Notre Dame guard Rex Pflueger grows game, confidence
When members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team convened last week for media day, they split into two interview groups.
The five starters fanned out around he black leather love seats and chairs in the team lounge. The rest of the roster sat at chairs in front of their locker-room cubicles.
Sophomore guard Rex Pflueger could have staked out a spot in the managers’ equipment room, located equidistant between the two sanctuary areas.
A year ago, Pflueger was a freshman trying to figure out where he fit in the sometimes-confusing world of big-time college basketball. There’s no guessing game the second time around. The 6-foot-6, 202-pound Pflueger is a key guy from the jump. So much so that he spent a good portion of the early part of preseason practices bouncing between a blue (reserve) and white (starter) practice jersey.
Irish coach Mike Brey was quick to pinpoint his top five last week — guards Matt Farrell and Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem on the wing and Bonzie Colson and Martinas Geben down low. But he would take that starting lineup a step further with Pflueger.
“I think of him almost as a sixth starter,” Brey said. “Rex Pflueger has been fabulous. He is one confident guy.”
Confident for myriad reasons. Having one year under his belt is a boost. After appearing in 30 games with one start last year, Pflueger knows what to expect from the grind to the point he’ll never get too down if he makes a poor decision, never get too pumped up if he makes a big play. With former Irish guard Demetrius Jackson off to the NBA, there are minutes and shots and chances beckoning in the backcourt.
And the fact that Pflueger was front and center for a couple of last season’s most memorable games — the first-ever win at Duke when he hit for then career bests for points (7) and minutes (23) before his one shining moment in the NCAA tournament — has helped him believe that he belongs.
“It was just a great, great experience for me,” Pflueger said.
That experience reached a whole different level in the NCAA tournament. On the floor for primarily defensive purposes, Pflueger carved enough space near the rim on the offensive end to tip back a Jackson miss in the closing seconds of the second-round tournament thriller against Stephen F. Austin. His only bucket of the tournament, and only one in six postseason games, sent Notre Dame toward a second straight appearance in the Elite Eight.
But he’s moved past that. Way past that.
“The tip-in obviously was great,” he said. “It gave me a certain swagger (but) I’ve heard those two words next to each other – tip, in – about a million times since March.”
Since March, Pflueger has been like a sponge for his head coach. What can he do be better? To play more? To round out his game? He asked tons of questions and took all feedback, even the constructive criticism. Anything Brey offered in return, Pflueger has been there to listen and learn. He wants to learn. He wants to be better. He wants to be coached. Hard.
“He’s been really good with me the whole summer and the beginning of the season,” Pflueger said. “I definitely feel I’ve become more confident.”
Pflueger has learned to take better care of the ball, to make better decisions handling it in the halfcourt and understands better how to let the game unfold in front of him without trying to force everything right here and right now.
He’s become an important piece to this season. Pflueger’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and do the dirty work — guard — demands he be on the floor more, especially in Atlantic Coast Conference play. After logging at least 10 minutes only once in non-league play and the first four conference contests, Pflueger played double-digit minutes in all but three games the rest of the way.
His ability to defend the other team’s best perimeter player (D-Rex) has a trickle-down effect. That job long fell to Vasturia, who wore down from all the heavy lifting on both ends last season. With Pflueger more in the mix, Vasturia can pick and choose his spots on both ends.
“When you put Pflueger in the game, it gives you a great shot in the arm defensively,” Brey said.
Pflueger can also play some point guard, though Brey prefers either Farrell or freshman T.J. Gibbs handle those responsibilities. That will better free Pflueger up to get more comfortable with his offensive game. He can slash and finish, knock down something in the mid-range and occasionally step out and hit a 3-pointer (see Duke).
His numbers across the board – 2.3 points, 1.3 rebounds in eighth overall in minutes at 13.3 – should bump up this winter.
How will the pieces all come together? Pflueger believes it will happen sooner than later. For him. And for the Irish.
“We’ll find our identity within our first five non-league games and move forward like that,” Pflueger said. “We’re a tight-knit group.”