Noie: Guard T.J. Gibbs, Notre Dame stuck in neutral

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ND Insider

This was supposed to be the season that Notre Dame junior guard T.J. Gibbs showcased his skills as one of the premier players in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Forget good. Gibbs would be great, and right from the jump. This was his team. His time. He’d run with it. His teammates would follow his lead.

All that still could happen, but three games in, Gibbs and the Irish (2-1) are wandering around the college basketball wilderness instead of playing with purpose. He’s been more average than awesome for a team that lost at home to Radford. Gibbs was a non-factor. He made five of his 16 shots and was 0-for-7 from 3. Gibbs got a late look from 3 that would’ve sent the game to overtime. It wasn’t close.

Little has been for Gibbs. The more he plays, the more he presses. To be the leader that this team needs. To be the scorer that this team really needs. To be the player that he envisioned. He hasn’t played well; he hasn’t made the guys around him better. It’s like he plays with a constant thought bubble above his head that says ‘Gotta be the guy….gotta be the guy….gotta be the guy.’

Instead of being that guy, he’s just been kind of there. Some of it is him. Some of it is his teammates.

Heading into Saturday’s home game against William & Mary, where is Gibbs’ frustration level? Simmering? Building? Bubbling? Non-existent?

Gibbs pondered the question, then sighed. Then silence and then, an answer.

“I’m OK,” he said. “I know the tables are going to have to turn sometime. I have confidence in myself. I know the team has confidence in me.”

Gibbs hasn’t gotten his game into gear, but it’s not for a lack of effort. He isn’t one to show up a few minutes before practice and get some shots up to get loose. He doesn’t stroll out seconds before the team’s pre-game routine gets rolling. He’s serious about his situation. Maybe too serious. He’s putting in work. Maybe too much work.

Swing through Purcell Pavilion long before practice, and Gibbs already is in a full sweat working through his shot-taking and shot-making routine with assistant coach Ryan Ayers. Five makes from this spot. Five from there. He has to hit at least 100. Most shots look true the minute they leave his hand. Perfect form. Perfect rotation. Perfect everything.

Ninety minutes before games, the routine is repeated. More shots from more spots. Swish through his final few. Then his game feels true. Feels right. Feels ready.

But when it’s been time to play, a shot that looks so pretty before practice falls flat. Most look off the minute they leave his hand. Too rushed. Too heavy. Could he be putting in too much work? Not saving a few shots for when it really counts?

“I’ve had the same routine since I was a freshman,” Gibbs said. “It was working for me last year. I don’t think I need to change it.”

Perhaps, but that routine those first two years was then. This is now. Gibbs has to be a high-impact player and high-volume scorer for an Irish team that currently lacks high-impact players and high-volume scorers. Coach Mike Brey admitted earlier in the week that his best guard is pressing.

“He just takes it so hard,” Brey said. “Puts so much pressure on himself to be good.”

Gibbs was good last season when he averaged 15.3 points in a team-high 37.4 minutes. He’s not scored more than 11 the first three games. He’s averaging 10 points on 29.7 percent from the field, 13.1 percent (3-of-22) from 3.

In fairness, Gibbs hasn’t had a lot of help in the guard department. Fellow captain Rex Pflueger isn’t a threat, so that hurts. Freshman Prentiss Hubb still is trying to figure out how he fits. Brey had him in during crunch time Wednesday to help free up Gibbs. Didn’t work. That hurts too. Notre Dame has had zero inside presence. That also hurts. It makes guarding Gibbs easy and makes his job harder.

Brey’s long operated with the belief that if you’ve got good guards, you’ve got a chance to be really good. Notre Dame’s guards haven’t been good. At least, not yet.

Gibbs has played like he’s on an island. In many ways, he is.

“We know that we’re going to be OK,” he said. “Every game is a learning experience for us. It’s going to come. We just have to keep playing how we play.”

Not quite. The Irish have a lot of work to do in a lot of areas, be it rebounding, shot-making or just moving and cutting and sharing it and shooting. Maybe they get better as this moves forward. Maybe it becomes easier for Gibbs to get going.

For now, everything is just so darn difficult. Against good teams, even against the Radfords of the non-conference world, it’s rough to watch. Him. The Irish.

“I’ve had tough games before and I bounced back,” Gibbs said. “I believe in myself and I know I’m going to find my rhythm one day.”

Gibbs is due for a bust-out game. Saturday would be a good time for it. For him. For the Irish.

Notre Dame junior guard T.J. Gibbs has found it difficult to get in a flow three games into what he expected to be a bust-out season.

Gotham Classic

Third Round

WHO: Notre Dame (2-1) vs. William & Mary (1-2).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at noon.

TICKETS: Plenty available.

TV: ACCNetwork Extra (U.S. cable internet subscribers only; requires login from pay television provider to access content).

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

MEN'S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Junior guard Matt Milon, a transfer from Boston College, scored a career-high 30 points and junior swingman Justin Pierce added 25 points and 11 rebounds in a 100-95 overtime loss Thursday at UIC. The game featured 13 ties and 13 lead changes. … William & Mary is the winningest team in the Colonial Athletic Association the last six seasons with 97 victories. … The Tribe was picked this preseason to finish fourth in the 10-team league. … William & Mary returns three starters off last year’s team that finished 19-12, 11-7 and fourth in the CAA. The Tribe led the nation in 3-point shooting (43.4 percent) and foul shooting (81 percent). They were second in field goal percentage (51.1) and fourth in scoring offense (85.0). … William & Mary currently averages 81.3 points per game and allows 84.3. … Notre Dame ranks third nationally in foul shooting (85.1 percent). After going 36-of-38 from the line in the opener against UIC, Notre Dame is a combined 21-of-29 the last two games. … Coming off Wednesday’s home loss to Radford, Notre Dame looks to avoid dropping consecutive November home games for the first time in school history.

QUOTING: “We still are learning to kind of figure each other out. It’s going to come. It’s right there. We can feel it every game. We’re growing.”

• Notre Dame junior guard T.J. Gibbs