Notre Dame's Farrell making case as nation's most improved

AP photoNotre Dame player Matt Farrell (left) and brother Bo embrace after Bo, home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, surprised Matt after an Irish basketball game in December.

NOTRE DAME — Straying from his typical easy-going, no-panic style of guiding his players through sticky situations, Irish men's basketball head coach Mike Brey instead became ticked off and fired up last Saturday when his team played a lifeless first half and trailed 40-33 at home to Clemson.

Throwing some "stuff" around the locker room that included, but wasn't limited to, a few expletives, Brey's halftime rant was meant for his entire Notre Dame team, but it was directed at one player in particular.

Junior point guard Matt Farrell has been the glue to this quick start for No. 20 Notre Dame (14-2). But after Farrell recorded only three points and four turnovers in the first half against Clemson, Brey went old-school with a no-bull, animated Jersey approach to get his player's attention.

"I know that's what his dad did to him his whole life," said Brey, referencing Farrell's tough Jersey upbringing as a coach's son, "so my feeling was, he can take it because he's used to it."

Expectedly, Farrell responded, finishing the game with 15 points, seven assists, no second-half turnovers, and the game-winning 3-point shot with nine seconds left to clinch a 75-70 comeback win and a 3-0 start in ACC play.

When asked later about Brey's motivational tactics, Farrell brushed it off in the same way he does opposing defenders.

"I'm not taking it personal," he said. "I'm gonna take it and move on. That's the way I've always been coached."

One of Brey's strengths as a motivator is his ability to keep his coaching style player-specific. Matt Farrell obviously responds to tough tactics where other players may not.

Farrell spent his first two seasons at Notre Dame playing behind standout Irish point guards Jerian Grant (Chicago Bulls) and Demetrius Jackson (Boston Celtics), a couple former pupils whom Brey suggested required more coaching sensitivity.

"Those two guys needed to be dealt with differently," Brey explained. "So it kind of felt good to hammer a point guard the other day."

Immediately after Farrell's second-half turnaround and the win over Clemson, Brey stressed that nothing comes as a surprise when it comes to his point guard's play.

Farrell is second on the team with 20 steals, he's fourth in the ACC at 5.4 assists per game and ninth in the league with a 2.2 assist/turnover ratio. Against then-No. 9 Louisville, the 6-1 Farrell tied his career high with 22 points, many of which came on drives to the basket against a long and athletic Louisville team in a 77-70 Irish win.

And while Brey says nothing comes as a surprise, Farrell's toughness and production are just now starting to catch the eyes of opposing coaches and media members with his growing candidacy as the nation's most improved player.

Before this season, Farrell had only four career starts and averaged just 13.4 minutes and 2.6 points a game in 2015-16. In three league games so far this season, he's averaging 17.7 points, which is well up from his average of 13.9 posted during the non-league schedule.

During a game in late December, ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas took to Twitter to recognize Farrell's overnight success posting, "Notre Dame's Matt Farrell may be the most improved player in the country. Legit."

"I would agree with that," Brey said when asked about the Bilas tweet.

"There is a lot of guys that have taken a step up in their game, but from where he was to what he's doing — running the show of a team that is ranked and is in a very good position in league standings — I think he's the strongest candidate for most improved."

And with three straight road games up next — Miami (11-3), Virginia Tech (12-3) and unbeaten No. 9 Florida State over a span of seven days beignning Thursday with the Hurricanes — Farrell's game management and moxie will again be put to the test.

"We're going to take punches in this league; it's how we react to them," said Brey, whose team has trailed in all three ACC games this season but come back to win all of them, one in overtime and the other two in the closing minutes. "Right now, they have a huge belief in finishing close games and that is a psychological advantage for us, especially going into three tough road atmospheres."

Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame sports.

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