Jersey guys set tone for Notre Dame men's hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

NEWARK, N.J. – Located beyond the elevated railroad tracks, next to a vacant lot and apartment houses that have seen better days, sits a pristine regulation-size basketball court complete with NBA-style backboards and a sleek, black and white color-schemed court.

Blink and commuters aboard trains rumbling into nearby Newark Penn Station might miss it. Whether it’s on that asphalt arena, which sits a long 3-pointer away from Prudential Center, down on the famed Shore in the summertime or at outpost gyms along the Turnpike, basketball is serious stuff in New Jersey.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey knows that well. This year’s roster carries three Garden State natives – senior captain Steve Vasturia (Medford), junior guard Matt Farrell (Bridgewater) and freshman guard T.J. Gibbs (Scotch Plains). A fourth – sophomore forward Elijah Burns – hails from upstate New York (Troy) but played his prep ball at Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J.

Each time Brey talks about one of the four – or like he did Thursday, groups a few of them together – he eventually circles back to one certain word.

Toughness.

Jersey toughness.

These guys have it, and are going to need all of it Saturday when No. 23 Notre Dame (9-0) faces defending national champion and top-ranked Villanova (9-0) in the inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic (noon, CBS).

But what exactly is Jersey toughness? Is it something someone can see by watching Farrell run the point? Or Gibbs drive it hard to the hole? Or Vasturia casually carve up the opposition on both ends?

“It’s more of a will to win and an edge, having a confidence in yourself and not being scared of anybody,” said Farrell, who certainly plays that way times 10. “Basketball in Jersey is different from everywhere else. It’s an attitude.”

Specifically it’s an attitude that regardless of where guys play – outdoors, in dimly-lit gyms in the inner city, out at the Shore or on the rough streets of Newark – they’re going to hold the court for a game or two or three. They aren’t going to give it up so easily, if at all.

“You’ve got to want it; that’s something that every Jersey guy has,” Gibbs said. “You’ve got to be efficient on and off the court and just be a man.

“That’s the standard all Jersey guys hold themselves to.”

“We,” Farrell said, “just want to win all the time.”

It’s that determination that has made some of the practice-court battles between Farrell and Gibbs must-see. Both know they have to bring it every afternoon at 3. Sometimes, Farrell gets Gibbs. Others, Gibbs gets Farrell. At the end of the day, the two understand tomorrow’s a new one – time to prove it all over again.

Brey first learned of the Jersey toughness in the late-1980s when he ventured from Durham, N.C., as a Duke assistant into Jersey City to recruit point guard Bobby Hurley out of St. Anthony’s. When Brey arrived at Notre Dame, the best player on his first team was Troy Murphy. The two-time All-American and Big East player of the year regularly ventured from his home deep in the Jersey suburbs of Sparta into Newark to play pickup with the singular goal of getting tougher. It worked. He’s the program’s last lottery pick.

Brey first mined New Jersey for Notre Dame in the early 2000s when he landed former McDonald’s All-American and Maryland swingman Dan Miller (Mt. Holly). In his one season in South Bend, Miller helped take the Irish to their first Sweet 16 in 16 seasons.

Brey has since gone back time and again through the state and signed a handful of difference-makers – Russell Carter (Paulsboro) yesterday, Farrell and Vasturia today, Gibbs likely tomorrow.

“You’re able to get great pickup games in that area, especially in that state,” said Brey, who will remain in the New York-New Jersey area following Saturday’s game to spend a few days recruiting. “They play really good high school competition. They’ve got bragging rights – to be better than the Philly guys or the New York guys.”

But can a Jersey guy ALSO be a Philly guy? Vasturia believes so. Born in Philadelphia, but raised across the Delaware River in Medford, Vasturia ventured back over the Walt Whitman Bridge to play high school ball at St. Joseph’s Prep. Following Sunday’s win over North Carolina A&T, he emerged from the Irish locker room wearing a green hoodie with a white shamrock logo over the middle and the words “Philadelphia” scrawled over the center.

Vasturia claims to be both a Philly and a Jersey guy, but his game more closely follows the latter than the former.

“It’s toughness, not being afraid to stick your nose in there and not backing down from anything,” he said. “It’s just brining that kind of hard-nosed mentality and coming in and working hard every day.

“It’s doing everything you can to win.”

Notre Dame will have to do all of that and more, and it still might not be enough against a Villanova team that might be even better than last season’s ultimate success story. But the Irish have carried a quiet confidence about them the last week or so, even some swagger, that was last so evident during the 2015 NCAA tournament and a near-miss against then-undefeated and No. 1 Kentucky.

The Irish are ready to play well. Play hard.

“We’re off to a great start here,” Vasturia said. “It’s built a lot of people’s confidence. We want to play in big games and kind of accept the challenge.”

In, naturally, Jersey.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Never Forget Tribute Classic

WHO: No. 23 Notre Dame (9-0) vs. No. 1 Villanova (9-0).

WHERE: Prudential Center (18,711), Newark, N.J.

WHEN: Saturday at noon.

TV: CBS.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

NOTING: This is the opening game of the first-ever doubleheader to honor New York/New Jersey victims of 9/11. Penn State and Pittsburgh meet in the second game. … Sophomore guard Jalen Brunson scored a career-high 26 points and senior guard Josh Hart added 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists in Villanova’s 89-79 victory Tuesday over LaSalle. The Explorers shot 52.5 percent from the field. … The Wildcats have scored at least 75 points in seven of their last nine games. … Villanova ranks third in the Big East in scoring offense (80.9) and scoring defense (62.6). … The Wildcats have yet to allow 80 points; the Irish average 88.9. … Villanova returns three starters off last year’s team that went 35-5, 16-2 in the Big East. … The Wildcats have won 35, 33 and 29 games the last three years with a Ratings Percentage Index of 2, 6 and 8. … Wildcats coach Jay Wright is 6-7 all-time against Notre Dame. ... Villanova has a current RPI of 3 and strength of schedule (SOS) of 25; Notre Dame’s RPI is 38 with a 242 SOS according to ESPN.com. … This is Notre Dame’s first game against the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll since the 2015 NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional final against Kentucky.

QUOTING: “Saturday’s kind of neat where the discussion can be around two teams with veterans back that have won instead of a lottery pick freshman who maybe is hurt but maybe he’ll be back before Christmas or a lottery pick freshman who’s getting his butt beat. We’ve got two teams that have won a lot the last two years. It’s a refreshing story.”

• Coach Mike Brey on Notre Dame playing Villanova