Notre Dame hoops rotation shrinkage tests psyches

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Reality checks arrive without much advance notice as college basketball transitions from happy-go-lucky exhibitions where everybody’s in to the seriousness of the regular season, where everybody’s not.

Those checks started being cashed Friday when the real games commenced and continues Saturday when Notre Dame opens with a noon tip at home against Bryant.

Two exhibitions left a lot of Irish feeling good. Minutes were handed out like Halloween candy. Everyone had a taste. The rotation rolled over time and again. At one point in Monday's second exhibition, five Irish were sent to the scorer's table at the same time. Different guys all got chances to the point where everyone felt a part of it.

That all changes – sometimes in big ways for the uninitiated – when it’s time to start building the all-important NCAA tournament resume.

It's time.

Rotations shrink. Main guys gobble up minutes. Minds wander. It’s tough. It’s trying. Welcome to the regular season.

“Roster management starts,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “You get to really managing guys and their psyches.”

Sophomores Rex Pflueger and Matt Ryan both experienced that roller-coaster rotation last winter. Minutes seldom mattered when they were prep standouts. They rarely left the floor.

When their freshman seasons at Notre Dame started, they seldom saw it.

“It’s definitely challenging,” said Pflueger, now the sixth man. “You’re not used to it. It’s a culture shock, but you’ve got to trust the process.”

A process that at Notre Dame often sees underclassmen, no matter how good their prep resume, sit and watch behind veterans who have paid their program dues. When those guys rotate out, the younger guys rotate in.

“Underclassmen have to wait their turn,” said Ryan, expected to be a rotation regular despite being slowed in preseason by a stress reaction in his right foot. “If you come in here with the expectation that you’re going to rule the world and run the show, it’s going to be even harder for you.”

As the regular season gets going, Brey moves forward with a core eight in starters V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, Martinas Geben and Steve Vasturia and reserves T.J. Gibbs, Pflueger and Ryan. A fourth – senior Austin Torres – was in the rotation before a rapid heartbeat sent him to the hospital after three minutes in Monday’s exhibition.

Torres was cleared Thursday to compete, though his immediate playing status is uncertain. He might get caught in a minutes crunch at power forward with sophomore Elijah Burns and freshman John Mooney.

Fellow freshman Nikola Djogo is on a five-year plan, in part because there just isn’t enough time for him on the perimeter.

Who’s in and who’s out as Notre Dame moves forward? The de facto line of demarcation is former Irish power forward and current director of basketball operations Harold Swanagan.

Positioned during games halfway down the Irish bench, Swanagan sits in that spot to help best spread the coaching staff’s message to the Irish reserves. But he also serves another purpose, and not necessarily by coincidence.

The guys to the left of Swanagan (never more than four), are rotation regulars. The guys to the right? Not enough meaningful minutes for them. For now.

That can change.

“For the first few games last year, I was as far as you could be on the right side waiting,” said Pflueger, who logged six DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision) the first 13 games while averaging 13.3 minutes a game his freshman season. “It was frustrating. You have doubts about yourself and everything but no matter where you sit on the bench, you just always have to be ready to play.”

And believe your time will come. Last year, Farrell and Geben were stuck so far to Swanagan’s right that each contemplated transferring. Now they’re starters.

Brey talked following Monday’s 58-point win about how he liked the energy and enthusiasm the guys on the bench showed throughout the exhibitions. About how pure they were in pulling for teammates.

“It’s something you want to bottle,” Brey said. “It’s hard to do for five months.”

There’s no choice.

Considered a main guy heading into the NCAA tournament last March, Ryan played a combined 26 minutes in four tournament games. He spent more time watching than working.

But come the closing minutes of the East Regional final against North Carolina, a game where he played only 120 seconds, Ryan became overwhelmed by his emotions.

He wept. Hard. Openly. For all to see.

Why? Because it wasn’t about him or his role or his minutes or his shots. There was something bigger to chase then, something still to chase now. He wasn’t playing big minutes, but that didn’t mean he wanted the Irish to stop playing.

“It’s all about winning,” said Ryan, who averaged 13.4 minutes as a freshman. “Whoever’s out there, you have to make sure you help give them the energy to win. It doesn’t matter who plays.

“We’re all brothers.”

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2016 Legends Classic

Notre Dame Regional

WHO: Notre Dame (0-0) vs. Bryant (0-0).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at noon.

TICKETS: Plenty available.

TV: ACC Network Extra via WatchESPN app.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), audio also available at WatchND.

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

NOTING: This is the first of four games for Notre Dame in the Legends Classic. The tournament’s final four teams – Colorado, Northwestern, Notre Dame and Texas – automatically advance to Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., for the semifinals and finals Nov. 21-22. … Located in Smithfield, R.I., Bryant has an enrollment of 3,200 with an annual undergraduate tuition of $38,500. … Bryant lost 12 in a row before beating Long Island-Brooklyn in its final game last season to finish 9-23 overall, 5-13 and ninth place in the Northeast Conference. … Bryant won 16, 18 and 19 games its previous three seasons. … The Bulldogs were picked this fall by conference coaches to finish third in the 10-team league behind Fairleigh Dickinson and Wagner. … Bryant plays five of its first seven away from home to start the season. … Sophomore guard Nisre Zouzoua is the team’s leading returning scorer at 12.8 ppg. … Bryant became a full-time Division I member in 2012. … The Bulldogs took a 12-day foreign tour of Italy in August. … Notre Dame is 2-0 all-time against Bryant, which last visited South Bend on Dec. 9, 2013, a 70-51 Irish win. … Mike Brey is 16-0 in season openers as Irish coach. … Notre Dame has won its last 17 openers dating back to its last loss (1988) to Miami (Ohio).

QUOTING: “You listen, you work hard and continue to wait for your opportunity and everything will be fine. That’s the big thing with our program.”

• Irish sophomore guard Rex Pflueger.