Noie: Notre Dame's Rex Pflueger goes with more serious hoops approach

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

{child_flags:featured}DUDE LOOKS DIFFERENT

{child_byline}By Tom Noie

South Bend Tribune{/child_byline}

You step into the gym for the first summer pickup session for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, do a mental rundown of the roster and are struck by the sight of someone you should recognize but don’t.

Who is that guy? The one right there in The Pit just off the free throw line. He looks familiar…. Still, nothing clicks. Then the form of his jumper offers an answer, but is that really senior guard Rex Pflueger? He looks so different. So….different.

A few hours up the freeway from Pflueger’s home in Dana Point, Calif., sits a place where looks are everything. For the first three years of his collegiate career, Pflueger cultivated that textbook Hollywood image of a Southern California kid. He was the surfer guy. The way he wore his hair, with just the right amount of product mixed in before games to give it that extra style. His easy-going disposition. His ever-present smile and clean-shaven face. The dude just chilled.

But a guy who once looked ready to catch the next wave rolling in off the Pacific Ocean now looks like someone ready to go in a back-alley brawl. Or late night along Eddy Street Commons.

The bleach-blond salad is gone, replaced by a close crop of hair on top and shaved short on the sides. Pflueger has some whiskers above and around his upper lip. Another patch around his chin. It makes his blue eyes look icy. Menacing. Serious. Really serious. Like, don’t mess with me or I’ll mess you up serious.

Seriously.

First time the 6-foot-6, 206-pound Pflueger walked into his parents’ Orange County home with the new look, it took his mother, Rebecca by surprise. She said it made her youngest son look downright mean. First time his father, Russell, saw Pflueger, they were meeting at the gym. The father looked right at the son, then looked the other way. Didn’t recognize him.

I was like, ‘Yo, pops!” Pflueger said with a laugh.

So, about the look?

“It’s more serious,” Pflueger said Thursday afternoon while still his usual chill self in an empty Purcell Pavilion. “I wanted to not necessarily change my image, but redefine it. Everybody’s always known me as surfer guy with blond hair from California. I thought, maybe I’ll do something different my senior year.”

So, again, about the look?

“I guess you say that it’s maturing. While my look is maturing, so is my game.”

That it is. Last year, Pflueger was a starter. A main guy. A major-minute contributor. But he often took a leadership back seat to the seniors. When it was time to answer questions that maybe he didn’t want to answer, Pflueger chose not to. He let Bonzie Colson and Martinas Geben and Matt Farrell and Austin Torres handle that heavy lifting. He was fine being in the background.

Not anymore. As the program’s lone fourth-year senior, Pflueger understands the responsibilities that come with it. They’re massive, all-consuming and never ending. It starts with choosing sides for the nightly pickup games. It continues in the locker room, the weight room, the classroom, off the court. From here on out, until next spring, one voice has to be the strongest, most consistent every single day. For the veterans. For the five freshmen. For everyone.

Pflueger’s.

“I’m ready to take that leadership role,” he said. “I’m ready to be the voice of this team, on and off the court.”

A broken body

Injuries hammered the Irish last season, and Pflueger wasn’t spared. While the cracked left foot of Colson and the sprained/bone bruised left ankle of Farrell got most of the attention, Pflueger quietly wrestled with persistent pain. Even when he limped out of the locker room with a half-dozen ice bags strapped to various areas after the late-February win at Wake Forest, Pflueger downplayed his deteriorated health. He insisted he was fine. All was good. But he wasn’t. It wasn’t.

A foot throbbed. A knee ached. His back balked. His hand hurt. He was a mess. Pflueger finished the season with career highs for games started (35), minutes (1,153), points per game (8.0), rebounds per game (4.3), assists (112) and steals (37). But he also had career low percentages from the field (35.8) and from 3 (31.7). He heard the constant shouts from the stands — SHOOT!! But he couldn’t do it with any confidence. He couldn’t drive it with any definitive determination. His body wouldn’t let him. Looking back, he ponders whether he should have sat out more than the one game he did miss. But when he was in that moment, no matter how much he ached, Pflueger had only one thought.

“If I can play,” he said, “I’ll play.”

So he played through everything. After the season ended on Saint Patrick’s Day with the home loss to Penn State in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament, the Irish medical staff took a look at him, and the serious bone bruise to his left knee suffered in a frightening fall against Virginia Tech in late January, and shut down Pflueger from all basketball-related activities until June 1.

Other than form shooting and dribbling and the occasional lift, Pflueger did little hoops for two-plus months. He finished the spring semester, went home to California and worked a 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. job five days a week as part of a sports agency internship with Athletes First. It was the longest he’d gone without a regimented workout routine since middle school. He had grown so used to living and breathing the game that something didn’t seem right.

He put basketball on the back burner until he returned to campus for summer school. That’s when he brought back his new look. and a renewed sense of purpose.

“This summer has been almost perfect for me,” he said. “I was able to free my mind and relax and understand that basketball’s not going to last forever. This is the healthiest that my body’s been since I can’t even remember.”

Pain still remains. Not in his body, but in his mind. He lived a charmed life his first two years at Notre Dame as part of NCAA tournament teams. He was featured both seasons in the tournament’s “One Shining Moment” video. It reached a point where playing in the NCAA tournament was supposed to happen.

Then last season happened. Pflueger was in the library on Selection Sunday afternoon when his father called with the gut punch that Davidson upset Rhode Island to snag an automatic bid as the Atlantic 10 championship.

They just took your spot, Pflueger’s father insisted.

Hours later, it was confirmed that Notre Dame indeed would have been the last team into the field of 68 had it not been for Davidson. The Irish never really recovered.

“It ripped our will away a little bit,” Pflueger said. “We’re still not over it.”

Pflueger plans to use that memory as motivation this season. His final season. Though he stayed away from basketball for a few months, he stayed plugged in on what was said about Notre Dame. No Colson. No Farrell. No chance at a preseason ranking. No early projection for the NCAA tournament. Likely picked in preseason as the No. 10 or 11 team in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference.

That’s fine with Pflueger, who will have the chance in Charlotte at ACC media day to remind everyone come late October not to sleep on the Irish. Not this bunch.

“I hope everyone looks down on us because we’re going to show them that we’re a team not to be messed with,” Pflueger said. “You’ll see. It’s going to be something different.”

Just like Pflueger’s look.

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Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger played through a whole bunch of assorted injuries last season. He’s determined to do more than just fit in as a senior.