Noie: Forget five-way tie, Martinas Geben real MVP of Notre Dame men's basketball season

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

They got it wrong.

Not in a way that the decision last week by the Notre Dame men’s basketball coaching staff cost the program a top recruit or a key rotation player or a close Atlantic Coast Conference contest. Nothing that serious. But when the Irish gathered for their year-end awards evening to look back on a season that was and look ahead to a season that will be, the night’s top award, decided on by the staff, missed the mark.

The annual Notre Dame Monogram Club most valuable player award was presented to the Irish senior class. All five of them. First time that’s ever happened.

Admirable and understandable. And pretty cool. The group leaves the winningest in program history (103 victories). It went to three NCAA tournaments and won seven NCAA games. They appeared in two Elite Eights. They won eight ACC tournament games and twice played for an ACC tournament title.

The five are the last player links to that magical 2014-15 season when Notre Dame won 32 games, captured the school’s only ACC tournament championship and came within one win of the Final Four for the first time since 1978.

Nothing against former walk-on Matt Gregory or graduate student Austin Torres, who did most of their work behind the scenes. Nothing against power forward Bonzie Colson, who earned MVP last season but missed 15 games his final year with a broken left foot. Had he remained healthy, he likely would have won it again. Easily. Nothing against point guard Matt Farrell, who missed five games with ankle issues. Had he stayed healthy after Colson was hurt, he likely he would have earned MVP. Easily.

All four were solid program guys whose careers were first class in every sense.

But …

The MVP was senior power forward Martinas Geben. It wasn’t close.

Geben was one of two Irish to start all 36 games. He posted career-best averages for points (11.1), rebounds (8.0) and minutes played (24.8). He shot .606 from the field, .850 from the foul line. Of the 22 career games that he scored double figures, 20 surfaced this season. All six of his career double doubles for points and rebounds arrived this year.

Geben played more minutes this year (891) than his first three combined (663). He scored more points this year (400) and grabbed more rebounds (281) than his first three combined (both 165).

“Martin is a model of guys getting better here,” said coach Mike Brey. “A great kid. He became a great captain. He got the total Notre Dame experience.”

Geben’s work earned him team most improved player honors, but he was more than that. He was the team’s best/most reliable/healthiest/steadiest player from start to finish.

Last summer, Geben vowed to play well enough so as to not look back on 2017-18 with any sort of couldas, shouldas or wouldas. He wanted to finish his collegiate career knowing that he’d done all he could and had nothing left to give.

Then he did.

“This past year was almost everything that I had hoped it would be,” Geben said. “I have no regrets; I’m at peace with my time here.”

Nobody saw this season coming from Geben. Nothing he showed during his first three seasons — he contemplated a transfer two years in because his role was so uncertain— gave any indication that Geben would become one of the best big men in a conference crowded with them.

Geben was at his best when the Irish really needed him. Forget stepping to the foul line with 2.3 seconds remaining and the Irish down by one before connecting on two free throws to beat then-No. 5 Wichita State and win the Maui Jim Maui Classic. Heck, that was easy. Colson was healthy. Farrell was healthy. Geben arguably was the fifth option among the starting five. There was zero pressure and even fewer expectations.

But when Colson and Farrell were lost to injury basically within 24 hours during the same early-January week, Geben became a main guy who had to deliver every night.

“That’s when I had to lock in and be my best self for the team,” Geben said. “When the team needed it the most, I think I was able to show that I could play and be a rock.”

He was there in January (22 points, 17 rebounds in 42 minutes, all career highs, against Louisville), in February (22 points, 14 rebounds and five dunks at Wake Forest) and in March (14 points, 10 rebounds at Virginia).

Geben proved something to others with as solid a senior year as anyone the program’s had in recent seasons, but he also proved something to himself. His uneasy journey through the first three seasons soured him on the game. He didn’t like it. Didn’t care if it was in his future.

Not now. Playing at the professional level now is a very real option.

“The more opportunities I got to play (this season), the more I was able to fall in love with the game,” Geben said. “The more I want to continue to play and make a living out of it. I’m playing basketball and I’m committed to that.”

Last week wrapped with Geben one of 64 NBA hopefuls to audition for pro scouts at the annual Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational Tournament. From there, he’ll await word on a possible invitation to the NBA draft combine. He might get a chance to showcase his skills in the NBA summer league. The Lithuania native also will look hard at returning to Europe.

“My door’s open in a lot of places,” Geben said.

But the one at Notre Dame has closed. It shut after Geben played his best basketball. After he delivered when the Irish really needed him. After he played like an MVP.

“It’s unreal to think that the journey’s come to an end,” he said. “I did my best. I left it all out there. It showed.”

It did.

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Former Notre Dame power forward Martinas Geben wanted to have a senior season so good in 2017-18 that he wouldn't have any regrets when it ended. He did and doesn't. (AP File Photo/JULIE JACOBSON)