Noie: Return of Matt Farrell would be the basketball boost Notre Dame really needs

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Ground down by a trio of trying Atlantic Coast Conference contests over eight days, a short-handed and still simmering Notre Dame men’s basketball team needs an extra shot of something.

Soon.

That adrenaline/energy elixir should surface Tuesday with the return of senior guard Matt Farrell. The captain missed the last three and a half games while recovering from a sprained left ankle suffered late in the first half Jan. 3 against North Carolina State.

Irish coach Mike Brey said that Farrell did a little work in practice Sunday and was expected to do even more live and transition work Monday. Brey believes that Farrell remains a game-time decision for a must-get home game against Louisville (13-4; 3-1).

But there really isn't a decision. Not at this point. Not for this team.

“It’s time for him to come back,” said Brey, whose team is 1-2 in the three full games they’ve played without their second-leading scorer (15.9) and leader in assists (5.0). “I feel good about it. We're trending the right way. We have done a heck of a job without him, but we need him.

“We need that now.”

Notre Dame (13-5; 3-2 ACC) needed him against the defending national champions. The Irish offense again went through stretches where open shots didn’t fall and points were tough to produce. Brey admitted to holding “negotiations” with Farrell earlier Saturday in the training room about his role. Knowing that there now are only 14 guaranteed games left in his collegiate career, Farrell felt good enough to give it a go.

“It feels better,” he said late last week.

Brey stressed caution. Maybe even pleaded with his point guard to consider it. Brey guessed that Farrell is at about 75-80 percent back to full strength. He might not be 100 percent until sometime after the team’s bye week, still five days out. But what he and the Irish didn’t need Saturday — win or lose — was a setback that might shelve him for two more weeks.

Brey convinced Farrell, who had not practiced since the injury, to watch for one more game.

“After thinking about it, I think he knew that’s what was best for him,” Brey said.

What’s best now for all involved is to have Farrell go from cheerleader to ringleader. This team needs his confidence. Needs his swagger. Nobody needs it more than fellow starting guard T.J. Gibbs.

Gibbs stepped into the lead-guard shoes in Farrell’s absence. He even earned a league player of the week honor. But the sophomore also learned about life as a main guy — score, lead, move the ball. And do it every single minute of every single game. It’s stressful. And exhausting. It’s something Gibbs was preparing to do — next season.

For Gibbs to be good, he has to have Farrell.

“Getting him back gives me more confidence,” Gibbs said. “It gives the team more confidence and just knowing that he’s a calm factor out there and we can really feed off him.

“I can’t wait to feed off his energy Tuesday.”

The Irish have searched for ways to flow without Farrell. They tried three starting lineup combinations. Elijah Burns and Austin Torres offered defense and rebounding in their single starts, but not as much offense. John Mooney delivered a little of both against North Carolina. But when the Tar Heels went small, the Irish countered with sophomore guard Nikola Djogo. He responded with career highs for points (12) and minutes (25).

Farrell’s return might most benefit the Irish in an area they’ve historically been so good, but not nearly good enough of late. That would be late-game situations.

Over the combined final 9:18 of losses to Georgia Tech and North Carolina, Notre Dame went 0-for-14 from the floor with four turnovers while outscored 16-2. Notre Dame trailed Georgia Tech by three with 3:20 remaining. The Irish then missed their last five shots in a seven-point loss. On Saturday, Notre Dame led Carolina by six, 66-60, with 5:58 remaining following consecutive 3-pointers from Djogo. Nine missed shots and four turnovers later, it was handed a 69-68 loss.

“Sometimes,” Djogo said of the late-game struggles, “it just doesn’t go your way.”

Having Farrell back at the controls can help with that. A lot.

“It will facilitate the offense a little more,” said power forward Martinas Geben. “T.J. won’t have to be the only one creating most of the stuff. He’ll be able to get a break and not be run down the whole game.”

Saturday’s near-miss left everyone in the Irish locker room seething. The players were upset at having competed again for 40 minutes but with only another loss to show for it. They felt they gave one away. Brey counseled his club to stay angry for two days, then unleash the aggravation Tuesday. It was one of those soul-crushing, gut-wrenching losses that the ACC is known to deliver, but Brey knew a way he could feel better sooner than later.

“Watching Matt Farrell go up and down with the ball (Sunday),” he said. “That will bring me back to life a little bit.”

Same for Notre Dame.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (13-5; 3-2 ACC) vs. Louisville (13-4; 3-1).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Tuesday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: ESPN2.

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: Deng Adel scored a career-high 27 points and Quentin Snider added 19 on Saturday as Louisville beat Virginia Tech, 94-86. … Louisville has won its last two league games, including a victory at Florida State, which snapped the Seminoles' 28-game home win streak. … The Cardinals return two starters off last season’s squad that finished 25-9 overall, 12-6 and tied for second place in the ACC. … Louisville was picked this preseason to finish fifth in the ACC. The Cardinals were ranked earlier this year as high as 16th in the Associated Press poll. … Louisville leads the all-time series 22-14. The Irish have won three of four as ACC colleagues. … The Cardinals have not won in South Bend since an 85-82 overtime victory on Feb. 26, 1994. … Notre Dame ranks second in the ACC in conference games for rebounding margin (+7.8) but is last in the league in field goal percentage (38.0) percent and ninth for 3-point field goal percentage (33.4). … The Irish have outrebounded six of their last seven opponents by an average of (+9.8) per game.

QUOTING: “I’d be lying if I said that everybody’s not giving their best effort. Everybody is playing their butts off.”

-Notre Dame senior power forward Martinas Geben.