Noie: Captains can't leave, but Elijah Burns did for Notre Dame men's basketball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

{child_flags:featured}INTERESTING DAY

{child_byline}By Tom Noie

South Bend Tribune{/child_byline}

{child_flags:featured}INTERESTING DAY

{child_byline}By Tom Noie

South Bend Tribune{/child_byline}

SOUTH BEND — It couldn’t be good news. It never is when someone with knowledge about the inner workings of the Notre Dame men’s basketball program reaches out at that hour.

The text arrived Tuesday at 8:09 a.m.

“You up yet?”


Something happened. Something bad. An illness. An injury. A suspension. Something that would rattle the Notre Dame rotation for Tuesday’s game (against Duquesne, a 67-56 win) in the final round of the Gotham Classic. Whatever it was, it had to be serious. But the college basketball season barely is two weeks old. Everything still is so fresh and new and somewhat exciting for anything to go this far south and be this serious so soon.

But serious and south it slipped for senior power forward Elijah Burns.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Notre Dame announced that Burns, a tri-captain, one of its steadiest and strongest voices, one of the good guys in a program often filled with them, left the team. Effective immediately. Played Saturday, gone Tuesday.

“That’s one of my brothers, not just for basketball, but for life,” said senior captain Rex Pflueger. “We just wish him all the best. As much as it’s going to hut having him gone, we’ve got to move forward as a team.”

The news wasn’t a surprise, except that it was. Like so many players at so many schools at all levels of college basketball, Burns wants to play more than he was playing at Notre Dame (11.3 mpg.). He probably envisioned more points (5.3 ppg.), more rebounds (3.8 rpg.), more of a defined role. Those stats, however minimal, were career bests. It was a step, however small, for him so early in the year.

Burns also had one role and one responsibility that often superseded anything he did on the floor.

He was a tri-captain. A team leader. A voice of reason in good times and in bad. There were both, for him and for the Irish, four games in. But captains can’t bail on their buddies, his “brothers” as Burns referred to them Tuesday night in a Twitter post.

Instead of battling any negative thoughts and finding the positive, he decided to ditch it all and just go. Start over somewhere else. That’s never happened — a captain leaving before Thanksgiving — during coach Mike Brey’s tenure. Maybe in the entire program history.

“I give him a lot of credit, man,” Pflueger said. “He realized it was his time that he should go. It’s nothing personal against the team, against the coaching staff or anything. He just thought it would be the best thing for him if he left.

“It’s a difficult time, but you’ve just got to keep moving.”

Burns did not respond to messages left on his cell phone. Brey addressed the situation following Tuesday’s game.

“We’re in a total youth movement,” he said. “In a lot of ways, that’s why Elijah left us. The youth movement is committed to.”

Burns knew it. Saw it. Felt it was time to go. Now.

“I was disappointed,” said Brey, who pointed out that he’s lost only nine players in 19 years to transfer. “I don’t like losing guys. But he is going to graduate.”

Burns’ departure, Brey pointed out more than once Tuesday, opens the door more for power forwards Juwan Durham and Nate Laszewski. That, right now, for this program, means more than trying to find more minutes for Burns. Brey asked Burns to think about finishing the semester and then leave. Burns declined.

“He said, ‘Coach, I just don’t want to be a bad influence. I don’t know if I’m in with both feet,’” Brey said. “I said, I respect that.”

There’s accountability on both sides on why this didn’t work when it should have worked. Burns wasn’t a guy at the end of the bench. If that was the case, the transfer is understandable. But he was one of three main voices. A lot of times, the main voice. Guys like that don’t usually leave. Like, ever.

“He probably wanted more of a role,” Brey said. “When I can’t get the role a guy wants, probably best to move in a different direction.”

Brey likely misread Burns’ buy-in when he named him a captain in October. He believed that Burns would stay steady through any shakiness, which was sure to surface this season. Burns’ actions this week contradict his words of last. Following a career-high 15 points in 17 minutes 11 days ago against Chicago State, Burns deflected any praise about his work. It wasn’t about him, he insisted. It wasn’t about all of his points or even his tomahawk dunk. It wasn’t about any of that other stuff.

What it was about, Burns stressed, was the team. Doing whatever it takes for everyone to succeed. It wasn’t about me, it was about us.

Tuesday, it was about him.

Burns’ effort against Chicago State boosted him back into the starting lineup, but only for a game. Burns played 12 scoreless minutes in last week’s loss to Radford, then was a rotation afterthought (no points in four reserve-role minutes) in Saturday’s win over William & Mary.

Those last two games apparently were enough for Burns, but should they have been? Also after the Chicago State game, Burns touched on the mixing and matching in the Irish rotation. How guys were in the starting lineup one day, fighting for minutes the next.

Burns said he loved everything about it.

“I think it’s great for competition and it’s great for confidence,” he said. “You know you’re going to get an opportunity if you have a good week of practice. It keeps us together.”

That Burns hit the reset button on his collegiate career is no surprise. Guys get unhappy; guys leave. Having sat out his freshman year in 2015-16 to preserve a season of eligibility, Burns never really could get any traction on his game at Notre Dame. It went a different direction when he underwent microfracture ankle surgery in March of his senior year of high school. That robbed him of any explosiveness at the rim, but Notre Dame stayed with him. Believed in him.

Burns had two full seasons of eligibility remaining at the start of the season. On track to graduate in December, Burns could petition the NCAA for immediate eligibility and play elsewhere at the start of the spring semester. He’ll have his degree. He’ll have options.

But he could have stuck it out this season, embraced his role as a captain, served as a mentor for the young guys, then moved on and played next year wherever he wanted. He still would’ve had options.

Burns leaves having finished his degree and that’s important. Paramount, really. But he also leaves with basketball business forever unfinished. That’s unfortunate.

“I want kids to have a great basketball experience,” Brey said. “We’re not undefeated in that area, but most guys have. I always feel like I failed when a guy leaves us.”


At Purcell Pavilion

DUQUESNE (3-1): Weathers 4-10 0-0 8, M.Hughes 4-6 2-2 10, Williams 1-11 2-4 5, Carry 0-5 0-0 0, Lewis 2-5 1-1 5, Rotroff 2-4 0-0 4, Kelly 1-1 0-0 2, Dunn-Martin 5-8 1-1 14, F.Hughes 2-9 0-0 6, Norman 0-1 2-2 2, Wade 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-60 8-10 56.<

NOTRE DAME (4-1): Mooney 5-8 6-6 16, Gibbs 2-8 6-10 11, Hubb 5-10 1-2 14, Pflueger 2-6 2-2 7, Harvey 1-6 0-0 3, Durham 2-3 0-0 4, Laszewski 2-8 0-0 4, Carmody 0-3 0-0 0, Goodwin 3-7 1-1 8. Totals 22-59 16-21 67.<

Halftime—Notre Dame 33-27. 3-Point Goals—Duquesne 6-27 (Dunn-Martin 3-4, F.Hughes 2-8, Williams 1-7, Rotroff 0-1, Norman 0-1, Weathers 0-2, Carry 0-2, Lewis 0-2), Notre Dame 7-24 (Hubb 3-6, Goodwin 1-2, Harvey 1-3, Gibbs 1-4, Pflueger 1-5, Laszewski 0-4). Fouled Out—M.Hughes. Rebounds—Duquesne 29 (Williams 9), Notre Dame 37 (Mooney 10). Assists—Duquesne 11 (Dunn-Martin 3), Notre Dame 15 (Gibbs 4). Total Fouls—Duquesne 20, Notre Dame 12. A—6,161 (9,149).




Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame’s Dane Goodwin goes up for a shot as Duquesne’s Eric Williams Jr. defends during Tuesday at Purcell Pavilion.
Notre Dame men’s basketball senior tri-captain Elijah Burns abruptly left the team on Tuesday.
Notre Dame’s Prentiss Hubb (3) drives to the basket as Duquesne’s Tavian Dunn-Martin Tuesday night at Purcell Pavilion.