by Peggy Curtin
When junior guard Jimmy Dillon first made the trip from his native Philadelphia to attend Notre Dame in 1996, he knew he had one big thing to work on.
He had the talent, the moves and a good enough work ethic to make an impact as a college freshman. He played summer ball with Kobe Bryant, now of Los Angeles Lakers and NBA fame, and led his high school team to the state semifinals as a senior.
One thing he didn’t have, however, was the physical strength to challenge some of the bigger, stronger and faster guards that the Irish would face each and every week. At 150 pounds, Dillon knew he had to not only take his game to a new level, but also spend serious time just hitting the weights.
“It’s a huge jump coming here,” Dillon said. “Our (high school) league was kind of weak back at home. If you were off for a night or two and didn’t have your game, you could get by. But out here against the BIG EAST competition and the non-conference schedule we play, if you’re not ready to play, you’re going to get embarrassed.” Now just two years later, a bigger, stronger, faster Jimmy Dillon is making a greater impact on a young Irish squad. He’s averaging a career high 14.6 minutes per game and is on pace to improve in almost every statistical category including points per game, assists, steals and rebounds.
“I was 150 pounds coming into this place,” said Dillon, who celebrated his 20th birthday last Friday. “I’ve gotten a lot stronger, which has helped my game. My jump shot has improved and I’m looking to score a lot more this year. If you talk to anyone around, they’ll tell you that there has been improvement from Jimmy Dillon as a player each individual year. Hopefully, that’s going to continue.” Dillon’s off-season strength and conditioning has not gone unnoticed by the Irish coaching staff.
“He’s really worked hard to get stronger,” said Notre Dame assistant coach Fran McCaffery. “He always had great vision and a point guard mentality, but with more size and strength, he’s become a better defender on and off the ball. He’s now able to get the ball down the court, split screens, and is able to look at the basket more to score.” Scoring is something that Dillon has not done much of the past two seasons. At Holy Ghost Prep, he averaged 16.3 points as the team’s starting point guard, but with the Irish, his points per game average has never gotten above two points prior to this season. “Before he would just look to pass all the time,” said Irish assistant coach Billy Taylor. “Now, he’s looking at the basket a little more, which is making his passing better, because people are starting to come out to him and he can distribute the ball more effectively.” One thing that hasn’t changed regarding Dillon’s role with the team is that he’s coming off the bench in relief of starter Martin Ingelsby after backing up Admore White in 1996-97. “I sit on the bench and analyze what needs to be done and what needs to be kept up after,” Dillon said. “When I get in there I try to be a leader out on the floor vocally and emotionally. Basically, we have to stay with what works and whatever doesn’t work it’s my job to fix it. I just go in and play hard and provide a little spark off the bench for the minutes that I’m in there.”
Part of Dillon’s improvement and maturing process over the last three seasons has also come as a result of several things in addition to strength and conditioning. One is constant analyzing of his game both on tape and in individual workouts and practice with McCaffery. “(McCaffery) takes me into his office and we’ll look at film for a half hour or so,” Dillon said. “We’ll look at situations in games where I made this play earlier and it needs to be corrected, or when I did something well and he wants to see more of it. “He’s also been out there with me during my individual workouts and when I miss a free throw, he’ll say this is what you did. He really puts everything into a certain perspective for me. It’s good to have someone like Fran around.”
Another key element in improving his game is staying active and competitive during the summer months back at home in Philadelphia. While others are relaxing and taking a break, Dillon uses his vacation time to workout and play in the nearby Sonny Hill League which is composed of college players also home on their summer vacations. From the league, Dillon is able to pick up new skills and moves, as well as refine his old ones.
“Everybody has certain qualities and skills that they bring to the court and some people do certain things better than others,” Dillon said. “You always want to pick up on those things and learn from them. There are so many fundamentals and talents that certain players have, so you need to go out there and pick those things up and better yourself. Each individual player always has something to offer.”
What Dillon has to offer this year’s team is a more up tempo, in-your-face style of game. On the defensive end, he like to get down into the nitty-gritty and mix things up a bit. Offensively, Dillon believes that the team’s tempo is driven by the point guard. “I think my job as a point guard is to make the team go,” Dillon said. “So I think when I start to go is when the team also starts going. I also look at it from the stand point that my individual role will ultimately depend on them filling their individual roles too.” Coming to Notre Dame, Dillon didn’t make any individual goals for himself.
“I never set any individual goals, I just wanted to be a part of a winning program and do whatever possible to help this team achieve,” Dillon said. “I’ll admit I’m tired of watching the NCAAs on television and maybe a BIG EAST title would be nice too. The main goal, though, is that I want to be successful and be a part of a winning program.” Part of building that winning program is getting good recruits. This season, the Irish have started two freshmen, Troy Murphy and David Graves, while classmate Harold Swanagan has seen significant playing time at center.
“I see this program going nothing but upward,” Dillon says. “This year’s freshman class is unbelievable. Troy’s the real deal and David and Harold, you can’t ask anything more from them on an effort, enthusiasm and emotional level. It’s really exciting to see the freshman going out there and doing what they’re doing now. We just want to stay on this program and keep building and building. This year’s class and next year’s shows that we’re going in that direction.”
Next year’s class includes Dillon’s former summer teammate and high school foe Matt Carroll.
“Matt coming in here next year is going to give us another dimension to add to our program,” Dillon said. “He was young and developing when I played with him, but we knew he was going to be something special from the get-go. I’ve always stayed friends with him and am looking for a lot from him next year.”