Lesar: Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell measures up with ACC's best

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Anyone who has ever played in a 6-foot-and-under recreational basketball league can appreciate Matt Farrell.

Notre Dame’s junior point guard is generously listed at 6-foot-1.

“I’m 6-1 with shoes on,” said Farrell, though he didn’t say how big the shoes were. “I’m going to say that ‘til I die.”

More significantly, he is out there, playing in the best league in the country, representing every little guy who never measured up.

“It’s not about height,” said 6-5 Irish inside presence Bonzie Colson. “It’s about heart.”

He’s sneaky at times. A pest to the other team. Bold. And often, downright elusive.

Saturday he collected 15 points and nine assists, and was instrumental in leading the Irish beyond that Orange mental block, beating Syracuse for the first time as ACC members, 84-66.

He missed a double-double when a late alley-oop to Rex Pflueger didn’t connect: “That’s on me,” Farrell said. “It was a bad pass. We were planning that. It was open. It could have been a better pass." 

The last few years, the suffocating nature of the dreaded Syracuse 2-3 zone defense was enough to intimidate the Irish before they even stepped on the floor. Broken down to its basics Saturday, it was obvious the tactic was quite mortal, even pedestrian.

Finding ways to beat it hardly took divine intervention.

“The big thing for me today was to get the ball to the free throw line,” Farrell said, referring to a pass to a player posting up. “We’d get them distorted. We did a good job driving and getting in there.

“You can’t be intimidated. We’re confident in what we do. If we could get it to the free throw line, that would force one guy to try to defend two of us (who could shoot).”

“We had to attack that zone,” said Colson. “(Syracuse defenders) would be up on me on the high post. It caused them to make some choices.”

When the Orange didn’t choose to chase V.J. Beachem (30 points, 12-of-22 from the field, 6-of-10 from 3-point range), it was the wrong decision.

“It’s really easy to play with these guys,” said Farrell. “That helps me a lot. They know I’m going to find them. I tell them, ‘Find an open space, and I’ll find you.’

“I told V.J., ‘It’s your night, man. I’m looking for you. Shoot it when I get it to you.’ ”

He did.

But how can a little guy — basketball’s equivalent to a Smurf or a Munchkin — survive, and even flourish, in a game weighted heavily toward fellas who have trouble fitting into a normal airline seat.

“He’s got great speed,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “He’s got an unbelievable skill set. And, he’s got some cajones.”

Check the urban dictionary for an appropriate definition, but you get the idea.

Farrell’s confident. Brash. Fearless.

“(Farrell) is one of the most improved players I’ve seen come through this league,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who’s only been around the ACC four years, but he’s coaching 41 — long enough to know better. “The biggest thing is that he shoots the ball. He gets in the lane and we didn’t adjust very well. He’s a very, very good player.”

Like he does every game, Farrell got those shots off with big hands in his face and big bodies discouraging him from a clean look at the hoop. It might not look pretty all the time, but somehow, most of the time, he gets the shot off.

“I work on different finish moves at the rim all the time with (assistant coach Ryan Ayers),” said Farrell, who was 6-of-10 from the field (3-of-5 from 3-point range). “Growing up, I watched guys like (6-3) Steve Nash, even (5-9) Isaiah Thomas of the Celtics; how (Thomas) gets in the lane and how he finishes among the big guys.

“There’s stuff you’ve gotta work on.”

It’s just part of the deal for Farrell. The littlest guy on the floor has to work harder to carve his own niche.

A tall order for an ordinary guy.

Nobody, though, said Farrell was ordinary.

Notre Dame’s Matt Farrell (5) puts up a shot during the Syracuse at Notre Dame men's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA