Basketball-only focus can help No. 24 Notre Dame men

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

A challenging semester in the classroom and on the basketball court finally had finished.

So did a Christmas Day travel itinerary that had him up and out of his Southern California home by 4:30 a.m., for the long trek East.

Following two flights and a spirited evening practice, where everyone seemed fresh and far more focused, Notre Dame sophomore guard Rex Pflueger retreated to the Morris Inn on campus — home to the Irish for the next three weeks. There, he flipped on Netflix in his own room, collapsed onto the king-size bed and did something that’s almost second-nature to guys from his part of the country.

He chilled.

The fall semester concluded with two difficult weeks for the Irish men's basketball team. Not only were they expected to run the usual gauntlet of papers and projects leading into final exams, but they also faced their toughest basketball tests — games against top-ranked Villanova and No. 15 Purdue — in that same period.

By the end, all the work took a too. Even after the Irish finished with a grade-point average of 3.1 — highest since the 2009 spring semester — being a student and an athlete those two weeks was hard. Really hard.

“That was fun,” Pflueger said with a roll of his eyes. “It really does weigh on you and catches up on you when you’re stressed out for two weeks and going crazy (academically) right in the middle of your season.”

Notre Dame (10-2) lost second-half leads in both games for its only non-league losses. With those two big basketball tests and the classroom in the rear-view mirror, the Irish get three weeks to concentrate only on basketball.

After being on the daily grind of classes, practices, games and schoolwork for the better part of two months, it’s a welcome break. That’s why Pflueger fell into his bed on Christmas night and didn’t care when he might climb back out.

“This is one of the best things that could happen to a Notre Dame student-athlete,” he said. “There’s no class. You’ve got a big, comfy bed.

“It’s beautiful.”

Campus is closed for winter break until the third week of January. Players cannot return to their dorms for anything, not even their toothbrushes. From now until then, they’re living sort of an NBA lifestyle out of their UnderArmour travel bags. It’s all ball.

“When they can just be hoops guys, we can concentrate and just get better,” said coach Mike Brey.

The first few days are an adjustment. Freshman guard T.J. Gibbs still stops himself from wanting to reach for his book bag and knock out his next assignment. There are none. When he steps outside to head over to Purcell Pavilion for a workout session or practice, which he now can do at any time of day or night, it feels a little spooky. No one's around.

“Walking around campus is like a ghost town,” he said. “It’s fun that no one’s here. We get a lot of time together and it forces us to hang out with each other.

“If you don’t want to be alone, it’s your teammates or nothing.”

The Irish gather as a group for dinner. On Monday, they planned a trip to the movies. Gibbs wanted to see Fences, the new Denzel Washington movie. Some of his teammates suggested Moana.

“This is a fun time for us,” said junior guard Matt Farrell. “It’s just us here.”

Basketball-wise, there’s plenty on the schedule this week to keep No. 24 Notre Dame busy. The Irish wrap non-conference play Wednesday at home against Saint Peter’s (5-6). Saturday brings the season’s first true road game — and Atlantic Coast Conference opener — with a New Year’s Eve visit to Pittsburgh.

It would be easy to look past the Peacocks and focus only on the Panthers, but the Irish know better. Knowing they have to be a whole lot better than they were before leaving for Christmas break prohibits anyone from thinking ACC. There’s still a lot to fix today before worrying about tomorrow.

Notre Dame committed a season-high 14 turnovers in a 15-point victory on Dec. 19 over Colgate. The game was sluggish in spurts, sloppy at others. Getting out of town and home the next day was good for all, but the get-away game left them feeling they have plenty to prove before league play commences.

Wednesday gives the Irish a chance to be better. For them, league play starts with Saint Peter’s. Who is Notre Dame going to be over the next three months? The Irish can start to show it.

“Our attention to detail has to be at an all-time high this week,” said Pflueger, who’s played 210 minutes over 11 games without a turnover. “We had some great mojo when we were winning our first nine games. We had great mojo in the first two halves of the games we lost.

“We need to get back to that.”

Sunday was a good start. Despite everyone traveling back to campus, the Irish held as solid a session as they’ve had in weeks. Players seemed refreshed by the break, and ready to focus on the grind that awaits.

It really starts Wednesday.

“We’ve got to get after it again,” Gibbs said. “We’ve got to get back into character, get back to us.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: No. 24 Notre Dame (10-2) vs. Saint Peter’s (5-6).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Plenty available.

TV: None.

INTERNET: ACC Network Extra at WatchESPN.com

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: Quadir Welton scored 17 points with 14 rebounds, and Trevis Wyche added 20 points, three rebounds and two steals in a 65-58 victory Friday at St. Francis (N.Y.), which shot 30.5 percent from the field, 31 percent from 3. … The win snapped a three-game losing streak for the Peacocks, who are 1-3 on the road. … Saint Peter’s is a school of 3,500 students located in Jersey City, N.J. … The Peacocks return four starters off last year’s team that won six of their final eight to finish tied for fourth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference at 12-8, 14-16 overall. The Peacocks have never finished higher than fourth place in the league in the last 10 years. They won five games overall five years ago. … Saint Peter’s was picked this preseason to finish fourth in the MAAC. … Sophomore guard Cameron Jones, a cousin of former Irish swingman Torrian Jones, is sitting out this season as a redshirt. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series, 4-0. The teams have not met since an 85-67 Irish victory in South Bend on Dec. 31, 1999. … Saint Peter’s is averaging 65.6 points per game while shooting 39.9 percent from the field, 33.5 percent from 3 and 67.4 percent from the foul line, which ranks 230th nationally. … Notre Dame leads the nation in foul shooting at 85.6. The Irish rank in the top 10 nationally in six categories and lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in eight. … Notre Dame opens ACC play Saturday at Pittsburgh in its first true road game. That opens a stretch of three league games in eight days.

QUOTING: “They have the ability to lock in for a big one, and (Wednesday’s) a big one. We need some momentum as we get ready for the ACC season. We want to play well and get moving.”

• Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on his team.