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Bucky Gleason: Notre Dame guard Farrell proves he's Jersey tough

Bo Farrell couldn't help but laugh Friday while recalling his parents' reactions when they walked down the basement stairs to assess the damage. He and his younger brother, Matt, known nationally as Notre Dame's point guard, often played one-on-one Nerf basketball while growing up in New Jersey.

As anyone with brothers or sons would attest, it was a matter of time before good, clean fun turned into a visit to the emergency room. Bo was a tough kid, four years older and considerably bigger than his kid brother. Every now and again, as big brothers often do, he felt compelled to prove his superiority.

"My parents would come down, and they would see holes in the sheetrock," Bo Farrell said Friday by telephone. "It was pretty much me putting his head through the wall as he would go up to try to dunk it. My mom would freak out. My father, of course, would say, 'OK, who fouled who?' That was his primary concern."

For Matt, it wasn't basketball.

It was a test of survival.

"Holes in walls and stitches in heads, trust me," Matt Farrell said as he prepared to play West Virginia on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament. "It was almost every other day. He was a football player who played basketball like a football player. But it was always fun."

Farrell's toughness is no surprise when you learn about his background. His father, Bob, was a hard-driving high school coach at St. Joseph's in Metuchen, N.J., Ridge High in Basking Ridge and St. Benedict's Prep in Newark. He drilled fundamentals and work ethic into his sons. Bo leaned toward football in high school before taking the ROTC route at the University of Tampa.

Matt poured his energy into becoming a Division I point guard. He tagged along with his father to practices and games and spent hours dribbling in his garage with weighted gloves to improve his ball-handling. He tied his right hand behind his back to develop his left. He focused on his leaping ability until he could dunk.

And he backed down from nobody.

"It's a tribute to his hard work," his brother said. "He has worked his butt off every day. He's in the gym. When he comes back home to New Jersey, he's in the garage dribbling. He's shooting out front. He's the one working his butt off no matter what. He puts aside the party life to get his game better."

Matt Farrell, an all-state player at Point Pleasant Beach High, was hailed as the next Bobby Hurley, a treasure in New Jersey who was considered the best schoolboy point guard in state history. Hurley also was the son of a coach. Bob Hurley was considered the best high school coach in America long before Bobby won back-to-back national titles at Duke.

Naturally, Farrell revered Hurley.

It wasn't just a Jersey thing. Like Hurley, he was a heady player, terrific ball-handler and tireless defender who had great instincts and vision. They were about the same size and fiercely competitive. Farrell spent hours with his father watching Hurley's games on video, searching for anything he could emulate.

"That was the guy that I always looked up to," Farrell said. "That was the guy my dad was telling me to play like. Hurley was someone I'll always look up to no matter what. They're legends in New Jersey. He was an unbelievable player. He's an unbelievable coach, and they're really nice people."

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski when Hurley served as Duke's floor general, caused a stir in Buffalo this week when he suggested Farrell was a better player than Hurley. He backed away from his comments Friday while comparing their styles, as others have for years in New Jersey.

"Matt Farrell is not better than Jerry West, OK?" Brey said Friday. "I just want to be clear on that. … My comparison is skill set, not honor. Skill set, period. And I think his ability to play fearlessly and make plays off the ball screen, and then his ability, to score and make shots, makes him unbelievably valuable to us."

Let me be clear on this: Farrell is a very good player, a pivotal player, on a very good team. He deserves credit for taking advantage of his opportunity after riding the bench for two years. He averaged 14.2 points per game and was second in the Atlantic Coast Conference in assists. He's a good perimeter shooter and a resilient defender. But he's not better than Hurley. It's certainly no crime. Hurley was a premier point guard, a four-year starter who won two national championships and still holds the NCAA all-time record for assists. He was selected seventh overall in the NBA draft.

Farrell may need to play like Hurley on Saturday when he leads Notre Dame against West Virginia and its suffocating defense in KeyBank Center. How the junior performs against the press could determine whether the Fighting Irish advance to the Sweet 16. He had 16 points Thursday in a 60-58 win over Princeton.

Notre Dame can thank Hurley for Farrell, who had accepted a scholarship offer from Boston College before changing his mind. Hurley wanted him in Buffalo but knew Farrell would get better offers. He told Brey the kid could be a good fit at Notre Dame. Brey signed him after seeing the kid play in one game.

"I was drawn to Matt's competitive fire, feel for the game, confident offensive skills and toughness," Hurley said Friday via text.

Rest assured Farrell isn't going to shy away from West Virginia and its vaunted press, not with his brother and parents in the stands. Army Lt. Bo Farrell has become his biggest fan. After returning from a tour in Afghanistan just before Christmas, he surprised his family at Notre Dame following a win over Colgate.

It was a touching moment that beat the daylights out of them beating the daylights out of one another. Looking back, it was all in good fun. They were two boys who were growing into men. And when they embraced before a teary-eyed standing ovation, their parents came down the stairs from their seats and joined them.

"It was the best Christmas of my life," Farrell said. "I'm sure it will be the best Christmas that I'll ever have. I know my family feels the same way. It was just an unbelievable experience."


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