NCAA Tournament sends Matt Ryan back to basketball roots

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Barely 30 minutes into an NCAA Tournament selection show that seemed like it would last for three days, his phone starting buzzing Sunday evening with a news feed that Notre Dame freshman forward Matt Ryan refused to believe.

Someone somewhere had obtained an advance copy of the tournament pairings and leaked the bracket on-line not long after the first of the four regions was revealed by CBS.

News of where Notre Dame was headed seemed too good to be true for Ryan.

The renegade bracket had the Irish ticketed to open tournament play in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, about an hour’s drive – on a good day – from Ryan’s home in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y.

Instead of causing a commotion with the premature news, Ryan cautiously looked around at his teammates, and then kept quiet.

“When I first saw it, I was looking around to see if anyone else saw it and nobody had,” Ryan said. “Then I was like, ‘Guys, I think we’re going to Brooklyn.’ They were like, ‘Wow. I hope this is accurate.’”

It was. Once the bracket was released, and Notre Dame was sent to Barclays Center as a No. 6 seed to face the winner of Wednesday’s play-in game between No. 11 seeds Michigan and Tulsa, Ryan walked down the arena stairs and toward the Irish locker room trying to carry a tune.

“Coming home … coming home ...” Ryan sang as he couldn’t stop smiling.

When Ryan made his college choice the summer before his senior season at Iona Prep High School, he wished that in a way, Notre Dame still was a member of the Big East. That would have allowed Ryan to make multiple trips back to the New York area every season to play games. Hopefully, he said that July day, he could get back once or twice during his collegiate career.

He’ll do it this week in an arena he knows well, in a town he loves and on his older sister’s 22nd birthday.

“You can’t ask for anything better,” Ryan said. “It’s just perfect. Absolutely thrilled.”

Ryan scored 15 points last spring in the Jordan Brand Regional All-Star game at Barclays Center. He guessed Sunday night that he would have around 50 family members and friends watch him this weekend, a number sure to grow during the week. That meant he needed to go to work on some of his teammates for some help.

“He’s going to be asking me for tickets,” said freshman guard Rex Pflueger. “I’m going to help him out. We’re going to out there and put on a show for his hometown.”

Ryan is one of several Irish with East Coast ties. Senior captain Zach Auguste and sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson will both have their families make the trip down from their hometowns near Boston. Junior guard Steve Vasturia’s will make the trip up the New Jersey Turnpike from their home in Medford, N.J., a Philadelphia suburb.

Freshman forward Elijah Burns, who is sitting out this season to preserve a year of eligibility, is a native of upstate Troy, N.Y.

Sophomore guard Matt Farrell calls home Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., located some 65 miles away. He didn’t realize until last weekend during the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Washington that Brooklyn was one of the eight opening-rounds site.

“It’s awesome going back to the East Coast,” Farrell said. “Hopefully we can play good basketball down there.”

Irish coach Mike Brey would like Ryan just to continue playing a calm and collected type of basketball. Like many freshman, Ryan struggled with his consistency his first year. He had a few big moments and big games, but often played too fast when he needed to just chill to compete.

“We finally got him slowed down a little bit,” Brey said. “He’s been a big impact guy for us the last couple games. He’s been really good.”

Ryan enters NCAA play averaging 5.7 points and 1.8 rebounds in 15.5 minutes. He played in all 32 games with one start (at Duke). He’s shooting 41.8 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from 3 and 79.2 percent from the free throw line.

Ryan busted loose for a career-high 17 points in the regular-season finale against North Carolina State. He hit for nine points in the ACC tournament quarterfinal overtime victory over Duke before getting three points in the wipeout by North Carolina.

There’s a chance Ryan might start. Brey will toy the rest of the week with again juggling the starting lineup, which would call for Colson to return to the role as instant energy guy off the bench. Pflueger and Ryan are the most likely candidates to step into a main spot.

Just knowing he’s going to play near home and play a key role is enough for Ryan.

“I’m just extremely confident right now,” he said. “We’re going to New York City, baby. It can’t get any better than that.”

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NCAA Tournament

First Round

WHO: No. 6 seed Notre Dame (21-11) vs. No. 11. Michigan (22-12) or No. 11 Tulsa (20-11).

WHERE: Barclays Center (17,732), Brooklyn. N.Y.

WHEN: Friday at 9:40 p.m. (approximately).


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

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