Center Juwan Durham Is Asserting Himself And Giving Notre Dame Fighting Irish Men's Basketball A Spark
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Juwan Durham Is Asserting Himself And Giving Notre Dame A Spark

Mike Brey didn’t talk to Juwan Durham in the hours after a woeful late January outing that led to a second-half benching. No lamenting, no nagging and no attempted pick-me-ups.

In a Jan. 27 home loss to Virginia Tech, the senior forward sat the final 14 minutes and ended with a nondescript stat line of three points, four rebounds and three fouls. He provided little resistance on defense. Brey let him be, though, because he understood how Durham operates.

“He’s his own worst critic when he doesn’t play well,” Brey said Wednesday. “I don’t have to say anything to him. Sometimes he has come up and apologized to me.”

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball fifth-year senior forward Juwan Durham
Durham had 18 points in Notre Dame’s win over Wake Forest. (ACC)

If the next two games are any indication, Durham wrote himself a scathing review and set out to distance himself from it. One week later, it’s well in the rear-view mirror after delivering his best game of the season in a 79-58 waxing of Wake Forest Tuesday, Notre Dame’s fourth win in its last five tries.

Durham hung 18 points (7-of-9 shooting), nine rebounds, four blocks, two assists and a steal on the Demon Deacons. He committed only one turnover and one foul. Notre Dame scored on 65 percent of the possessions when he was in the game, the highest rate among any Irish player. He’s actively helping win games instead of simply existing in losses.

Tuesday’s tour de force came one game after he put 14 points (7-for-11 from the floor) and two blocks on Pittsburgh in a 26-point victory. It’s only now that he’s become a center of attention, but quietly, he’s averaging 11.3 points in 10 ACC games and shooting 61.8 percent. He has at least two blocks in five conference games.

“It’s fun to watch,” Brey said. “We’ve seen that and seen it a lot in practice. What has been neat is to see him doing it game after game, stacking them on top of each other. He should be confident. He’s a heck of a player. And his teammates know we need him to win in this league. I love his frame of mind right now.”

The difference it makes is pronounced. One cause for Notre Dame’s prior offensive stagnation is the lack of concern opponents had for the Irish’s interior scoring. Durham has largely seen single coverage in the post this year, but only recently has exploited it enough to make an opponent rethink the move.

In Notre Dame’s first 11 games, Durham had just two outings where he took more than six shots and made at least half of them. With him in check, defenses could pressure and guard out to the three-point line without much concern for getting beat near the rim or needing to double-team in the paint. It’s a recipe for unassisted long jumpers, reckless drives into traffic and possessions with few passes. In other words, losses.

Now, Durham has taken at least seven shots and made more than half in each of Notre Dame’s last four wins. Wake Forest even threw double-teams at him after he got free for two dunks in the opening minutes and another early in the second half. He later split a double-team for a dunk. If it holds, his 39.5 percent free throw rate (free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts) in ACC play would be a career-high.

“Just go up and say, ‘Don’t be soft,’” Durham said. “Just try and play through the contact and it translates over to defense.”

This recent stretch has the vibe of a senior playing with urgency and an understanding of his importance. There’s an aura of confidence displayed in his willingness to body up and score and hold his ground on defense. Possessions where he is easily backed down, tests one-on-one coverage and passes out or gets shoved off his spot are dwindling occurrences. Double-teams have become more frequent as a byproduct of his scoring uptick.

Increased comfort is obvious too. Single-covered? Go attack it. Double-teamed? Stay calm, read the defense and find the opening as a passer. For the first time in his career, Durham is on track to post a positive assist-turnover ratio. It’s currently at 23-to-17, and 15-to-9 in ACC games. There are 26 ACC players who occupy at least 20 percent of the minutes share at the “five” spot, per KenPom. Durham is seventh among them in assist rate.

“It makes my job a lot easier when I have guys who can knock down open shots,” Durham said. “If I find somebody open, that’s 10 times better than scoring for me.”

Added Brey: “I love the decisions he makes with it. I think our perimeter guys know if they throw it in and move, he’ll find them.”

Just like he has found himself.

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