Notre Dame’s Pflueger, Gibbs confident in new leadership roles
T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pflueger knew they were going to be the next leaders of the Notre Dame basketball team, but their initiation process came earlier than expected.
Gibbs and Pflueger were thrown into the fire last season when a pair of seniors — Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell, both instrumental in two Elite Eight runs — went down with injuries that kept them out for several games. Suddenly, Gibbs and Pflueger were called on to help carry a team with NCAA Tournament aspirations.
The Fighting Irish nearly overcame the odds to make the field of 68 but finished as the first team out. Regardless, the experience prepared Gibbs and Pflueger for their new roles in the 2018-19 season: team captains.
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“(The injuries) threw them into more stuff,” Irish coach Mike Brey said during the ACC’s media day in October. “T.J. Gibbs kept us alive, he kept us as part of the conversation and he actually had to force plays at times. I don’t think he has to do that this year. He has some guys around him to help him get some shots and not force plays.
“Rex played with a bone bruise at the end of last season. He didn’t practice much. We gave him one month off after the season so he is finally healthy and feeling better. Both those guys, they are winners and they have set a great tone with this group and they know we need the young guys and they are trying to get them ready.”
It has been an unspoken tradition of sorts under Brey for one group of captains to pass the torch to the next. And this year’s captains can vividly recount the lessons bestowed upon them by Colson and Farrell.
“They did a lot of that by leading by example, making sure we understood how things should be going, especially during tough times, the way that they acted just with their mentality in tough situations,” Pflueger said. “They really grew on us just by us mimicking certain ways in tough situations in games, like when we had the seven-game losing streak, instances like that. Seeing their mentality and how they were bringing up the team was really positive for us.”
Replacing the production from Colson and Farrell won’t come easy. Colson averaged a double-double — 18.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game — in each of his final two seasons, while Farrell posted 15.1 points and 5.4 assists between his junior and senior year.
But Pflueger and Gibbs, a senior and junior, respectively, have had impressive college careers in their own right.
Pflueger sported a 14.6 points-per-100 possessions average last season, and has shown a penchant for the clutch play, including the tip-in buzzer-beater against Stephen F. Austin in the 2016 tournament. Gibbs improved his points-per-game average from 4.7 to 15.3 from his freshman season to sophomore campaign.
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Brey has a strong level of trust in his upperclassmen, allowing Pflueger and Gibbs to take it upon themselves to lead their teammates.
“He knows what he is doing when he recruits a certain player so when you get to be yourself and you just do things that you know how to do, he always says that things are going to fall right into place,” Gibbs said of Brey. “Once you fall into that and you really believe in it yourself, it becomes something that you just see really starts to click and day in and day out just having that mindset and attitude makes the game that much easier.”
While Notre Dame hopes its depth leads to improvement over last season, it will fall primarily on Pflueger and Gibbs, as well as fellow captain Elijah Burns, to make sure the young team can get acclimated to each other. Notre Dame will play five freshmen this season, making the early leadership experience gained last year even more crucial to the team’s success.
“They have done more heavy lifting in the leadership department because we have had more young guys to get ready and they have taken a lot of responsibility getting those guys ready,” Brey said. “They know we need them if we are going to get back to the NCAA Tournament.”
Brey has seen Pflueger and Gibbs continue their evolution on the court into more complete players, citing Gibbs’ confidence and Pflueger’s ability to move on to the next play at a faster rate. As a careful recruiter of players that fit the mold of his program, Brey is confident his captains are the right guys for the job.
“When you start with Pflueger and Gibbs as your two rocks of guys who have been in big games and helped you win ones and been through tough losses, they are such rocks,” Brey added. “They are such great personalities.”
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