.

Being close to the gym allows Ryan an opportunity to work on what he does best — make shots — morning, noon or night. Yet having cultivated a reputation of a shot maker, Ryan has done little of that the last three games.

He hit for 10 points on three of nine from the floor in his first career start Jan. 13 against Georgia Tech. He has since scored 10 points total while making a combined three of nine shots the last three games. He’s shooting 40.9 percent from the field, 36.4 percent from 3.

How does a shooter not dwell on those pedestrian percentages?

“By putting up more shots,” Ryan said earlier this week in preparation for Thursday’s Atlantic Coast Conference contest at Syracuse. “One of the things that I haven’t been doing is I haven’t been in (the arena) late at night the last couple of weeks.

“It’s messing with me.”

Ryan jumped back this week into the late-night routine that he had drifted away from after solidifying his spot in the starting lineup. Following a seminar class Sunday night taught by the Rev. Edward Malloy, C.S.C., president emeritus and himself a basketball standout during his undergraduate days, Ryan headed for Purcell Pavilion.

His one-man workout commenced around midnight and ran for about two hours. There were no managers to rebound. No teammates to talk with. Just Ryan and the ball and the basket and the empty arena.

Afterward, Ryan retreated to his home away from home — the team lounge — to ice down, watch Netflix (he’s currently working through a season of One Tree Hill), and, ultimately, sleep.

He drifted off again feeling good about his game.

“I couldn’t miss,” he said. “I was going up and down, taking game shots and figuring out spots in the Syracuse zone about where I could be.”

Ah, that trademark Syracuse zone. The Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., native will see it for the first time as a collegiate when he makes his first-ever visit to the Carrier Dome in his first trip back to his home state as a member of the Irish. No team in the country utilizes the 2-3 zone defense more often or more effectively. The Orange defenders along the back line are long and lanky and can cover a lot of ground in a short time. But there also are times when shooters with limitless range can find gaps here and there and get a clean look at a 3. Or more.

“When I see a zone, hopefully I can get up eight or nine 3s, hopefully hit four or five of them,” Ryan said. “My mouth is watering for the freakin’ 2-3 zone.”

The zone also has a tendency to toy with the minds of even the most confident of shooters who are unaccustomed to it. The Orange limited the Irish to 34.7 percent shooting from the field, 13.6 percent (3-of-22) from 3 last February. After the 65-60 loss, coach Mike Brey bristled at any notion that the zone played on his guys’ psyche. Months later, Brey admitted that the zone sort of spooked his guys.

Ryan doesn’t expect a repeat performance against a Syracuse team that leads the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage defense (29.4) and is second in field goal percentage defense (40.5).

“I don’t think anything can spook us now after we just beat Duke at Cameron,” Ryan said. “It will be fun. That zone is long and athletic and they crash the boards.

“We are going to have to rebound.”

That’s where the overdue-for-a-big game Ryan can factor in. Though he’s expected to come off the bench as the sixth man for the first time since early January, Ryan knows he has to deliver more dirty work around the rim. Doing that against Georgia Tech — he grabbed five rebounds in the first half on the way to a career-high seven — helped everything about his game fall neatly into place.

“It got me in a flow,” he said.

Currently averaging 5.9 points and 1.8 rebounds, Ryan has since been unable to tap back into that flow. He took the first Irish shot of the game 44 seconds in at Duke, fell into foul trouble and didn’t shoot again in going scoreless for only the second time this season. He had a quiet four points in last week’s win over Virginia Tech, and another relatively silent six in Saturday’s win over Boston College.

Brey has counseled Ryan to think less about his shot and more about getting on the glass. Since his career-high seven rebounds against the Yellow Jackets, Ryan has only four the last three games.

“When he rebounds for us, it helps him get into the game,” Brey said. “I don’t want him putting so much pressure on just his jump shot.”

Ryan also doesn’t plan to put any additional pressure on himself in playing the closest to home that he gets during the regular season. Nearly a dozen family members and friends will make the five-hour drive up for this one. Ryan was recruited some by the Orange, but the closest he’s been to the Dome was a summer camp held at the nearby ‘Melo Center.

Ryan expected to get his first look at the Dome and adjust to the depth perception of a drastically different background during the team’s shoot-around late Wednesday. If all worked out well with the Irish travel schedule — and that’s been a big if this season — Ryan planned to grab a manager and a ball and get back in the building later that night.

He’ll be ready to go come game time.

“It’s going to be good,” Ryan said.

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WHO: No. 25 Notre Dame (14-5 overall; 5-2 ACC) vs. Syracuse (13-8; 3-5).

WHERE: Carrier Dome (35,446), Syracuse, N.Y.

WHEN: Thursday at 7 p.m.


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at

WORTH NOTING: Michael Gbinije scored a game-high 24 points and Malachi Richardson added 23, including six 3-pointers, in a 73-65 Syracuse loss Sunday at No. 11 Virginia. The game was originally scheduled for Saturday at noon but was postponed because of Winter Storm Jonas. The Orange traveling party didn’t arrive in Charlottesville until Sunday afternoon, less than seven hours before gametime. Thirty of the Orange 54 field goal attempts were 3-pointers. … Syracuse opened conference play 0-4 but has won three of its last four. … This is the first of four-straight league home games for the Orange, who are 1-2 at home in ACC play with a win over Boston College and losses to Clemson and North Carolina. … The Orange return three starters off last year’s team that finished 18-13 and 9-9 and eighth place in the ACC. Syracuse did not participate in the league tournament or postseason play as part of a self-imposed ban stemming from NCAA infractions. … Syracuse has seen its win total decrease in each of the last four years — 4-30-28-18. … Orange coach Jim Boeheim is in his 40th season. He will coach two more seasons at his alma mater after this one before turning the program over to assistant Mike Hopkins. … The NCAA stripped Boeheim of over 100 victories last year because of the program’s various violations. … Syracuse averages 70.4 points per game and allows 64.6. Teams are shooting only 29.4 percent from 3. … Four Orange average double figures for points; only six average double-figures for minutes. All five starters are averaging at least 30 minutes a game. … Syracuse carries only nine scholarship players. … The Orange were picked in preseason to finish ninth with one first-place vote in the ACC. … Syracuse has won three in a row and six of the last seven in the series. It leads the all-time series 27-19, including 13-9 at the Carrier Dome. … Notre Dame last won in Central New York on Jan. 30, 2007, 103-91. At the time, it was the most points scored by an opponent in arena history. That also was the last time the teams met in the Carrier Dome with Notre Dame ranked (No. 21) and Syracuse unranked. … This is the only regular-season meeting between the teams. … This starts a stretch of six of the next nine on the road for Notre Dame, which has won its last four league games. … The Irish are 2-1 on the road in league play and have won their last two games away from home — at Boston College and at Duke. … Notre Dame returns to action Sunday at home against Wake Forest.

WORTH QUOTING: “We expect him to be out there. If he’s not, we can always make some gametime adjustment. You have to prepare for him being there. It’s more mental than anything.”

- Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim on Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson, who is expected to miss Thursday’s game with a right hamstring injury.