Breakout effort from A.J. Burgett buoys Irish

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Hey, who was that guy?

He looked vaguely familiar, the reddish beard and all. Didn’t recognize the name, though.

But, for some reason …

Oh yeah, Austin … uh, rather, A.J. Burgett. Hasn’t he been on the Notre Dame junk heap for the last two years?

Well, it seems coach Mike Brey started his recycling program just in time for Sunday’s 85-62 demolition of Wake Forest.

Outta sight, outta mind, right?

Outta Notre Dame …? Well, maybe not. The way he played against the Demon Deacons — 14 points, five rebounds, one assist, two steals, a block, and great position while coaxing a charge — may have just changed the dynamic in what seemed to be an etched-in-cement Irish rotation.

Who would have guessed that the basketball artist formerly known as Austin Burgett — now known as A.J. — would steal the thunder from Demetrius Jackson’s return from a hamstring injury? Those odds would have been astronomical.

The last real news about Burgett happened on Jan. 21, 2014 when, after the Irish played Florida State, he suffered from an abnormally fast heart rate — junctional tachycardia, was the medical lingo.

He had a procedure in which radio waves were used to treat the affliction and the problem went away.

But, so did Burgett, for the most part.

He spent all of last year relegated to garbage duty. He had a bucket and a mop through this season, too — 11 games, 41 total minutes.

Sunday, the 6-foot-9, 232-pound Burgett logged 25 minutes and played his way into a pivotal role as the rest of the season unfolds.

Heck, maybe he could have made a difference in that awful loss to Indiana, when the Irish seemed one player shy.

A captain without a real voice, Burgett found himself Sunday — loud and clear.

When freshmen Rex Pflueger (a gimpy ankle) and Matt Ryan (struggling with the grind of the season) didn’t appear to be the best options, Burgett got the call.

“I’ve been really close to the younger guys, and I’ve tried to be a good role model for them,” Burgett said. “When I was a freshman, I didn’t play. I had Scott Martin ahead of me. We had good conversations. He always said, ‘Stay positive, your time will come around.’

“It’s good to be vocal on the floor. I’ve always been vocal on the bench. (Demetrius Jackson), Zach (Auguste) and Steve (Vasturia) have always been captains on the floor. I’m there to make sure guys’ morale is up. That’s what my role had been, but it was nice to actually be out there and have my voice.”

“I want my four captains on the floor to start the game,” Brey said. “I want veteran guys. That really lifted (Auguste), (Jackson) and (Vasturia) to have Burg out there. He got us off to a great start.”

What Burgett was able to do, stay positive in what turned out to be a two-year exile, was downright amazing. Not only the physical part, but staying focused and positive mentally was a challenge.

“(Jackson) would talk to me a bunch,” Burgett said. “Zach and I are roommates, we talk every day. I can get things off my mind. I can get things off my chest every day.

“I’ve always had a good relationship with the coaches. They’ve always had a positive about (my situation).

“There were tough days, but you’ve gotta be willing to work really hard and get people better even if you’re not playing.”

“His attitude’s been amazing,” Auguste said. “He’s always been a leader, regardless of what’s happening to him individually. He did what he had to do.

“I just tell him, ‘Keep working hard, do what you do, and it will come to you.’”

“Burg has played (in practice) with a little bit of an edge about himself,” Brey said. “Confidence has always been an issue. But, he’s at a point, ‘What do ya got to lose, man? Just play.’

“He’s put the weight of the world on himself in other situations before today. I love his maturity.

“I’ve felt guilty at times, not getting him in there and investing in some other guys. He’s so good. He never hangs his head. He never comes in to talk with me about playing time.

“Every day in practice, he’s helping guys. We lose at Virginia. He doesn’t see any time. Zach has a tough day. (Burgett) comes to see me the next day about how he could help Zach.”

That’s a special guy, no matter what his name is … or was.

“I’ve always been A.J. Burgett,” he said. “If you go to my hometown (Avon, Ind.), you go to my family, I’ve never been Austin. The only time I’m called Austin is by my grandma, or when I’m in trouble with my mom.

“It’s always been kinda weird (being Austin at ND), and I got tired of it. I guess I’m just going back to who I was.”

“I still have a hard time calling him A.J., so I just go ‘Burg,’” said Brey. “I didn’t know if he was going through an identity crisis; witness relocation program … He can call himself anything he wants … If he goes 4-for-6 from the 3-point line and rebounds like that, I’ll call him whatever.”

Just as long as he keeps getting called when the game’s on the line.

Notre Dame senior power forward A.J. Burgett gathers himself after falling hard to the floor during the second half of Sunday's game against Wake Forest.Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN