SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Ninety minutes before his final home game, Ben Hansbrough’s emotions are toying with him. A part of his life is about to end. You wouldn’t know it, though, because he is on the basketball court — the place he enjoys most. He jumps up and down in exhilaration.
Then, as if scripted, the 6-foot-3 senior guard goes out and scores 30 points and Notre Dame wins again in this remarkable season in which he has emerged as one of the best players in the best conference in the country, the Big East.
“The first thing you have to do is expect things of yourself before you can do them,” Hansbrough said.
He doesn’t lack confidence. He bounces the ball with a swagger at times, openly shows his like or dislike for what is happening on his face, and runs into tables and benches chasing loose balls. He possesses a fierce competitive streak honed from years with two older brothers, including Tyler Hansbrough, who led North Carolina to an NCAA title and now plays with the Indiana Pacers.
Ben Hansbrough transferred from Mississippi State in 2008 after two seasons, even though the Bulldogs made the NCAA tournament his sophomore season when he averaged 10.5 points. He said it wasn’t the right fit for him.
Next stop: South Bend, Ind.
“It’s been a great marriage. The energy and the lift and the belief he’s given us,” coach Mike Brey said.
“(Dad) Gene told me after his visit, he said, ‘Coach, this could be the best decision of Ben’s young life.’ I’m glad Ben and his family feel that way and it proved out and we delivered. … A two-way street.”
After sitting out a year, Hansbrough’s career has been on an upward swing, especially this season when he’s emerged as the Irish’s top scorer (18.4 points) and floor leader.
Coming to Notre Dame changed everything.
“I always think about that. I think that was the best decision of my life that I’ve made as far as basketball and academics and my future,” he said.
The native of Poplar Bluff, Mo., said he also considered Oklahoma State, Purdue and Missouri, among others.
“I was going to go visit some, but I only visited one school and committed to Notre Dame,” he said. “I knew I made the right decision as soon as I came here, especially after watching them play and getting to know coach Brey a little better.”
Some thought the Irish might really miss Tory Jackson and Luke Harangody from last season’s NCAA tournament team, but veterans like Hansbrough, Tim Abromaitis, Carleton Scott and Tyrone Nash have blended their years of experience and familiarity with one another and parlayed it into a season worth remembering. Add in Scott Martin, who sat out two years, one after transferring from Purdue and another after blowing out his knee, and the Irish’s “old guys,” as Brey calls them, have clicked.
All five can dribble, all five can shoot, all five can rebound and play defense, and all five can pass to the open man. And they have Hansbrough running the show.
Hansbrough’s ability to drive to the basket and score, kick it out to the open man or hit a jumper were never more on display than his clutch 19-point, seven-assist performance in the Irish’s huge victory at Pitt, the team Notre Dame is still trying to catch to win the Big East regular-season title.
Abromaitis, a graduate student who still has eligibility remaining, said playing with Hansbrough has made it easy for him to do what he does best: shoot the ball. He hit a career-high nine 3-pointers in a 93-72 rout of Villanova on Monday night, with he and Hansbrough each scoring 30 points as the Irsh ensured a double bye in the league tournament.
“He has such great vision that, if you’re open outside of the play we’re in, he’ll be able to find you,” Abromaitis said.
Afterward, Villanova coach Jay Wright said Hansbrough — who hit seven threes — was the best player he’d seen all year.
“That kid just dominated the game,” he said. “He defended, he controlled the tempo. He broke the press by himself, he made shots and got everyone else shots.”
The Irish will play their final regular-season game at Connecticut on Saturday and if they don’t catch Pitt for the regular season championship would turn their attention to the Big East tournament, where they would need three wins to capture that title.
“Every time we’ve had a challenge, we’ve done it. But it’s not over yet, our home season is over and that’s it,” Hansbrough said.
Before his final home game Monday night, Hansbrough posed for a picture with his family and good-naturedly elbowed Tyler in the stomach as they began to push each other for position. Like all those years competing in Poplar Bluff.
“That’s just Ben. He’s a goofball and he was joking and had to get that laugh in,” said Tyler Hansbrough, who has enjoyed watching his kid brother excel at the college game a few hours up the road from Indianapolis.
“I’ve watched Ben play a lot and it’s kind of sad because I’m not going to be able to watch him on TV, but I’m happy he went out this way. He’s really done a good job,” Tyler said.
Brothers are brothers and both Hansbroughs are known as physical players, even though Tyler is six inches taller at 6-9.
“We’ve always been competitive, but at the same time, I love playing with Ben,” Tyler said. “I played with him for two years in high school and he’s still my favorite teammate ever.”