Analysis: The kids are all right in Notre Dame exhibition runaway

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Bright lights aren’t going to bother Notre Dame freshman guard T.J. Gibbs.

When the house lights come up and the uniforms come on for the first time, as they did Tuesday in Notre Dame’s first exhibition of the college basketball season, the first-timers have a tendency to get a little wacky. Out of sorts. Not quite in character.

Doesn’t matter that they’ve spent the previous months on campus in practice doing everything right while proving they can play. Some suddenly become somebody else – and not always in a good way.

Not Gibbs, who showed early and often Tuesday against Division II Mercy (N.Y.) College why he was the key guy of this freshman class.

He’s ready.

Now.

Gibbs was perfect from the field in finishing with 16 points. He hit all four of his shots from the floor, both of his 3s and all six of his free throws. He added seven assists, three steals and two rebounds in 19 minutes as Notre Dame led by as many as 64 in a 119-58 wipeout at Purcell Pavilion.

“It was a lot of fun,” Gibbs said. “Just calming down, finally able to go play against someone different. To finally go through it for the first time, I realize how much of a thrill it is and how much fun it is.”

It’s the most points the Irish have scored in exhibition play during coach Mike Brey’s 17 seasons. Twenty-six assists helped. So did a game-high 18 points from senior V.J. Beachem.

Not long after checking in, Gibbs was asked to solve fullcourt pressure alongside veteran guard Matt Farrell. Gibbs did it with ease, then found a soft spot in the 2/3 zone. He sank a 3-pointer to bump the Irish up 11. He wasn’t done. He later slid his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame into another gear next time down the floor for an easy layup.

Gibbs also showed he can do work on the other end. He stepped in front of Marko Kozul (6-6, 220) and took a charge with the Irish already comfortably ahead.

“He’s such a competitor,” Brey said.

Gibbs still offered more.

Midway through the second half with the Irish advantage pushing toward half a hundred, Gibbs quickened the pace with a speed dribble up the right side. Just to his right, Farrell sprinted the floor and spotted up near the 3-point line near the Irish bench. All he needed was the ball.

Gibbs would get it to him with a perfect pocket pass to Farrell and heard immediately from Brey.

“Way to get him one! Way to get him one!” Brey shouted to Gibbs as Farrell swished another 3.

Gibbs later dug out a steal on one end, kick-started another break and again found Farrell, this time for a layup that gave the Irish points 99 and 100.

Gibbs played with pace. With poise. With polish.

“I love the energy he brings off the bench,” Brey said. “He’s such a gamer. As soon as you put him in a game, the focus is even better. He’s an amazing competitor.”

Gibbs already is ahead in ability and maturity of where the two former Irish guards who played point before him - Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson - were as freshmen. One (Jackson) arrived a McDonald's All-American. The other (Grant) was a first-round NBA draft pick.

Get old and stay old has been a familiar theme for Notre Dame during Brey’s tenure. This season is no exception, but the kids can also play. At least for one night, they did.

Sophomore Rex Pflueger carried over a confident preseason with seven points, six assists and five rebounds as the sixth man. Sophomore Elijah Burns, who sat out last season to preserve a year of eligibility, made an immediate impact after checking in during the first half when he followed a missed shot with a rebound dunk. He also carved out some space around the rim to go for eight points and four rebounds.

Freshman John Mooney wasn’t shy about throwing around his size (6-9, 245) or showing perimeter skills to go for 10 points and seven rebounds. Classmate Nikola Djogo had two second-half highlight dunks – one on a running rebound follow through the lane, the other on an alley-oop from Pflueger.

The three Irish freshmen combined for 31 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

“They were really good,” Brey said. “They know who they are. This has been a real mature group to deal with. The three new guys are three of the most mature freshmen we’ve ever had.”

That maturity is nurtured by a veteran team that carries a certain culture that demands the young guys get up to speed. Like, this is what we do and how we do it. Now you do it.

And they do.

“We really trust the older guys,” Gibbs said. “Just learning the game from them, I hope that they realize what they’re saying to us is paying off and we’re taking it to mind and we enjoy learning from them.”

The learning runs right up to gametime. Prior to the tip, Gibbs got with Farrell. One Jersey guy told another just to go out and have fun. Cut it loose. Just play.

Tuesday gave the young guys confidence in their games, and the old guys confidence in the young guys.

“They come out there with a little swagger to them and that’s something we’ve had in this program – guys who play with an edge,” Farrell said. “That helps us. That’s something that’s been done in this program for a long time.”

MERCY (58): Jonathan Andre 0, William Robinson 3, Raphael Jennings 8, Ryan Hickey 14, K.J. Rose 14, Isaiah Cosbert 9, Daniel Kisson 2, Tyrik Waite 3, Marko Kozul 3, Kelvin Howard II 0, Bryan Giffin 0, Jefferson Francois 2, Amir Atkins 0. TOTALS 19-62, 9-14 58.

NOTRE DAME (119): V.J. Beachem 18, Martinas Geben 12, Bonzie Colson 14, Matt Farrell 14, Steve Vasturia 9, Rex Pflueger 7, Austin Torres 3, T.J. Gibbs 16, Elijah Burns 8, Nikola Djogo 5, Matt Gregory 2, John Mooney 10, Patrick Mazza 1. TOTALS 41-66, 24-33 119.

Halftime: Notre Dame 55, Mercy 28.

3-point goals: Mercy 11 (Jennings, Hickey 4, Rose 4, Waite, Kozul); Notre Dame 13 (Beachem 5, Colson, Farrell 2, Vasturia, Pflueger, Gibbs 2, Mooney); Total fouls (fouled out): Mercy 27 (none), Notre Dame 15.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame freshman guard T.J. Gibbs, center, played like an upperclassman in his first exhibition game Tuesday.Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA