Point guard Matt Farrell received the strongest endorsement before Notre Dame coach Mike Brey ever saw him. No less than Bobby Hurley, who Brey watched play through back-to-back NCAA championship runs as an assistant at Duke, called the ND coach to offer his personal approval.
Then after landing Farrell out of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., Brey saw for himself at practices as the 6-foot-1 guard routinely battled future pros Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson.
“When he was a freshman, he was on the blue team, the second unit,” said Brey, whose Fighting Irish, after surviving the first test of the ACC Tournament Tuesday against Pittsburgh, recorded a stirring comeback in a 71-65 win over No. 7 seed Virginia Tech on Wednesday at Barclays Center. “The starting lineup had Jackson and Grant.”
Farrell was not fazed. But Brey was forced into a change.
“We stopped doing game situations [in practice] because the white jerseys, the starters, kept losing to the blue shirts because freaking Farrell would throw one in at the buzzer or drive or steal,” Brey said. “We said, ‘We can’t do this because we won’t have any confidence in close games.’ So right away he made an impact. He’s a great story.”
That story includes the MVP of the Maui Invitational this season, back when Notre Dame (20-13, 8-10 ACC) was a trendy pick for the Final Four — and also back before an injury plague struck the Irish. While stud forward Bonzie Colson was down for 15 games, Notre Dame also lost Farrell (ankle) for five, going 1-4 in those games.
But Farrell and Colson are healthy and combined for 34 points in Notre Dame’s win over Virginia Tech. They teamed up for 37 points in the opening 67-64 ACC tourney win over Pitt. The Irish hope for another surge like last year when they advanced to the ACC Tournament championship before losing to Duke.
“Our goal was to get back to the way we played in Maui defensively and edge-wise,” Farrell said before Wednesday’s win.
Against Pitt, which went 0-18 in conference play, the Irish offense was borderline nonexistent but “we defended well enough to get out with a win and that’s all that matters,” Farrell said.
The Irish seem to find a way. Farrell has a lot to do with that.
“He has done more than even I thought,” Brey said of Farrell. “I thought he’d be really good because the skills set was so good but there was a toughness and an edge about him and he can shoot it.”
Farrell hit three 3-pointers against Pitt to move his season conference-leading total to 89. Thank you, Bobby Hurley. And here is how the Duke legend became entwined in Notre Dame’s basketball fabric.
In February, 2014, Brey was at a Newark Airport hotel before driving to the Jersey Shore to watch Farrell play on the recommendation of his then-assistant Martin Ingelsby, now head coach at Delaware, Brey’s old stomping ground. Brey got a phone call from Hurley, then coaching at Buffalo, about Farrell who originally committed to Boston College then backtracked.
“I’m in the [hotel] and I get a call from Bobby Hurley who obviously I knew very well. He said, ‘Coach, I usually don’t get involved with this,’” Brey said, “and he said, ‘He’s really good. I’ve been trying to get him but I can’t.’ He said, ‘He reminds me of me.’”
Say no more.
“I said, ‘Well then, I don’t even need to go watch the game,’” Brey said laughing. “[Hurley] got word I was going down. He tracked me down before I got in the car and when he said, ‘He reminds me of me.’ I said, ‘I know what I’m going to do.’
“So we offered him that night.”