When you’re a freshman trying to make your first real impact on the collegiate level, the window of opportunity opens and slams shut rather quickly.
Notre Dame freshman Rex Pflueger – the 6-foot-6, 198-pound guard out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. – had his moments in an Irish uniform during the first two months of the 2015-16 season, but none quite like the one that last Saturday’s game at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium presented.
With just 67 minutes played and 12 points through Notre Dame’s first 16 games, Pflueger had taken advantage of his snippets of action by playing aggressively, particularly on the defensive end of the floor.
His 23 minutes of playing time in Notre Dame’s 95-91 victory over the Blue Devils lifted the perception of Pflueger to new heights.
You name it, Pflueger did it at Duke.
He provided defense on skilled offensive players such as Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Brandon Ingram, using his background of competing against the first two to his advantage.
He made a couple of steals, took a charge, hit a two-point jumper, handed out a couple of assists, nailed a pair of free throws, and provided a huge three-pointer as the shot clock was expiring late in the game.
He also took a bad shot after making a steal and nearly broke an ankle trying to defend Kennard.
It was a little bit of everything for Pflueger in his most important stint to date.
“He can really guard,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “His shot selection needs to be better. He doesn’t need to be hunting his three-point shot.
“But we love him driving the ball and making some plays. There’s an energy and an edge about him that’s really helping us.”
In perhaps the nation’s most difficult college basketball environment, Pflueger attacked the Duke game as if he were an established veteran.
“I was confident,” Pflueger said. “It’s basketball. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing in front of two people of 200,000. You’ve just got to stay confident and trust your abilities.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I thrive on it, but I enjoy that feeling. I feel like I should be there.”
Against the Blue Devils, Pflueger epitomized the attitude Brey has always tried to instill in his players. He doesn’t want them looking over their shoulders at the scorer’s table, expecting to come out of the game. He doesn’t want them fearing a mistake.
Brey has joked in the past that he’s the loosest coach in America and he wants his players to respond accordingly. Pflueger is the embodiment of that attitude.
“He’s a kid that just competes,” said junior captain Steve Vasturia. “Since day one this summer, he hasn’t been afraid to stick his nose in there. He plays with a lot of emotion, which is great, and he brings a certain toughness, which is needed.”
Pflueger helped propel Mater Dei High School to a 35-0 record his junior season and a 29-5 mark as a senior. He led the Monarchs in scoring, assists and steals while finishing second in rebounds as the Orange County Register Player of the Year in 2014-15.
But when Pflueger arrived at Notre Dame, he was greeted by an established if not crowded backcourt, led by Demetrius Jackson, Vasturia and up-and-coming sophomore Matt Farrell. As Farrell logged most of the backup minutes during the non-conference portion of the slate, Pflueger played briefly in just seven of the first 13 games.
“I give Rex a lot of credit,” Brey said. “He had a great attitude through the first part of the season. He wasn’t playing much but he was getting better, his attitude was great and eventually, he was going to get his shot. He’s an example of a guy that took advantage of his shot.
“He knew we had some veteran perimeter guys ahead of him. He understood what he was coming into, but he’s in it for four years. Not that it’s not tough when you go to a tournament in Orlando and you really don’t play and your parents are there. But overall, he’s been really good.”
Activity is Pflueger’s calling card. He’s longer than most guards, quick, and can really jump. He’s a long, bouncy, energetic athlete who will err on the side of aggression, which is particularly important on the defensive end of the floor.
“My defense has always been superb in my mind,” Pflueger said. “My offensive challenges mostly come with confidence. I know I’m a good offensive player. I just need to find my way into the team that way.
“Right now, my job is to play hard defense, move around the ball and pick my spots. I still need to be more confident on the offensive end, but that’s going to come with time and experience.”
It’s that defense that will get Pflueger additional playing time as the ACC season unfolds.
“He’s very important for us because of his activity defensively,” said junior V.J. Beachem. “He knocked down some shots (against Duke) as well. But defensively, that’s something we’re going to need all season.”
Something else Pflueger needs is a good sense of humor and a self-deprecating manner, particularly when a) he takes a horrific shot, as he did shortly after checking into the Duke game for the first time, and b) an opponent makes a move on him that is YouTube-worthy.
The three-pointer that he launched had Brey pulling his hair out. It came after a steal. Had he made the shot, all would have been forgiven…with a footnote attached. But he didn’t.
“I thought to myself, ‘Come on, man,’” Brey said.
“Coach tells me to be mindful of my shots and to take better shots,” Pflueger said. “That will come with experience.”
Kennard’s ankle-breaking move on Pflueger – which left Pflueger crumpled on the Cameron floor as Kennard nailed the three-pointer – elicited a more light-hearted response.
“I had a feeling it would,” laughed Pflueger of the play that immediately became a YouTube favorite. “Once I was on the ground, I was like, ‘Damn!’
“But that’s going to happen. It’s part of the game. He’s a great player, and like people say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
If Pflueger’s play continues to resemble the 23 minutes of solid action he put in against Duke, the good publicity will far out-weigh the bad.
“I’m just glad I got the opportunity to play,” Pflueger said. “It was an amazing experience for me in an awesome atmosphere.
“That’s why you play college basketball, to experience that. It’s great to finally show what I can do.”