Notre Dame sophomore Matt Ryan plays rotation waiting game

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Alone with a ball and a basket and his thoughts on the Purcell Pavilion arena floor earlier this week, Notre Dame sophomore forward Matt Ryan quietly made sweet-spot shots.

A 3-pointer fell from one corner. Then the other. The right wing. The left. Up top. Thirty minutes before practice commenced in preparation for Thursday’s Atlantic Coast Conference game at Miami (Fla.), Ryan already was feeling good about his stroke.

That’s nothing new. Whether he’s on the floor in a game or on the bench waiting his turn, he’s always confident.

“I feel like every game I can go on the court and score 20 points,” Ryan said. “That’s just how I feel.”

Getting that chance with consistent game minutes is another story. Ryan has had to watch and wait more than shoot and score. It’s been a process. Often a tough one. That’s why on this day he was thinking a lot about the past. About one November night when it all fell into place. It helps him push through the present and stay focused on the future.

“I’ve been a little confused at times, definitely frustrated,” Ryan said. “That’s unfamiliar territory right now and definitely an adjustment for me.”

Everything went Ryan’s way on Nov. 26 in a home game against Chicago State. Checking in early in the first half, Ryan immediately did some serious damage against a team that sat back in a way-soft zone defense and refused to come out of it for anything. Or anybody.

Ryan connected on a quick 3-pointer. Then another. And another. And a couple more. He had five 3 in barely five minutes. Chicago State kept zoning; Ryan kept shooting. When he was done and the lopsided non-league game was over, Ryan made a personal-best seven 3s, three shy of the school record, and scored a career-high 23 points. He also had a season-best five rebounds.

It was supposed to be the start of something good. Instead, it was a just a snapshot.

Ryan remains the ninth man in a rotation that seldom stretches beyond eight. In Notre Dame’s first three ACC games, he’s scored three points on 1-of-5 from the floor in 12 minutes. Ryan averaged nearly four times his current league minutes – 15.1 – last season, when he averaged 5.6 points a game.

Ryan is averaging 5.4 points and 1.5 rebounds in 10.3 minutes this season. He’s shooting 46.8 percent from the floor and a team-best 47.3 percent (26-for-55) from 3. That would lead the ACC, but he hasn’t made enough 3s (minimum 2.0 per game) to qualify.

So he waits. And works.

As he did this week, Ryan occasionally steps back and thinks about that night against Chicago State when everything felt right. It keeps him motivated to find that feeling again. And again.

“It’s frustrating, but at the end of the day, the guys on the court are playing great basketball right now,” Ryan said. “It’s about being patient right now. It’s trust. Trust and patience.”

Patience in waiting for coach Mike Brey to call his name, trust that the coach will carve out enough trust in him and his game to find a flow.

Last week against Clemson, Ryan checked in and grabbed a defensive rebound. He made a 3. Here we go, he thought. He then gave Gabe DeVoe too much space on two possessions. That allowed DeVoe to get going from 3 and pushed Ryan back to the bench after only three minutes. He never returned.

Brey again talked afterward of needing to find Ryan more minutes. How can the Irish use him more? Can he deliver a batch of 3s like in the Chicago State game? Can he rebound like he did in six minutes at Pittsburgh when he used his 6-foot-7, 228-pound frame to secure a critical offensive rebound? Move the ball? Screen? Do more than just drop shots from distance?

“When he’s playing with a clear head, he’s not just hunting his shot,” Brey said. “We’ll continue to coach him there.”

Explanations for Ryan’s role are easy. He plays the same position as V.J. Beachem, who leads the team and is 10th in the league in minutes played (33.0). Seniority rules in the program. A senior captain is going to get more minutes with the trust of the head coach to do more than a sophomore. Every time.

Beachem’s been where Ryan is. He never averaged more than 14.6 minutes or more than 6.0 points his first two seasons. Ryan’s time will come.

“He’s sticking with it, keeping his mind in it,” Beachem said. “When you do that, it’s only a matter of time until the game follows.”

Ryan may get more of a work window Thursday when No. 20 Notre Dame (14-2; 3-0) opens the first of three straight league road games in South Florida. It could be a question of when, not if.

“Thursday night could be a night where he plays longer,” Brey said. “It’s a weapon that’s on my mind and you’re always trying to figure out how to use it.”

The middle of January the last two seasons has seen an Irish emerge from the shadows and step into a key rotation role. Two years ago Saturday, power forward Bonzie Colson started the second half of a win at Georgia Tech. He’s been a main man since. A year ago come Monday, Rex Pflueger delivered critical minutes at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the road win at Duke. The sophomore guard’s now critical to much the Irish do.

Might this be the month that Ryan takes that rotation step? He’s quietly grown his game while working in the shadows.

“My IQ’s at a different level now,” Ryan said. “I’ve been able to watch and understand the game a little more, which is cool.

“I’m just waiting to go off again.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: No. 20 Notre Dame (14-2; 3-0 ACC) vs. Miami (Fla.) (11-3; 1-1)

WHERE: Watsco Center (7,972), Coral Gables, Fla.

WHEN: Thursday at 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN.

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: Miami has been idle since a 70-55 loss at Syracuse on Jan. 4. Freshman guard D.J. Vasiljevic scored 18 points on six 3-pointers as the Hurricanes saw their seven-game win streak snapped. Miami finished 2-of-10 from the foul line. … Miami has won 21 straight home games — 8-0 this year after going 13-0 last season. … The Hurricanes, whose league win came against NC State, rank 13th in the league in scoring offense (73.6) and second in scoring defense (59.7). … No opponent has scored more than 73 points (Iowa State) against the Hurricanes this season. Notre Dame is sixth in the ACC in scoring offense at 82.3. … The Hurricanes are 14th in the ACC in 3-pointers made (6.43) and last in assist/turnover ratio (0.90). The Irish lead the league in both categories – 10.1 and 1.89. …Freshman guard Bruce Brown averages 10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He has two double doubles and one triple double. … Coach Jim Larranaga has 599 career victories. … Miami returns two starters off last year’s team that finished 23-8 overall, 13-5 and tied for second in the ACC. … The Hurricanes were picked this preseason to finish ninth in the league. … The series between the teams is tied 10-10. Miami swept the series last season … A win gives Notre Dame a 4-0 start in league play for the first time in school history.

QUOTING: “We owe Miami. They were grown men on the court, what they did to us last year. They smacked us.”

• Notre Dame sophomore forward Matt Ryan