Noie: Rare promise brings Notre Dame captain Rex Pflueger back to California roots

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Abasketball promise made over four years ago becomes a promise kept late Saturday night back in the state where it all started.

When Notre Dame coach Mike Brey sits in the homes of prospects during recruiting periods, he guarantees nothing to the player or his parents. He doesn’t talk specifics in terms of starting spots or minutes or even playing time. All he promises the kid is that if he chooses Notre Dame, he’ll have a chance to earn a quality education and become the best basketball player he can be.

That’s it.

When Brey recruited a certain senior captain from California in the late summer of 2014, he went off script. He talked in specifics. He made a promise.

It wasn’t extended after the prospect’s mother prepared a delicious home-cooked meal, one that Brey raved about Thursday. It wasn’t offered after the prospect’s father coaxed the coach to test drive his Tesla on the Pacific Coast Highway with former assistant Martin Ingelsby in the back seat, a memory that Brey smiled about Thursday. But at one point during the kid’s recruitment, a promise was made — if the player committed to Notre Dame, Brey would do his best to get him back to the Golden State for one regular-season game during his college career.

That game arrives Saturday when Notre Dame and guard Rex Pflueger visit one of the program’s storied rivals, UCLA, in a game that tips around 10:35 p.m. eastern time.

For Pflueger, it’s the first time he’ll play a regular-season game (on the mainland) west of Illinois. It will be his first and likely only game back in his native California.

“It means the world,” said Pflueger, a native of Dana Point. “To see this actually come about is amazing. I’m excited.”

Returning UCLA to the schedule after nearly 10 years away always was in the plans for Brey. The teams last played in 2009 and had tentative plans to meet again sooner, but the move to the Atlantic Coast Conference tapped the brakes on restarting the series. Once Pflueger committed, and once the Irish would have a few seasons to figure out the ACC, Brey circled back to the Bruins.

“That was a natural,” he said. “The timing of it worked out pretty good.”

Pflueger’s family purchased nearly 200 tickets for Saturday. Pflueger attended games at Pauley, about 60 miles from his home, while being recruited out of Mater Dei High School, but never played in one.

“It’s going to be a zoo,” Pflueger said of seeing his friends and family in the Pauley stands. “It’s going to be weird, man.”

Nothing about the lead-up to Saturday’s game was weird for Pflueger. On Thursday, it all seemed like just preparation for another road trip for Notre Dame (6-2). The Irish held an afternoon practice on the Purcell Pavilion main floor. They had a quick dinner. They boarded a bus for the airport, where their charter flight awaited. That’s when everything changed.

Typically, the Irish fly cramped 50-seat regional jets to road games. On Thursday, they upgraded to a roomy 737 with only 60 seats, a plane often reserved for professional sports teams. The plane taxied out and took off, but instead of going on its usual road routes to the south and east, it headed west.

Following a nearly five-hour flight, the Irish landed at LAX around 9:20 p.m. California time. The Irish practiced at Pauley at 9 a.m. California time. They had plenty of time before tip to get a head start on finals assignments or soak in their surroundings.

Pflueger knew what he wanted to do back home for the first time since June.

“I just want to relax, breathe in the fresh California air and get an In-N-Out burger in me,” he said.

He also wants to grab something before the charter flight returns to South Bend early Sunday morning — a win.

Thinking about all the fans he’ll have in the stands Saturday night should be easy for Pflueger to ignore. Forget them. Forget the homecoming. Forget being back in Cali for a few days. He and the Irish need a bounce-back effort coming clear of Tuesday’s near-miss against Oklahoma at Madison Square Garden.

Pflueger did a little of everything that night — six assists, six rebounds, three steals — but he’ll likely be remembered for missing two free throws in the closing seconds with the Irish down three.

Could he be feeling a squeeze of being an old guy and having to do too much on a young team?

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Pflueger said. “I’ve just been working on getting my guys ready and making sure they know that this season’s going to be a process for us.

“We all need to buy in and stay focused and make sure that we stay level.”

Pflueger’s final season has been uneven eight games in. He’s had high moments — a career-high 20 points in the Nov. 24 win over DePaul. Ironically, that was one of the few games his parents, Russell and Rebecca, did not attend in person. He’s had low ones — Tuesday’s two misses and other games where he’s turned it over, missed shots or just hasn’t played like a senior. Pflueger hears the rumblings that maybe his role should be reduced. Hears that maybe he’s playing too many minutes (30.3) and not offering enough to warrant that much time. Hears that maybe the young Irish might be better off without one of the old guys for longer stretches.

He understands the frustration. Pflueger leads the Irish in assists (29) and steals (14) but he’s also frustrated with what he’s done to date.

“It’s not near anywhere what I expect from myself,” he said. “I believe I’ve done the little things that a lot of people who know basketball would appreciate.

“I just gotta trust the process and keep playing my game.”

That’s a promise.

Saturday’s game at UCLA means a little more for Notre Dame senior guard Rex Pflueger.

WHO: Notre Dame (6-2) vs. UCLA (6-2).

WHERE: Pauley Pavilion (13,800), Los Angeles

WHEN: Saturday at 10:30 p.m. (South Bend time).

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

MEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: UCLA has been idle since Sunday’s 82-58 home victory over Loyola Marymount. Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes each scored 17 points for the Bruins, who finished with 40 points in the paint. … UCLA’s losses are to No. 10 Michigan State (87-67) and No. 14 North Carolina (94-78), both in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving weekend. … UCLA returns two starters off last year’s team that finished 21-12, 11-7 and tied for third in the Pac 12. … The Bruins were picked this year in a preseason media poll to finish second in the Pac 12 behind Oregon. … UCLA averages 83.6 points per game and allows 71.8. … The Bruins have lost two freshmen — guard Tyger Campbell (knee), who played at LaLumiere School in LaPorte, and Shareef O’Neal (heart), Shaquille’s son - to season-ending injuries. … UCLA leads the all-time series 28-20, 17-7 at Pauley Pavilion. … Bruins coach Steve Alford is 0-1 against Notre Dame with the lone game coming when he was at New Mexico in the 2009 postseason NIT. … This is the first game of a two-game series between the teams, who haven’t met since an 84-73 Irish victory in South Bend on Dec. 19, 2009. These teams play next season at Purcell Pavilion. … This is Notre Dame’s first visit to Pauley Pavilion since an 89-63 loss on Feb. 7, 2009. The Irish last won at Pauley on Feb. 8, 2004.

QUOTING: “It’s one of those places where you aspire to go, but one you also aspire to beat.” — Notre Dame guard and California native Rex Pflueger on UCLA.

“I just want to relax, breathe in the fresh California air and get an In-N-Out burger in me."

Notre Dame's Rex Pflueger, on returning to his home state