Had the news come much earlier, it likely would have been brushed off as a minor feel-good story for a local kid at Notre Dame.
Twenty games into the 2016-17 season, it’s significant news for an Irish basketball program looking every bit as capable of continuing on an ascent that has once again caught the eye of a national audience.
Austin Torres, once considered a throw-in to a senior class of Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem, is much, much more than that now.
Prior to Saturday’s game against Syracuse, the 6-foot-7, 240-pound South Bend product – who preserved a year of eligibility in 2013-14 – announced his decision to return for a fifth year in 2017-18.
“A lot of it had to do with the kind of relationships I’ve built here with not only my teammates, but my coaching staff and all the people who have helped with our team,” said Torres following another outcome-influencing performance in Notre Dame’s 84-66 victory over the Orange.
“Transferring would be really hard to fit into a mold for a year. That would hard elsewhere because I’m not sure how other guys would cope with what I say to them. I know my teammates will take it. Whether it’s good or bad, they know it’s for a good reason.
“With what we’ve got coming back next year, I’m really excited. We’re really going to miss Steve and V.J., but right now, I wanted to get it out of the way so we could focus on this year because we’re having a lot of success.”
Torres has become a significant part of that success. It certainly can’t be measured by his scoring output. He’s ninth on the team, averaging two points per game. What he does in every other aspect of the game, however, leads to a better offense, a better defense, team chemistry and, ultimately, victories.
“The stuff he’s saying in huddles and in our locker room is off the charts,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey following Torres’ 12-minute, five-rebound (three offensive), one steal performance.
“I’m thrilled that Matt Farrell, Bonzie (Colson) and he will be our captains next year. His role isn’t going to change and he’s smart enough to know it. We’re going to keep Austin in his role. He’s really good at it.”
Initially, when Torres would play his four-, five-, eight-minute stretch, his contribution was summarized with one word – energy. It’s way beyond that now. Torres contributes to the positive outcome of a game, with his energy to be sure, but also as a disruptive force against the opposition.
“The nice thing about this year is that since I didn’t really play much in the ACC last year, not a lot of people know my tendencies, so when I get the opportunity, they’re thinking it’s four-on-five,” Torres said.
“Well, it’s five-on-five because my guys are getting open and you guys don’t know what’s happening. Setting ball screens doesn’t show up in the stats, but it’s something that really helps the team. It’s something Marty (Geben) has embraced too.”
Torres’ shooting range is around the basket, but that’s all the Irish need from him. He scored six points in a seven-point win over Louisville and eight points in a five-point road win at Miami.
In a four-game stretch against Louisville, Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech – all Irish victories – Torres scored 18 points, grabbed six rebounds, blocked three shots and made two steals -- in just 26 minutes of action.
He sets screens that allow Vasturia, Colson, Beachem and Farrell to score. He battles on the boards for a team that desperately needs it. He anchors a much-improved defense. He makes players better on non-game days so they can be better in games.
“He makes practice hard,” Colson said. “He takes charges. He blocks shots. He talks. He leads…he prepares us all. His role is huge – in games and practice. He’s aggressive. He’s strong. He kind of attacks you.
“He kind of knows my moves now, so I’ve got to switch it up sometimes in practice, which helps me in games. When he comes in flying around, it gives us confidence, and he does it day-in and day-out in practice.”
Brey has said repeatedly that Torres gladly accepts his role. But sitting out his freshman season, and logging limited minutes during Notre Dame’s back-to-back Elite Eight runs, was a challenge.
Torres averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots per game as a senior for local Penn High School. A former AAU teammate of Jackson’s, Torres impressed Brey with his boundless energy and physicality, despite being an undersized big man with limited offensive skills.
With a scholarship spot open, Brey viewed Torres as a solid investment. The dividends are paying off now.
“It was definitely hard,” said Torres of the limited impact/playing time during his first three years in the program. “For anyone playing Division I basketball, most of them were probably thee guy in high school. Missing out on a year was tough.
“But with the role that I have, it’s really easy because of how my coaching staff and teammates talk to me during timeouts, huddles, practice, text messages…anything. It kind of keeps me going, and I like to keep my team going.”
Torres is the living embodiment of fuel to the fire.
“I’m the energy guy,” Torres said. “I’m the spark, and once it sparks, everything starts to get going. It’s got to be something a lot of teams don’t have, and that’s why they’re not as successful as our team per se these past couple years. We’ve got two trophies over there and not a lot of teams can say that.”
Torres’ return next season provides another asset to the program. He can set the example and lead the way for red-shirt freshman Elijah Burns and freshman John Mooney, a couple of Irish bigs who have not played in Notre Dame’s first seven ACC games.
“There’s a plan for those guys,” said Brey of Burns and Mooney, “and (Torres) can help them. Burns and Mooney have seen the progression of the three big guys that are playing ahead of them. They kind of have to pay their dues, and then when they get a piece of it, man is it a fun thing.”
Torres’ maturity, having been through a similar period of inactivity, cherishes the role of offering guidance to the two talented young bigs.
“It’s really easy for me because I was in that position, so I can help mold them,” Torres said. “The reason we’re so good is because in practice, our competition is great. Every day in practice, our subs are going at the white shirts (starters).
“It’s not only getting (those who are playing) better, but it’s also getting the guys who aren’t playing ready when their time comes. I tell guys to stick with it. As Coach Brey always says, you’ve got to trust the process.”
Trusting the process has led Torres to a fifth season at Notre Dame and an integral role in the leadership of a program that has won 31 of its last 43 ACC games.
“Regardless of the title of being a captain or not, I’m not going to change,” Torres said. “It’s just a title. With the kind of leadership I’ve brought to the table, nothing is going to change.”