IN WITH THE OLD
He played against Virginia, Boston College twice, and Syracuse – blowouts four times over. He didn’t earn a minute of court time over Notre Dame’s three-game November tournament in Orlando (all close contests), nor did he find playing time vs. Illinois or Indiana (ditto). And last season as a true junior he managed just 23 minutes of aggregate action in ACC play.
But 59 games removed from his last start, Notre Dame senior A.J. Burgett – known as Austin to fans and media when he last played in basketball games that mattered – has reestablished his presence on the Irish basketball scene.
A quartet of three point buckets, five defensive rebounds, a pair of steals, a weak side blocked shot, an assist on a V.J. Beachem corner triple, a charge taken, and a flying layup in transition.
Burgett did it all, and most important, he fit seamlessly into Notre Dame’s rotation.
“No one is respected more in our program than him,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “He leads, he has a great attitude, but he really hasn’t played much. But he never shows it. He comes every day in a blue shirt and in the last month, two weeks, crushes the white shirts. He’s played great.”
Which begs the question: What took Brey so long to get Notre Dame’s “stretch four forward” into the action?
“We probably were a little more committed to (Matt) Ryan, because he was so good early,” said Brey of Notre Dame’s future three-point marksman. “There was a toughness about him. And he helped us win game. We can’t lose sight of how it comes back around sometimes.
“I think ‘Burg’ has played with a little more of an edge. I think for him confidence has always been an issue.”
Burgett admitted it was nice to see his first shot go down, though a weak side rebound preceded it. He played loose, he jumped, he made the extra pass, and perhaps most important considering the current makeup of Notre Dame’s rotation, his formerly flat jump shot arced before it twinkled the twine four times in six long range attempts.
“What do you have to lose, man, just play,” said Brey of his message to Burgett. “He’s put the weight of the world (on himself in other seasons) when we asked him to play in the rotation.”
Brey noted Burgett would remain in the lineup for Notre Dame’s Wednesday night matchup against current No. 15 Miami ().
WAIT, HOW MANY CAN PLAY IN A GIVEN GAME?
The addition of Burgett gives Brey’s rotation another athlete with bounce and marksmanship to boot. Along with Burgett’s surge Sunday afternoon was a more aggressive and confident V.J. Beachem (now successful on 7 of his last 10 three-point shots), as well as emerging freshman defender Rex Pflueger.
And oh yeah, another guy not bad with the ball in his hands.
“It sure is nice having the best guard in the country back,” said Brey of junior Demetrius Jackson’s return from a one game absence. “I’m a way better coach when that guy’s around.”
Beachem and Burgett were two of Notre Dame’s four best players Sunday afternoon. (That’s a sentence heretofore not typed.) Jackson is one of the best players in the nation, and his return from a hamstring pull produced 6 steals, 8 assists, 7 boards, and 14 points. Center Zach Auguste led both teams in points (21) and rebounds (12).
Throw in usual standouts Steve Vasturia and Bonzie Colson and suddenly the Irish have a seven-man rotation plus the freshman pairing of Pflueger and Ryan.
If Brey can restore Ryan’s confidence (), Notre Dame might go a legitimate eight deep when it matters most.
“We’re going to need another hand on deck. We were kind of a seven-man rotation today. Matt Ryan has to stay ready. We have to keep (Austin) Torres ready. And another guy that’s been on my mind a lot, Martin Geben. We have a lot of big bodies coming at us starting Wednesday. I have to keep Geben in mind.”
Torres has proven capable of bringing a spark in spurts, especially at home where the local product is a fan favorite. The six-foot-nine-inch, 255-pound Geben could receive an unexpected moment in the sun.
At 15-6 overall and tied for third (6-3) midway through the ACC’s conference slate, opportunity abounds.
AUGUSTE IN FEBRUARY TO ENSURE MARCH
The return of Jackson. The emergence of Burgett. An Irish squad well positioned at the ACC’s midway point. There’s plenty to like about Brey’s bunch, but at the top of the list is a two-and-a-half-minute span put forth by senior Zach Auguste to conclude Sunday afternoon’s first half.
A defensive rebound. A blocked shot. A violent offensive rebound and subsequent heady assist for a corner three. A pair of free throws. Another offensive board and two more freebies as a result.
The above represents Auguste’s 2:31 of the first half Sunday. If he plays like that for five 2:31 second spurts over the next eight weeks, Notre Dame will be dancing throughout the month of March.
“When we’re in a rhythm it’s hard to guard us, hard to stop us,” said Auguste of the 7-0 run he keyed to end the half. “I just wanted to be aggressive on the glass. That’s where I can do the most damage. And yeah,” he admitted of his emphatic rejection, “I’m always about the energy, getting the crowd into the game, especially making big plays in transition. I like getting myself hyped with that too.”
Auguste ripped down six offensive boards and did not miss a free throw in seven attempts.
“He was unbelievable…fearless,” said Brey of his big man. “And you know what helped him? Having his roommate (Burgett) playing with him. That’s not lost in the group dynamic here.”
Nor should be Auguste’s efforts, outstanding Sunday, and necessary going forward.