Friday, October 21, 2005


Just a few short years ago, I do not think any fans of Notre Dame or Irish head coach Mike Brey ever imagined that the Chris Thomas era would come to a close quietly, on a March night, with a lose on their home floor to Holy Cross in the first round of the NIT Tournament. Afterall, coming off a trip to the Sweet 16 and three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances with super sophomore Chris Thomas and talented freshmen Torin Francis spurning the NBA draft to return to Notre Dame, things were just about to get really good for the Irish.

Somewhere along the road back to NCAA Tournament glory, the Irish got sidetracked. Francis has battled back injuries and Thomas has now graduated after a pair of disappointing NIT seasons. Now the Irish look to begin anew in their road back to the upper-echelon of the Big East.

I am sure Notre Dame fans have not forgotton that the Irish actually had a better conference record (9-7) last year than the March darlings from West Virginia (8-8) and it was Notre Dame last year that played the tougher conference schedule, meeting Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Syracuse two times. But, with their season on the line, the Irish continued their misery at Madison Square Garden in the Big East tournament with a loss to Rutgers.

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Notre Dame has always been a team under Brey that has plenty of skill, especially on the perimeter, but lacks the toughness inside to defend and compete on the boards in the paint. And, in a conference that tends to see more than its share of half court action and games that can resemble a street fight, the Irish style under Brey has seemed to be slow to react to the style in the Big East. They tend to resemble a team that you would more likely see in the ACC, which, is where Mike Brey learned his craft as an assistant at Duke. It could be one of the reasons that the Irish have had more success in the NCAA tournament in the last 5 years (4-3) than they have in the Big East tournament (2-5). In the Big East, good shooters find it much tougher to roam free and move through an offense without being bogged down in a half court game with the physical style and athletic ability of most of the teams. Notre Dame, until this year, has been the team that is stuck out on the western-most tip of the conference landscape and did not have as much access to the traditional recruiting areas of other Big East teams. You can see a different style and personality of their players. They do seem to be making some changes in recruiting targets and the expansion of the Big East will open more eyes to the conference in the midwest.

Once again, Notre Dame will feature some impressive perimeter players that can fill it up from beyond the arc. Taking over at the point guard slot this season in senior Chris Quinn, who will slide over from the position of Chris Thomas' running mate to the lead guard role. Quinn is an underrated player among guards in the conference that I feel will have better success getting the rest of the team involved at the point position. It seemed to be a direction Mike Brey was moving last year with Quinn and Thomas, but Quinn had some nagging injuries curb the move late in the season. Still, Quinn managed to score 12.6 PPG last year and maintained an excellent 2.8:1 assist to turnover ratio. Quinn shot 46% from beyond the arc (66-145), but will need to find his way to the foul line more often (just 60 trips) to carry more of the scoring load. On the wing, junior Colin Falls returns. Falls might be the best standstill shooter in major college basketball. Last year, Falls hit 93 deep balls at a clip of 41%. The problem here is he only connected on 8 shots all season inside the arc! In fact, he only attempted 36 2-pt field goals ALL SEASON! Falls must become a more diversified player because in over 30 minutes a game he gave the team barely 2 rebounds and just over an assist a game at the wing. As good as a 3-pt shooter he is, his one dimensional play hurt them in many instances as well. Reggie Carter is a wing guard that returns and gives the Irish a little more in terms of athletic ability and rebounding on the perimeter. His contrasting talents may earn him a lot more time this season in helping make up for the loss of Thomas. Sophomore Omari Israel returned from injury to see some increasing time last year later in the season. Israel showed signs of being able to use his strength and athletic ability to help out on the defensive end, but on offense his lack of skill did not fit in well with the Irish offense. He will have to show an improved touch and understanding of the Irish system to contribute this season in a meaningful way.

A big key to the Irish success this season is the contribution they will receive from a pair of newcomers on the perimeter: Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers. McAlarney comes to Notre Dame from Staten Island, NY and should fit in very well at Notre Dame. McAlarney is a fiesty floor general that can really light it up from beyond the arc. McAlarney will be able to spell Quinn and the point and they can both play together in the backcourt offering the Irish a pair of excellent ballhandlers with excellent basketball knowledge. Speaking of basketball knowledge, the Ayers name should be very familiar to college basketball fans as Ryan is the son of Randy Ayers, former head coach at Ohio St and the Philadelphia 76ers, and is currently an assistant with the Orlando Magic. Ryan Ayers is a sweet shooting wing that will add depth on the wing behind Colin Falls. Ayers also has good size, at 6'7, and should be able to add a little more of a physical presence on the perimeter for the Irish. Like most Irish players, he can shoot and is smart and unselfish, how much and how quickly he can adapt to the physical demands of the college game will determine the type of impact he can make and when.

The Irish have always been able to strike from the perimeter the last couple years and for this season, they will have to find some kind of balance to have a successful season. Of course, they are lead by senior Torin Francis, their 6'10 250 lb man in the middle. Francis passes the look test of a physical Big East bruiser in the paint, but seems more comfortable in playing a more finesse game in the paint. Often times, Francis was left alone in the middle to battle against some of the most physical players in the country, a role, especially since a bad back flared up in his sophomore year, that he did not seem to be at all comfortable with at times. With the Irish becoming increasingly dependent on the perimeter game, Francis' offensive production dwindled last season to 9 PPG and 8 rebounds, both career lows. Now, more than a year removed from back surgery, he will need to return to his sophomore numbers of 14 PPG and 8.4 rebounds to help the Irish achieve the success they expect in 2005-2006. As far as the physical help in the paint for the Irish, Francis should be helped by increased time on the floor from senior Rick Cornett. There is no mistaking Cornett's role when in the game, he is a bruiser and an athletic 6'8 250 lbs. Often times he can be more of a "bull in a china shop", but he will get after it defensively and on the glass in the paint. Cornett played just 9 minutes a game last season, but managed to chip in nearly 4 points and 3 rebounds a contest. He will need to get better body control to avoid picking up quick fouls (averaged a foul every 6.8 minutes last season)and show the ability to hit connect from the free throw line (just 41% last year). Another compliment to Cornett and Francis could come in the form of sophomore Rob Kurz, a 6'9 218 lb forward. Kurz played sparingly last season until the opening round NIT loss and will be looked upon to add some punch offensively to the front court. Kurz has the ability to step away from the hoop and knock down a jumper, but will have to get down and dirty in the Big East on the boards and defending some of the forwards around the league. The Irish will look for big improvement in the sophomore this season.

Another reason of hope in the freshmen class is from Washington, IN native Luke Zeller, the Mr Basketball in the state of Indiana last season. Zeller is another very skilled player in the Notre Dame system that loves to face up and hit shots from the perimeter. He really needs to gain strength and improve his ability to defend and rebound at this level to help the Irish in the areas they have struggled the last couple years. He has all the tools to be a very good player, especially offensively, just needs to develop his body to take the physical style of the Big East. He is a good ballhandler and passer for a player his size. Another freshmen forward, Zach Hillesland, does come to Notre Dame with a reputation of embracing the role on defense and rebounding and if he can carry that over into the Big East, he can find a niche with this team. Probably the least heralded of the four Irish freshmen, Hillesland might be able to use his versatility to play his way into the rotation this season.

Led by their three seniors, Rick Cornett, Chris Quinn and Torin Francis, along with a solid freshmen class, the Irish and coach Mike Brey have reason to be excited as their is some potential with this team. It is always unpredictable as to the amount of impact a freshmen will have, so the immediate success of this Irish team may ultimately lie in the hands of Cornett, Reggie Carter and Rob Kurz in how much of a heavier load these players can handle from their small rols of previous seasons. The freshmen will come along and McAlarney and Zeller will be counted on to be regular members of the rotation, but solid contributions from the returning players on a consistent basis will determine the success of the Irish season.

One advantage Notre Dame has this season compared to the last two in the Big East is their schedule, no longer are they facing Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Syracuse two times, but instead they will see DePaul, Marquette and Providence twice on their schedule. They must get four or five wins in their mirror games and hold serve at home for another three wins and win at Seton Hall, then, barring any surprise wins, they are a nine win conference team. Losing Thomas is going to hurt, but it should allow other players to grow in new roles and the lighter schedule should make up for the difference.

Projected Big East Record: 9-7

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