SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Notre Dame freshman guard Rex Pflueger is finding a role as a dependable contributor just in time for the 25th-ranked Fighting Irish.
The 6-foot-6, 198-pound guard from Dana Point, California, is expected to make his first career start when the Fighting Irish (14-5, 5-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) play at Syracuse (13-8, 3-5) on Thursday. Pflueger will start in place of leading scorer Demetrius Jackson, who is out with a pulled right hamstring, with Steve Vasturia taking over as point guard.
Until two weeks ago, Pflueger was averaging 1.2 points and less than seven minutes a game, playing mainly for defensive purposes or after games had been decided. But when he got his chance with teammates in foul trouble, he played well in a 95-91 win at Duke on Jan. 16 and finished with a then season-high seven points, including a key 3-pointer, in 23 minutes of play.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said he always knew Pflueger could play defense, but what was keeping him off the floor was turnovers and poor shot selection.
''He was a little loose with the ball. We take such pride in taking care of the ball and our assists-to-turnover ratio. That was kind of new territory for him through the preseason,'' Brey said.
Pflueger said growing confidence has led to his improved play.
''Coach Brey is starting to trust me in what I can do and just my overall team's confidence in myself has really helped me,'' he said.
When Jackson, who was averaging more than 36 minutes a game, went down early against Boston College on Saturday, Pflueger played a season-high 32 minutes, shooting 3 for 3 from the field and 4 for 4 from the free throw line to finish with a season-high 11 points, while helping guard Eli Carter, Boston College's leading scorer.
''He's really shown improvement and more comfort with each game and I want him to stay on that trend,'' Brey said. ''We're in a much better position because of how Rex has emerged for us.''
Pflueger is able to guard an opponent's best player, which takes some of the pressure off Vasturia as he adjusts to his new temporary role as point guard, Brey said. Brey compared Pfluger's rapid improvement to the jump forward Bonzie Colson made as a freshman last season, when he became a steady contributor.
''It's about the same time of year,'' Brey said. ''I think with Rex, the one thing we loved about Rex is the toughness. He has an edge about him. He loves to compete and he can guard anybody.''
Brey said the Irish, who have won four straight, he won't rush Jackson to get back, saying he's not sure whether he will able to play against Wake Forest on Sunday.
''We have to be really, really careful with this. You want to get it healed,'' he said.