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Men’s Basketball

Burgett provides spacing, leadership for ND on the floor

| Tuesday, February 2, 2016

After Sunday’s win against Wake Forest, Notre Dame is halfway home.

Heading into Wednesday’s contest at No. 17 Miami (Fla.), the Irish (15-6, 6-3 ACC) have hit the midway point of their ACC schedule doing exactly what they’ve needed to: only falling once at home, stealing a win at Duke and taking care of business in four games against the conference’s weaker teams.

But the challenge to do what’s required to make the NCAA tournament in March becomes a lot tougher in the second half of the season as the Irish prepare for a four-game, 11-day stretch that’s set to be the toughest this team will face all season.

After Wednesday’s visit to South Florida to take on the Hurricanes (16-4, 5-3), things don’t get much easier for Notre Dame. No. 2 North Carolina comes to town Saturday, just before a set of games the following week at Clemson and home to No. 19 Louisville, who beat the Tar Heels earlier this week.

It’s why Irish head coach Mike Brey’s call to start senior forward A.J. Burgett on Sunday looks so wise right now.

I’ll be the first to admit that like most, I was pretty surprised when the Avon, Indiana, native got the nod in the starting five a few days ago. Burgett had played just 41 minutes all season, about exclusively in garbage time, and hadn’t really made much of an impact since before he had heart surgery his sophomore year.

On Sunday, at least, Brey looked like a genius, as Burgett gave the Irish 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting in a dominant win.

For a team that has at times struggled to space the floor the way they did last year — sophomore forward Bonzie Colson really isn’t the “stretch four” Notre Dame loves to utilize, while freshman forward Matt Ryan’s shot has run dry the last couple weeks — Burgett facilitates that brilliantly. He’s a good enough shooter and burns opponents who leave him open, while his 6-foot-9 frame allows him to be influential on the boards, something he showed Sunday when he grabbed rebounds on Notre Dame’s first two defensive possessions to set the tone.

“With Burg just shooting the shots and the three-ball, he spaces the floor well,” junior guard Demetrius Jackson said Sunday. “He was a great weapon for us, and we want to continue having him in there.”

If a prospective lottery pick agrees with my assessment, I think we’re good.

But Burgett’s impact on the Irish on Sunday went far beyond his on-court play; the senior is one of Notre Dame’s four captains for a reason and being able to lead from the court rather than the bench elevated the play of his teammates against the Demon Deacons.

Brey attributed part of senior forward Zach Auguste’s strong double-double performance Sunday to having his road-trip roommate with him in the starting five, while Burgett spoke himself of the tight bond he has with the freshmen on Notre Dame’s roster this year. If his work ethic can bleed through on the court during games and not just practice, it allows him to become a more influential leader across the board. And that’s something that can only be a positive for this Notre Dame team headed into a crucial stretch.

Starting Burgett allowed Brey to roll out five upperclassmen to open the game against Wake Forest — a pair of juniors, guard Steve Vasturia and forward V.J. Beachem joined Auguste, Jackson and Burgett in the starting five — and that’s something Irish fans have to like seeing, especially after a young team struggled mightily on the road at Syracuse last Thursday.

The next four games are key for the Irish. Failure to win any of them would sling Notre Dame to seven conference losses, putting them in a position where they’d likely need to win out to make the NCAA field in March. With a weak ACC schedule — the Irish have played Boston College twice and have second games with Georgia Tech and Wake Forest coming — 11-7 may well be the floor for making the tournament.

But split it 2-2 and Notre Dame will stay right on track for a 12-6 league record, a top-five seed in the ACC tournament and a spot in the NCAA tournament come March.

And now that we’ve turned the calendar to February, the time’s right for Brey to rely on his veteran leadership to step up and lead this team away from the bubble in the next 11 days. Not toward it.

Now it’s time for the elders to deliver.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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