SOUTH BEND – CJ Walker’s family will have a shorter drive this time.
They’ve made the 780-mile trek from Indianapolis to Tallahassee, Fla. several times this season. Next week, they’re heading 360 miles east to Pittsburgh. But Saturday, they’ll take U.S. 31 north for an easy three-hour drive to South Bend.
This is all to see and support Walker, a freshman point guard at Florida State, who is coming “home” for the first time. His 15th-ranked Seminoles (21-4, 9-3 ACC) face No. 24 Notre Dame (18-7, 7-5 ACC) on Saturday.
Walker is a familiar face in the state: He grew up in Indianapolis and went to Tech where he averaged 24.6 points, 5.4 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 3.0 steals as a senior. He was named one of three finalists for IndyStar Mr. Basketball, and was named the 2016 City Player of the Year as a senior. Originally committed to Purdue as a junior, he surprised a lot of people when he flipped to Florida State after an official visit the summer of 2015. — especially given the timing and opportunity (he had plans to visit Butler and could have gone to school closer to home at Illinois or Xavier).
Walker briefly was recruited by Notre Dame his sophomore year, but said it never got serious. He did play in Purcell Pavilion one time during an AAU tournament in ninth grade.
Walker told IndyStar at the time of his commitment that Florida State “felt like a second home to me,” and that although he loves Indiana, he “wanted to get away from home and be accountable for myself in a new home.” He also cited the Florida weather.
Despite his decision, Walker couldn’t be more excited to be heading back to the Midwest for the first time since he left. He’s also kindly reminded his teammates, many of whom are from Florida, to pack their “big coats.”
“It’s going to be just like high school,” he said. “I’ll have at least 25 people there.”
The 6-1 guard is expecting his parents, Brandi and Clarence, his younger brother Jalen and a handful of best friends from high school to pack a full section at the Joyce Center. Former coaches and high school trainers are all driving up to watch him play, too. He’ll get to see them briefly Friday night before the game and then take pictures afterward.
Tech coach Keith Dabney unfortunately will not be there because he’s coaching against Noblesville at 7:30 p.m. He and the team will be following Florida State on Dabney’s phone until tipoff, though.
“He was so excited and asked how many tickets I needed,” Dabney said. “It sucked to have to break the news to him that we have a game. He understood, but I told him he has to make it to the East Region of the NCAA tournament so I could see him play in Indianapolis.”
In the last matchup between these teams Jan. 18 in Tallahassee, Walker scored nine points in 18 minutes in the Seminoles’ 83-80 win. It was Notre Dame’s first ACC loss of the year.
Florida State is the No. 2 team in the league with the second-best scoring offense behind North Carolina (84.8 points per game), and Walker is doing his part off the bench, averaging 5.5 points and 1.3 rebounds in 13.1 minutes.
“(Saturday) I see him coming out and controlling the pace, looking to score when he has a chance to score,” Dabney said. “But I know his defense is going to be on point.”
Follow IndyStar Notre Dame Insider Laken Litman on Twitter and Instagram: @lakenlitman.
NO. 24 NOTRE DAME vs. NO. 15 FLORIDA STATE
Tipoff: 6 p.m. Saturday, Purcell Pavilion, South Bend.
Radio: WXNT-AM (1430).
>> Notre Dame (18-7, 7-5) had a season-high 18 turnovers the last time it played Florida State (21-4, 9-3), and Matt Farrell accounted for six of them. Look for Mike Brey to give T.J. Gibbs more playing time because he takes pressure off Farrell when they’re on the court together. “Playing with that spread motion and with our smaller lineup gives you more decision-makers against their pressure,” Brey said. He also added the Irish are “embarrassed” about how many times they turned the ball over and are cognizant of that heading into Saturday.
>> Notre Dame hit 15 3-pointers against Florida State in their last meeting and still lost. “It just goes to show we wasted a great shooting night because we couldn’t handle the ball like we usually handle the ball,” Brey said. “But it’s encouraging to look and say when we did move the ball and were good with it, we got looks. We were able to move them around, we were in position to finish, even with 18 turnovers.” The Seminoles, however, have the second-best scoring offense in the ACC (just behind North Carolina), averaging 84.8 points per game. The Irish are also coming off a win over Wake Forest in which they made 13 3s, nine in the second half.
>> Who will be Notre Dame’s fifth starter? It was Austin Torres against North Carolina and Rex Pflueger against Wake Forest. Brey wasn’t committed to anyone while talking about the final coveted spot earlier this week though, and said it was something he’d discuss with his coaches in the days leading up to the game. However, look for it to be a guard (Pflueger or Gibbs) because the Irish have been more efficient offensively with a smaller lineup.
— Laken Litman