Noie: Where did the game of Notre Dame guard T.J. Gibbs go?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Someone somewhere always was there to show the way if Notre Dame junior guard T.J. Gibbs lost his.

Back in high school, Gibbs could lean on a family that includes a pair of older brothers who played college basketball. Freshman year at Notre Dame, it was then-senior captains V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia.

Last year, it was then-senior captains Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell and Martinas Geben. Anytime Gibbs strayed, someone would steer him back on course. Now they’re not there, and neither has been Gibbs.

His game, his mind, this season, it’s all drifted away.

Wanting so badly to be the guy, but not knowing how to be the guy, Gibbs puts more pressure on himself than on opposing defenses. The one player who often was at the top of other teams’ scouting report before the emergence of classmate John Mooney has seen his game bottom out.

Shooting career lows from the field (.344) and foul line (.736), Gibbs can’t get his game in a good gear. He’s averaging 13.1 points per game, but that’s a quiet 13.1. Whisper quiet.

The more he thinks about his struggles, the more he presses. The more he presses, the more he thinks about his struggles.

Around and around it goes. He goes.

It’s been a dizzying and disappointing cycle, and a key reason why Notre Dame (12-11, 2-8 ACC) was tied for last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference when the weekend commenced. How can the Irish shake their struggles and win a league home game (Sunday against Georgia Tech, 11-12, 3-7) for only the second time this season? How can they salvage something from what’s nearing a lost season?

Gibbs said it best Friday — it starts at the top. No active Irish has played more career games (94) or played more minutes (2,657). It has to start with him. Anytime he wants to get his game going, go ahead.

In this program, a captain just can’t be a passenger on the train. He has to drive it. Gibbs hasn’t embraced taking the wheel the way he should.

“I’ve got to be more of a leader than I have been,” Gibbs said. “I need to start playing within myself more.”

Gibbs was shoved into the old-guy leadership spot by default. One senior captain, Elijah Burns, left the program after four games. Another, Rex Pflueger, suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-December.

That piled a lot of the in-game leadership on Gibbs. The burden’s been difficult. The first-time team captain hasn’t handled that heavy lifting very well. It’s a role he seemingly accepts, but one where he can’t seem to excel.

Stuck in a season-long slump where he drifted through games, Gibbs looked as if he had broken loose eight days ago at Boston College. He scored 19 points and played like the Gibbs of old. He drove it. He scored it. He had some swagger. The Gibbs everyone expected to see from the start, the guy set to make a run at all-league honors, seemingly had resurfaced.

Then came Wednesday’s game at Miami (Fla.), and he was gone again. Gibbs played 35 minutes, but really didn’t compete.

He took nine shots; he missed eight. He took six 3s; he made zero. Had it not been for a meaningless layup with 1:09 remaining in a contest that saw the Irish score 47 points and lose by 15, Gibbs would have gone scoreless for the first time since late in his freshman season.

Just when it seemed like Gibbs and the Irish couldn’t sink any lower, they did.

“He’s struggling,” said coach Mike Brey. “He’s really struggling.”

Gibbs continues to play a team-high 35 minutes per game. Why not sit him and watch a little more? Gibbs’ assist/turnover ratio (3.20) ranks second in the ACC. That means he needs to be on the floor. Maybe the next minute he is, the switch finally flips for good and Gibbs becomes Gibbs again.

Maybe.

Given where his game used to be and where it was expected to go, Gibbs has been difficult to watch. Part of the problem, he admitted Friday, was not being paired with a veteran guard like he was supposed to be this year with Pflueger. That was his guy. He misses him. Like last year with Farrell. That was his guy, too. He misses his fellow New Jersey guy. A lot.

“It made the game a lot easier for me,” he said.

Instead, Gibbs has made it hard. For himself and for the Irish. Rather than attack, he too often settles. A year ago, he attempted 154 free throws. With eight regular-season games left, Gibbs has gone to the foul line only 72 times. He played downhill a year ago. Now he stands atop that hill launching degree-of-difficulty 3s.

“That’s kind of been my problem,” he said.

He’s not sure how to solve it.

Gibbs continues to steer answers in interviews more toward “we” than “me” when asked how he can cure what ails him. They’re close, he’s said. They were close after losing a non-league home game to Radford. They were close after hanging tough at Virginia Tech in the conference opener. Now they’re close again coming off as lackluster a performance as ever under Brey.

Time also is close — to running out. The Irish have to string together some wins. Some consistency. Show some fight. That starts, continues and ends with Gibbs. If he can’t do it, neither will Notre Dame. At least, not this season.

“I’ve got to make sure I’m doing the right things and playing the right away and make sure I’m not getting out of character,” he said. “When I get out of character, it leads to everyone else getting out of character.”

Notre Dame’s T.J. Gibbs Jr. drives in on Virginia’s Kody Stattmann Saturday at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

WHO: Notre Dame (12-11; 2-8 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (11-12; 3-7).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Sunday at 6 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: ESPNU.

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: Georgia Tech junior power forward James Banks scored 13 points with eight rebounds and seven blocks in Wednesday’s 65-42 home loss to Clemson. The Yellow Jackets scored 18 points in the second half. … Georgia Tech has lost four in a row since a 63-61 victory over Notre Dame in Atlanta on Jan. 22. … The Yellow Jackets have scored 53, 54, 49 and 42 points in their last four games. They rank last in the ACC in scoring offense (65.8 ppg) but third in scoring defense (64.0). … Georgia Tech is 2-5 on the road this season. … It also has league wins over Wake Forest and at Syracuse. … Notre Dame and Georgia Tech rank second and third in the league in blocked shots at 5.22 and 5.17. … A transfer from Texas, Banks leads the ACC in blocked shots (2.45). … Georgia Tech leads the all-time series 11-8. Notre Dame is 6-5 as ACC colleagues. The Yellow Jackets have won the last two and four of the last six. … The last five games have been decided by an average of five points. … Since scoring 72 points in a victory over Tech on Jan. 13, 2016, Notre Dame has scored 70 or fewer points in the last six meetings. … The Irish are coming off a season-low 47 points in Wednesday’s loss at Miami (Fla.). … Junior power forward John Mooney leads the league in rebounding (10.7) and double doubles (14). … Notre Dame is 10-5 at home this season, 1-4 in league play. The Irish play three of their next four at home, and three of their next four against repeat league opponents.

QUOTING: “We can’t let things like effort plays and heart deter us from our goals. We’re going to figure it out.”

• Notre Dame junior guard T.J. Gibbs