Aug. 20, 2005
There will be a new focus for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team in 2005-06. While preseason talk in the past for head coach Mike Brey and his players has centered around the NCAA Tournament, this year’s approach to the start of the campaign will be different.
Early on, Brey intends to have his Irish focus simply on becoming a better basketball team everyday. New faces and new roles will create plenty of competition. This year’s edition of Notre Dame basketball will feature a blend of both experience and youth, thanks in part to talented freshman class.
“Since the end of last season, I’ve just tried to talk to our players about getting better everyday. There’s been so much talk about getting back to the NCAA tournament the last coule of years, and that has always been our goal, but I dont’ want us talking about that on the front end — it’s something will focus on as the season progresses.”
Experience always has been a trademark of Brey’s team. Certainly, there is experience this season with the return of seniors Chris Quinn, Torin Francis, Rick Cornett and junior Colin Falls, who have logged considerable playing time durng their careers. Juniors Russell Carter and Omari Isreal and sophomore Rob Kurz also will look to get their share of playing time and will have the opportunity to make significant contributions.
“We’ve always been an older program, but I believe that our freshmen can have an impact on our success this year.” Brey says. We still have a nice mix of older players that will keep us competitve in the league, but as a coaching staff, we’re going to be more open this year to letting those younger players play through their mistakes and develop. Patience is going to be important and a real virtue as we work with these younger guys.”
Notre Dame will face many unknowns when practice begin on October 15. In years past, the identity of his teams were pretty well established to start the season. But this season, there is certainly much uncertainty.
“There’s going to be a pretty competitive atmosphere out there when we start practice, Brey says. “Guys know that they are going to have to work hard everyday because there is always going to be someone out there who is going to be challenging for their spot.”
With the return of Quinn, Francis and Cornett, the Irish once again will have strong senior leadership and great experience who have played a lot of basketball during their careers. And why the sixth-year coach expects to see a couple of his freshmen earn significant playing minutes, he knows that everything begins with his senior group.
“Our seniors have been part of a lot of college basketball, and they’ve been part of a lot of wins in the BIG EAST,” Brey says. “I have the utmost confidence in them because of the battles they’ve been in. I feel good that we have Chris, Rick and Torin back to set the tone, especially for our younger players.”
Despite the uncertainty as to how the starting lineup will shape out and a playing rotation, Brey is excited about the potential of this year’s squad.
“I’m really excited about where we could be with this group at the end of the season,” Brey says. “I like our blend of experience and youth. It will be interesting to see how our well the older and younger guys mix together. There’s a possibility of several different playing rotations.”
If Notre Dame is to be successful this season, it must be more productive up front in terms of scoring and rebounding. No Irish frontcourt player averaged in double figures a year ago or better than 7.8 rebounds.
The lack of production up front put considerable pressure on the perimeter game, which contributed nearly 58 percent of the team’s scoring. Too many times last season, the offense stalled because there wasn’t any scoring inside and that contributed to Notre Dame averaging just 67.3 points per game (the fewest points in Brey’s five seasons).
“It’s going to be really important for our frontcourt to take pressure off our our perimeter,” Brey says. “We can’t live and die with our perimeter and have to get touches inside.”
For the Irish to be successful in 2005-06, the entire front line (led by Torin Francis, pictured) will need to step up its productivity.
The experience of forwards Torin Francis (Sr./6-11, 252/Boston, Mass.) and Rick Cornett (Sr./6-8, 256/Country Club Hills, Ill.) give the Irish a strong frontcourt presence. Notre Dame will count on their scoring and rebounding ability underneath this season. Both players are most effective when they have room to operate underneath.
“I’m expecting Torin and Rick to play with a lot of confidence this season,” Brey says. “What is going to help them and our entire post game this season is that with the personnel we have, there will be more room for them to move around the basket. We’re going to be more of a four-around-one team to give the post players more room underneath.”
Francis, a three-year starter, returned to the Irish lineup after undergoing back surgery that forced him to miss the final 12 games of the 2003-04 campaign. He declared for the 2005 NBA Draft, but elected to return to school for his final season at Notre Dame.
Francis led the Irish in rebounding (7.8 rpg.) for the third straight year, but averaged just 9.3 points per game, both career-lows. He has the ability to dominate a game at both ends of the floor and register a double-double everytime he steps onto the court. He owns career averages of 11.2 ppg. and 8.3 rpg., in addition to 1.5 blocks per game.
“Torin can be one of the best big men in the BIG EAST,” Brey says. “He just needs to keep it simple and we need to give him more room to maneuver. I want him to be a physical presence for us inside. Torin works extremely hard and takes a great deal of pride in his work ethic.”
With each season, Cornett’s role has increased. Certainly the most agile of Notre Dame’s frontcourt players in terms of his scoring and rebounding ability underneath the basket. He is at his best offensively when grabbing offensive rebounds for second-chance points.
Cornett averaged 3.7 points and 2.6 rebounds in his junior year, but Brey is looking for him to increase both of those numbers this season.
“Rick’s commitment to his off-season conditioning each summer has gotten higher and I have a sense that his level of commitment is at the highest its ever been as he heads into his last final season,” Brey says. “He’s learned how to work to be a good player. Rick’s been in some key situations and our players and coaches have confidence in him. Keeping his conditioning at a high level is going to be key so that he can play longer minutes.”
Sophomore forward Rob Kurz (So./6-9, 219,Lower Gwynedd, Pa.) did not see much playing time in his rookie season, averaging just 1.4 ppg. and 1, rpg., but his development during the offseason could lead him to a prominent role as Notre Dame’s second big man. Kurz’ style of play is very much like that of Jordan Cornette’s (who started 76 games for the Irish during his career) because he can play both inside and along the perimeter.
Kurz’ toughness around the basket will give the Irish a much-needed scoring and rebounding presense underneath. A player with great versatility, he has a good shooting touch and gets up and down the floor extremely well. He could also play along the perimeter because of his consistency as a shooter.
“We’re going to have an open mind with Rob and nuture him along,” Brey says. “He’s definitely going to figure into our plans this year. With his skill as a shooter, passer and rebounder, he could become a guy that plays both inside and outside.
“He needs to improve defensively, but he knows how to play and is easy to play with.”
Junior Omari Isreal (Jr./6-9, 233/Rockville, Md.) has athleticism and strength to play inside, but he also has the versatility to play out on the perimeter. Isreal missed the 2003-04 season recovering from knee surgery after sustaining a injury just before the end of his senior year. The 2004-05 campaign was his first playing for the Irish as he averaged 1.4 points and 1.8 rebounds.
This season, Brey will count on Isreal to be a force on the boards as well as a defensive stopper when he is in the game. He is best offensively slashing to the basket.
“Omari has a real high basketball IQ,” Brey says. “He’s a great investment for our program. With his size and strength, he’s a tough matchup as the third perimeter, but we are also going to count on his strength as rebounder.”
Forward Luke Zeller (Fr./6-11, 245/Washington, Ind.) headlines a highly-regarded freshman class that is ranked one of the best nationally.
Honored as the 2005 Mr. Basketball in Indiana and member of the McDonald’s All-America Team, averaged 19.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.8 blocked shots in his final scholastic season as he led his Washington High team to the Class 3A state championship.
A highly skilled player with good passing and shooting skills for a player his size, he could see playing time on the perimeter or inside. Zeller needs to work on getting stronger and must concentrate on his defense and rebounding the basketball.
“Luke can be a second big man for us, but can also play along the perimeter,” Brey says. “His ability to step out and shoot the ball is going to open up the floor for big men inside. We are going to have the opportunity to nuture Luke along, but he will see significant playing time this season because he is such a skilled player.”
Zach Hillesland (Fr./6-8, 220/Toledo, Ohio) gives Notre Dame a physical presence on the floor because he can defend and rebound well. Hillesland will see playing time this season because he does the little things well. He likes to play defense and gets to the boards well.
A second-team all-state selection, he averaged 15.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists as he helped his team to the state finals.
“Zach doesn’t have to reinvent his game in college,” Brey says. “I like his style of play because he thinks about guarding people. He can guard guards as well as the big guys on the floor. Zach takes pride in his defense and in shutting people down.”
Second-year walk-on Chris Murphy (Sr./6-6, 210/Downers Grove, Ill.) is back to give the Irish depth at the forward spot.
During Brey’s tenure, strong backcourt play always has typified his Notre Dame teams. With the graduation of point guard Chris Thomas (holder of nine career school records and third all-time leading scorer), the Irish will have a new leader in the backcourt.
Two-year starter Chris Quinn (Sr./6-2, 185, Dublin, Ohio), second on the team in scoring (12.6) and assists (3.1) a year, is ready to take over the point guard duties after playing the last two seasons at the two-guard position.
An excellent ballhandler, he has topped the BIG EAST in assist-to-turnover ratio each of the last two seasons. He also is an excellent shooter and has been one of the Irish’s top three-point shooting threats since his freshman season.
“Chris Quinn is ready to step in and be our point guard,” Brey says. “He’s ready to quarterback this team and a position that he has wanted to be in for a very long time. Chris is a guy with great instincts who is excited about his role and the challenges of being our decision-maker in the backcourt.
“He’ll be one of the better point guards in the country and I think by mid-January, people are going to take notice.”
Colin Falls (Jr./6-5, 204/Park Ridge, Ill.) will become Quinn’s backcourt mate after playing most of last season at the three position on the floor. The tandem of Falls and Quinn will provide the Irish with one of the nation’s top three-point shooting duos.
Colin Falls hopes to carry over his improvement from a year ago, when as a sophomore he developed into one of the best three point shooters in the country.
Falls averaged 12.6 points per game in his sophomore season and set the Notre Dame record for three-point field goals for a sophomore when he made 93 on 41.3 percent accuracy from the field.
A starter in all 29 games last season, Brey expects Falls to emerge as one of the BIG EAST’s top guards in ’05-’06.
“We’re going to see the development of one of the better guards in our league because of the confidence he gained a year ago,” Brey says. “I don’t know if anybody has hit more big shots in the first two years two years of a college career than Colin Falls.
“He’s more than just a shooter and just a complete college basketball player. I expect that this year you’ll see himm do a little more off the dribble.”
Sharpshooter Russell Carter (Jr./6-4, 223/Paulsboro, N.J.) will look to solidify a spot in the Irish rotation. As a sophomore, he played in 24 contests and averaged 3.5 points per game. One of the team’s most athletic players, he gives the Irish an immediate spark off the bench with his long-range shooting ability and defensive play.
“Russell has a chance to really help us this season,” Brey says. “He’s a real spark for us and as we’ve seen the last two seasons, he’s a real high-energy guy. Russell is a great outside shooter, but we want him also to be be more of a defender for us.
Kyle McAlarney (Fr./6-1, 190/Staten Island, N.Y.) gives Brey and the Irish a solid backup at point guard. McAlarney, the all-time leading scorer in Staten Island history after scoring 2,566 points in high school, will certainly see his share of playing time this season.
McAlarney posses and adept shooting touch from the outside, and like Quinn, handles the ball well. He has great feel for the game and excellent court vision.
“Kyle may be the most ready to play of any of our freshmen,” Brey says. “He plays with a great deal of confidence and handles the ball extremely well, especially in traffic.
“Kyle has good size for a point guard and is very physical player. He’s an extremely fearless player who is certainly ready for the challenges that he is going to face in the BIG EAST.”
Another rookie Ryan Ayers (Fr./6-7, 200/Blue Bell, Pa.) has the potential to be big-time college shooter. The 2005 Gatorade Player of the Year in Pennsylvania, he concluded his college career with 1,370 points after averaging 27.0 during his final prep season.
Ayers, the son of former Ohio State and Philadelphia 76ers head coach Randy Ayers (now an assistant with the Orlando Magic), is an extremely knowledgeable player with excellent shooting range from the outside.
“Ryan’s got good size and he knows how to play the game,” Brey says. “He gives us size along the perimeter. He’s a player who can make shots and a guy that is going to fit in well with our style of play.”
The BIG EAST
The BIG EAST becomes the nation’s largest conference with the expansion to 16 teams following the addition of Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida, and with that, Notre Dame becomes part of the nation’s top basketball conference.
“The BIG EAST is going to be a real challenge for us,” Brey says. “We’ve been disappointed the past couple of years with our performance in the tournament and I think our guys want to turn that around. The league is going to be very physical and we are going to have to work hard to meet that challenge.
Irish head coach Mike Brey knows that the BIG EAST Conference offers a entirely new challenge for this team in 2005-06.
“The pressure may be off of us a little this year, but we’re always the big game for everybody. I think we’ll be picked to finish anywhere from 9-11 in the league, but that’s OK. I think it will probably be a good thing for us because we’re going to have to establish our identity. It also will probably be a good motivator for us.”
“I’m really excited about this group and anxious to see how the older and younger players mix together,” Brey says. “I don’t want this team to get ahead of itself. We need to focus on the day-to-day, week-to-week improvement, not whether we’re an NCAA Tournament team or where we are going to finish in the BIG EAST. We can’t get caught up in worrying about that. We’re a team that is going to get better everyday and that is what we are going to use as our motivation throughout the season.”