Jersey Pride: How Matt Farrell surged to the forefront for Notre Dame

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Thursday March 16th, 2017

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – As scouting reports go, they don’t get more glowing than the one Bobby Hurley offered Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. When Hurley served as an assistant at Rhode Island, he recruited a guard from New Jersey named Matt Farrell.

The New Jersey basketball community is more snug than a 1986 Yugo, which meant Bobby Hurley knew a St. Benedict’s assistant coach named Bob Farrell. His son, Matt, de-committed from Boston College in November of 2013, and Hurley became drawn to young Matt Farrell’s game and demeanor. Bobby Hurley, himself the son of a hard driving New Jersey high school coach, could only smile when the cell phone videos of Matt Farrell doing dribbling drills in his garage popped up on his IPhone. “His dad was hard on Matt and pushed him,” Bobby Hurley says. “It reminded me about how I grew up. He was driven. He was like a machine.”

That spring, Hurley was leaving to take the head coaching job at Buffalo. He’d heard that Brey, who’d recruited Hurley to Duke, was interested in Farrell and gave his old coach a call. Brey recalls the conversation this way: “Coach, he reminds me of me.”

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Any college basketball fan born by the early 1980s knows that call is a bit like Warren Buffet recommending a stockbroker. So when Brey went to watch Farrell play for Point Pleasant Beach High School, he texted then-assistant coach Martin Ingelsby at halftime: “I’ve seen enough. Let’s get this done.”

And fitting to Hurley’s scouting report of throwback toughness, Farrell’s career arc comes from another generation. He got to Notre Dame as an insurance policy recruit and spent two seasons backing up future NBA guards Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson. But when given a chance to unleash a full helping of his New Jersey swagger, Farrell didn’t disappoint. He’s spent this season wagging his tongue and talking trash to opposing crowds, willing Notre Dame to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and averaging 14.5 ppg and 5.5 apg.

That deliberate career arc links all the way back to age 5, when little Matt Farrell began tagging along to his dad’s basketball practices. Bob Farrell, then an assistant at Saint Joseph High School in Metuchen, would strap a rubber band around his son’s right arm to force him to practice dribbling with his left. In baseball, Matt Farrell was switching hitting by high school. By eighth grade, Bob Farrell bought weighted gloves for Matt to wear while he’d practice dribbling. They’d do 45 minutes in the garage with the gloves on and then 45 minutes without the gloves. “You could see,” Bob Farrell says with a twinkle in his eye, "the ball was like part of his hand."

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Just a few weeks ago, Matt Farrell was driving with his mom and dad near the Notre Dame campus. Matt grew tired of his dad, stopped the car in the middle of the road and got out. Like any father and son that work closely, tension can arise. But over the years, Matt has come to appreciate the edge of competitiveness that his father forged. Even if it sometimes annoys him. “It’s the mindset of finding something you like, putting in the time and work and taking ownership of it,” Matt Farrell says. “Just stick to it and believe in it.”

Matt Farrell believed so much that he could become a high-end college basketball player that he quit baseball before high school. Bob Farrell still believes baseball is his son’s best sport. Bob’s response to Matt may provide the best insight to the Farrell family mindset. “I said, ‘Matt I’m not going to force you to play a sport, but if I come home and see you playing this video game crap I’ll blow a gasket,’” Bob Farrell recalls with a laugh. “He said, ‘Dad I promise I’ll commit myself.’”

All that passion, stoked one dribbling drill at a time, hit a pressure point last year. Playing behind Jackson at point guard, Farrell played just 13.4 minutes per game. There were days in Farrell’s first two seasons when Ingelsby said that he’d be the best guard in practice. But Grant went on to be a first-round NBA pick two years ago and Jackson was a McDonald’s All-American who ended up with one of the biggest contracts ever given to a second-round NBA pick. That meant Farrell waiting, and patience wouldn’t be a hallmark of the Farrell family. “I was not on their Christmas card list his freshman and sophomore year,” Brey says with a chuckle. “It’s funny how it all changes. It’s funny how it’s all forgotten.”

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Farrell scrapped his way into the Notre Dame starting line-up by the NCAA tournament last year, with his first four career starts coming as the Irish sprinted to the Elite Eight last year. Brey inserted him to take some of the ball handling onus off Jackson, and he also unintentionally gave him ownership of the team this off-season. When the No. 5 Irish play No. 12 Princeton in Buffalo on Thursday, junior Bonzie Colson enters as the alpha scorer (17.5) and senior Steve Vasturia plays defensive stopper. But it’s Farrell who straddles the thin line between intensity and insanity, channeling the Godfather and Marvel Comic movies he watches obsessively.

“When he’s on the floor, the ball has energy” says Ingelsby, now the coach at Delaware. Brey calls Farrell “good crazy,” pointing to a dive on the floor to seal a 76-71 victory against Virginia Tech earlier in the year. Hokies guard Justin Robinson allowed the ball to roll up the floor to save time with the Irish leading by three points. Farrell waved his arms and looked away to distract Robinson, dove to the floor to pilfer it and then dished for a lay-up to ice the game. Along with those plays, Brey also likes that he can rip Farrell and he won’t go in the tank. “The dad is Bob Hurley,” Brey said, comparing Bob Farrell to the Bobby Hurley’s Hall of Fame father. “It’s that Jersey dad, so you can go after him.”

Bobby Hurley has since ascended to become the head coach at Arizona State. But the Matt Farrell scout may go down as the most accurate of his career. Brey went one step further on Wednesday in Buffalo, telling ESPN that Farrell is “better than Hurley”, who led Duke to three Final Fours and was the No. 7 pick in the NBA Draft. While that smacks of hyperbole, the old-school kid with the throwback career arc has surged to the forefront. Look for his tongue wagging on Thursday and beyond.  

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