Jan. 19, 2000
by Tom Kolbe
If you look at every major college basketball team, one similarity they all share is a top point guard. With victories over Ohio State and Connecticut, two of last season’s Final Four teams, Notre Dame is garnering attention from everyone around the nation and being noticed as one of the nation’s top teams. The Irish are quickly becoming the team everyone hates to play.
When people notice the early success of the Irish, those who watch Notre Dame cannot miss the spectacular play of point guard Jimmy Dillon. The native of Philadelphia has quickly become a fan favorite and coach’s dream, along with being a senior who younger players can look up to as seven of the Irish’s 11 players are either freshmen or sophomores. He is also the lone senior in the starting lineup.
This season is all about change for Dillon and his teammates. Dillon is now playing under a coaching staff led by Matt Doherty. He has entered the starting lineup rather than coming off the bench and he is a leader rather than a follower. With all the changes in personnel on both the coaching staff and the roster, Dillon has provided the intangibles to help both his teammates and coaches win.
“We have a fresh new thing going with a new coaching staff and style of play along with team chemistry,” says Dillon. “I am just pleased to be surrounded by such good players and coaches and to be given the opportunities I have this year.”
Dillon’s career was not always so rosy as he struggled his first three seasons in a limited role with the Irish. Coming to Notre Dame as a young 17-year-old after graduating from Holy Ghost Prep, Dillon had a lot of growing up to do both physically and mentally. His freshman season, Dillon played in 29 games averaging 1.5 points in 9.0 minutes of action. His sophomore year was much of the same as Dillon came off the bench in 27 games averaging 1.8 points and 10 minutes a contest.
After working hard over the summer and putting on some much needed muscle and weight, Dillon showed flashes of brillance his junior season with his behind-the-back and no-look passes earning the nickname “showtime” among some of the Joyce Center faithful. But Dillon still lacked the consistency necessary to earn the starting job over Martin Ingelsby. During the second half of the season, though, Ingelsby went down with an ankle injury and Dillon was called upon to start for the Irish and did not disappoint. Dillon dished out a career-high eight assists against St. John’s in his second start for the Irish and finished the season averaging almost three points and three assists a game.
But all that has changed for Dillon this year. While starting just two games in his previous three seasons, Dillon has started all 15 games for the Irish his senior year already dishing out a career high 90 assists, after having 80 all of last season. With Dillon gaining more minutes and assuming a bigger role on the team, he still maintains he is the same player.
“I have always taken on the same role on the court throughout my college career,” says Dillon. “I would consider myself a player who displays good sportsmanship, while being hard nosed and doing whatever it takes to win.”
Although not scoring much (3.3 points a game), Dillon is averaging 6.0 assists per game and can be recognized as a main reason for sophomore forward Troy Murphy’s early season success.
“We have an All-American (Troy Murphy) down low who can do it all,” says Dillon. “My goal is to get the ball to him and let him lead us on the floor. This team has a lot of heart and character. Our goal all season has been to play hard and to play together.”
With the Irish on a current six game winning streak, Dillon is quick to shift the focus off himself and is grateful to be surrounded by a group of players and coaches, along with a system, he feels comfortable with.
“Everything has fit in well with the system we have this year,” says Dillon. “The coaches have been great and everything is a good fit for me. I owe a lot to my teammates and the coaching staff for the games that have gone in our favor.”
Dillon, who has always believed in himself, is extremely thankful for the opportunities presented to him from Doherty. “I always knew I had the potential to lead this team,” says Dillon. “Coach Doherty granted me that opportunity. He told me before the season started, that if I took care of the ball, I would be on the court. I praise him a lot for instilling his trust in me.”
“I told Jimmy in the summer that he was going to be an important part of our basketball team especially if we were going to be successful early,” says Doherty. “He worked extremely hard on trying to do the little things that would make a big difference to the team – working on his ball handling, limiting turnovers and being a leader. Jimmy Dillon is a key reason why we are successful thus far.”
Doherty is not the only person Dillon praises for instilling so much confidence in him. Dillon is quick to thank his teammates for looking to him as their leader.
“I am glad to know my teammates look to me as a leader,” says Dillon. “They know how gritty I am out there and it is good to know that they look to me to lead them on the court.”
Though Dillon is glad his team is off to a good start this season, there is a place he has never been that gives him the burning desire to play hard every game – the NCAA tournament.
“I have been here four years now and I want to go to the NCAA tournament,” says Dillon. “That is one way of motivating myself for each game. Every game is significant due to the difficulty of our schedule. We are also in a great conference which consists of many great basketball teams.”
With the early season success and the Irish headed in the right direction, Dillon has a philosophy that he will carry with him throughout the remainder of the season.
“We need to build on our early season success,” says Dillon. “We have begun play in the BIG EAST and a goal of ours was to win the regular season. “We need to take each game as our biggest game and every win is important is important to us. We will be successful down the line as long as we keep that in mind.”
While the Irish have believed in their abilities throughout the season, they are quickly making believers of others as well. “This team has a lot of trust in each other,” says Dillon. “We believe in our offensive and defensive systems. We play with the best teams in the country and have defeated two of last season’s Final Four teams. We are making believers of not only ourselves, but people all across the country.
For Dillon, his hard work and determination has paid off, however, he is glad to know his fellow teammates share the same work ethic that made him into a mainstay in this season’s Irish lineup. “We played a lot of basketball this summer and basically worked our tails off,” says Dillon. “Martin Ingelsby, Matt Carroll and myself are all from Philadelphia and we played summer ball together and talked about coming out and making this a special season.”
Realizing his playing days are almost over, Dillon is content on continuing his success while leading his team into the postseason. “I am running out of games here,” says Dillon. Being a senior, my opportunities are almost over. I just want to make the best of every chance I am given.”
So far Jimmy Dillon is making the best of those chances turning the Irish into winners.