Noie: Notre Dame guards T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pflueger get it

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

To understand how the leadership line of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team stayed straight and steady during five days of seemingly all-out crisis last week, jump back to one night last summer.

The Irish gathered in Rolfs Sports Recreation Center for their nightly pickup session. While guys got loose and shot hoops, senior captains Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell stood to the side and selected teams. Colson wanted this guy and that guy; Farrell countered with that guy and this guy.

Junior guard Rex Pflueger and sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs joined them. Colson and Farrell sought their input. Did they agree on the teams? Disagree? Their opinions mattered. Both would rotate into larger roles — starting roles — come the fall, and it was time for them to see what being main guys, being leaders in this program meant.

One day sooner than anyone expected, understanding it all would pay off. For Pflueger. For Gibbs. For the Irish.

Heading into Wednesday’s Atlantic Coast Conference rematch against Georgia Tech — the teams played 12 days ago in South Bend — Notre Dame (13-3; 3-0 ACC) remains without its two best players. Colson continues to recover from a broken left foot that will keep him out for at least eight weeks. Farrell pushed hard the last few days to return from a sprained left ankle that has seen him miss the last game and a half. It’s still not healthy enough, and might not be for Saturday’s game against North Carolina.

Into the massive leadership void have stepped Pflueger and Gibbs. It’s not something either figured to do this soon, but it’s something both know they have to. The old guys not only lead the young guys, they groom them for the day when they’re the old guys.

“We know it’s a line,” said Gibbs. “All the guys who’ve come before us, it’s a great lineage. You’re just trying to fit in. We learn from one another, know that when it’s our time to lead, to step up.”

That means watching Colson and Farrell over the summer. And before them, V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia. That means talking with former Irish Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson and Tory Jackson when they returned to campus. That means spending time with former guard Chris Thomas in Indianapolis last month. That means being ready when it’s time to step in and give the team some direction instead of wondering and worrying if you’re ready.

Pflueger and Gibbs have stepped in since the second half of last week’s win over North Carolina State. They’re ready.

“It just speaks to the maturity of our team as a collective group,” Pflueger said. “T.J. and I realize there are two captains out and a leadership role needed to be filled.”

The guards have delivered beyond anyone’s immediate expectations. Colson already was sidelined last week before Farrell turned his left ankle late in the first half against the Wolfpack. Losing the team’s top two scorers, top two voices, should have caused a lot of anxiety. Coach Mike Brey seldom saw it from Pflueger or from Gibbs.

The opposite was true.

Seeing two main guys go down gave them even more confidence. In their games. In their voices. In their abilities to show what they’ve learned. It was a situation where they said to themselves, to one another, to the team though their actions that, 'OK, this is the hand we’ve been dealt. Let’s play it. And let’s play.'

“The two of them are setting an amazing tone,” Brey said. “They love the challenge. They’re kind of like, ‘We lost our two best guys. All right. We’re pretty good too. We can do more, let’s do it.’

“It’s been neat to watch.”

And the loudest voices encouraging Gibbs and Pflueger to lead more and do more have been Colson and Farrell.

“Matty and Bonzie have been empowering them and telling them, ‘Man, it’s your show, run it,’” Brey said. “That’s really helped them.”

In the season's first 14 games with Colson and Farrell as lineup cornerstones, Gibbs averaged 14.1 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 35.3 minutes. Pflueger was at 8.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 32.6 minutes. In the last two, Gibbs’ averages have jumped to 20 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in 39 minutes. That included his first ACC player of the week honor. Pflueger’s have spiked to 14.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 35.5 minutes. That included the winning layup on the ultimate hustle play in Saturday’s improbable 51-49 victory at Syracuse. The score stunned a lot of folks around the ACC. Around college basketball. Not around the Irish locker room.

“I’m honestly not surprised,” Pflueger said. “I’m very confident in our group. We have a great group.”

One that gets it. Gets their roles. Losing Colson means the Irish lost someone who averages 15 shot attempts per game. Pflueger could have decided to gobble up those 15. But that’s not his style. He knew he had to do more than just score to offset the loss of Colson. Of Farrell. He has. He’s defended. He’s rebounded. He’s quarterbacked. And most importantly, he’s led.

“I want to do everything,” Pflueger said. “I want to affect all aspects of the game. Just go out there and make plays and get other people’s confidence going and get mine going as well.”

Same with Gibbs. With Colson and Farrell dominating the ball in the halfcourt, he often was left to float around the perimeter waving his arms and waiting for passes that often didn’t arrive. Now he’s become the guy who makes it all go. Did it well enough for the Irish to solve the Syracuse zone. Has to do it again Wednesday against Tech’s myriad defensive looks.

“Rex and T.J., they have just taken over this group,” Brey said. “Our two guards have been men just running this thing. They know they needed to lead and they’ve led and they’ve delivered in their play.”

It’s the way this program works.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (13-3; 3-0 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (8-7; 1-1).

WHERE: McCamish Pavilion (8,600), Atlanta.

WHEN: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

TV: ESPNU.

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: Jose Alvarado tied his career high with 23 points and Jos Okogie added 20 as Georgia Tech closed out non-conference play with a 74-60 victory Saturday at home against Yale. … The Yellow Jackets are 7-3 at home, including 1-0 in league play with the win over No. 18 Miami (Fla.). … Georgia Tech leads the all-time series 9-8; Notre Dame is 6-3 as an ACC colleague. The Yellow Jackets are 6-1 against the Irish in Atlanta. The four league matchups at McCamish — three of them Tech wins — have been decided by 11 or fewer points, including the last three by six. Notre Dame’s win was by three points on Jan. 14, 2015. … Notre Dame ranks second in the ACC in scoring defense (55.3) and first in rebounding margin (+12.3) in league games. The Irish finished non-league play ranked seventh in scoring defense (66.2) and second to last (14th) for rebounding margin (+0.9). … Notre Dame is 6-2 away from home this season. … Notre Dame plays three of its next four at home, starting Saturday against No. 20 North Carolina.

QUOTING: “We’re a new team right now. All eyes of the nation (are) on us saying we’re not going to do anything.”

-Notre Dame junior guard Rex Pflueger.