Aug. 2, 2002
Shortly after being hired as the Notre Dame men’s basketball coach in July of 2000, Mike Brey gathered his players and talked to his team about returning the Irish to the ranks of college basketball’s elite. He spoke about the importance of Notre Dame getting back to the NCAA tournament and how he could help get them there.
Prior to the 2001 tournament, it had been 11 years since an Irish team had been part of the postseason craze. Back-to-back NCAA appearances and first-round victories in each of Brey’s first two seasons certainly have established a solid foundation for the program.
Notre Dame heads into the 2002-03 campaign with a tournament-tested squad ready to take the next step after finishing with a 22-11 mark year last season. The graduation of veteran starters Ryan Humphrey, a first-round pick in the ’02 NBA draft, David Graves and Harold Swanagan, certainly leaves the Irish with some voids to fill in terms of talent and leadership on the court.
Despite the losses of these three players, Brey has a solid returning nucleus, which includes sharp-shooting senior Matt Carroll and sophomore point guard Chris Thomas, who arguably comprise one of the nation’s top backcourts. In addition, the Irish return seven letterwinners and welcome a heralded freshman class that has been ranked as high as 12th nationally. Added to the mix is transfer Dan Miller, a senior who sat out last season after transferring to Notre Dame from the University of Maryland.
“I like where our program is headed and I am very excited about the upcoming season,” Brey says. “I have a great deal of confidence in the guys on this roster. People questioned our ability last season to get back to the NCAA tournament after we lost Troy Murphy and Martin Ingelsby. I’m confident in our players because I have coached them now for two years and they know and understand what my expectations are. I feel very good about what we have accomplished as a program.
“We’ve got more depth this season which will allow us flexibility in terms of how we rotate our lineup. There’s going to be a lot of competition out there for playing time which is going to make our practices very spirited and competitive.”
Consistency has been the trademark of Brey’s teams the past two seasons as his teams have won 42 games, including 21 BIG EAST contests. Notre Dame’s 21 league wins the past two seasons are matched only by Connecticut and Boston College.
The Irish have been the only conference team to earn a first-round bye in the BIG EAST championship each of the past two campaigns as they captured the West Division crown in 2001 and finished second a year ago. Notre Dame also is the only school to win 10-plus league games each of the past two seasons.
“One of the things I’ve always stressed to our players is that we want to be the most consistent and stable team through the BIG EAST regular season from January to March,” Brey says. “We don’t want to get too high after the wins and too low after the losses and just want to pace ourselves through the entire season. I think we’ve really taken a lot of stock in it and that is one of the reasons why we have been so successful.”
While Notre Dame has enjoyed success in the NCAA tournament, Brey and his squad would like nothing better than to get past the second round and into the Sweet 16 this season. Success over the past two seasons has set a high bar of expectation by both the coaching staff and its players.
“It’s great that our players can talk about it and not have me telling them what it is like.” Brey says. “This is especially important for our younger players. We’ve got our upperclassmen saying to our younger guys ‘here is how we do it in this program and here is what is expected.’ The mark of a good program is having that type of continuity.”
The losses of Humphrey and Swanagan on the forward line have left several question marks for Brey in terms of scoring and rebounding in the frontcourt. Notre Dame’s perimeter attack will carry the Irish throughout the season, especially early on. Despite the loss of Graves, who finished his career as the school’s all-time leading three-point shooter, the Irish boast one of the nation’s potent perimeter games.
Sophomore Jordan Cornette, senior Jere Macura and junior Tom Timmermans offer experience on the frontline, with added depth coming from freshmen forwards Torin Francis, a McDonald’s All-American, Rick Cornett and Omari Peterkin. Francis and Cornett are going see valuable playing minutes immediately and will certainly have an impact, while Peterkin have some time to develop.
“There is no question that we must aggressively nuture Torin and Rick,” Brey says. “They are our future and are great investments for us. We need to speed the process up as much as possible, much like we did with Chris Thomas.”
Versatility in the backcourt and on the wings will keep Irish opponents guessing all season long. There is a certain stability there with the return of Thomas and Carroll, Notre Dame’s top two scoring leaders from a year ago. Thomas, who earned national freshman-of-the-year honors from Basketball Times and Basketball News, averaged 15.6 points, while Carroll netted 14.1 points. In addition to this scoring tandem, the Irish are expected to get help offensively from Miller, a threat on the wing, but also a player who can drive to the basket.
“Matt and Chris are experienced players who will be our decision makers on the court.” Brey says. “They have the experience of handling the ball in a lot of different situations. Having them back will take the burden away from our younger players because I know that they (Carroll and Thomas) are going to be able to get them the ball. Matt and Chris are again going to be the two guys orchestrating our offense.”
Juniors Torrian Jones and Chris Markwood give Notre Dame a tremendous defensive presence on the court as well as providing offense. Freshman Chris Quinn will serve as a backup to Thomas at point guard, but it is expected that he and Thomas will see playing time in the backcourt at the same time. When Brey utilizes that option, look for Thomas to move to shooting guard.
Notre Dame’s depth and versatility will allow Brey and his staff to mix things up during the course of a game. The speed and quickness of Thomas again will key an effective transitional game for the Irish, while the low post presence of Timmermans, Cornette, Francis and Cornett will open up Notre Dame’s perimeter game.
Unselfishness also has been a hallmark of the Irish since Brey’s arrival. Last season, Notre Dame ranked third nationally with 19.1 assists per game and also owned a 1.48 assist-to-basket ratio.
“We’ll have different options this season because of our athleticism and talent,” Brey says. “Our players know and understand their roles in this system. They all have a common goal of winning another BIG EAST championship and going farther in the NCAA tournament.”
The frontcourt play of Ryan Humphrey and Harold Swanagan was instrumental to Notre Dame’s success a year ago. Their departures have left Brey with some obvious concerns and question marks in terms of scoring and rebounding up front. Humphrey led the team in both categories, avergaing 18.9 points and 10.9 rebounds, while Swanagan netted 8.1 points and grabbed 6.7 rebounds, second best on the team.
The return of Jordan Cornette, Jere Macura and Tom Timmermans and the addition of Rick Cornett, Torin Francis and Omari Peterkin certainly gives Notre Dame several options in terms its personnel and how Brey will utilize their skills. Assuredly, this is a very talented group of players that just lacks significant playing minutes in game situations.
“Certainly it won’t be easy to replace Ryan and Harold because they meant so much to our team, not just in terms of what they contributed on the court, but also the type of leadership they provided us with,” Brey says.
“I do have concerns because we don’t have a proven starter. We have a lot of options and that’s the real exciting part because we have talent; right now they (the players) don’t have the experience. I’m looking forward to watching their progress.”
Macura, who will serve as tri-captain this season along with teammates Matt Carroll and Dan Miller, is one of the team’s most talented players in terms of his offensive skill and versatility on the court. The 6-9, 230-pound senior from Split Croatia has an excellent first step to the basket, in addition to having the ability to shoot from the outside.
In his first two seasons, Macura, who averaged 4.1 points and 2.8 points as a junior, was considered more of a perimeter player. Brey, however, moved him closer to the basket to take advantage of his athleticism and quickness.
“Jere is determined to have a good senior season and to set the tone for the younger players,” Brey says. “He wants to come in every day and compete in practice. He has an advantage over our other players up front this year because he has the age and experience.
“He’s an amazingly skilled player and a heck of an offensive threat. Jere is going to be an asset to us in rebounding because he can rebound at both ends of the floor. We need him to be aggressive and physical around the basket.”
Cornette was very productive for the Irish in his freshman season as the 6-9, 221-pound product of Cincinnati, Ohio averaged 2.7 points and 3.3 rebounds and made six starts in the 31 games he played. Predominantly used as a defensive specialist last season, he displayed an ability to be an offensive threat, especially from just inside the three-point stripe.
While Notre Dame does need to develop a physical presence inside, Brey will look to take advantage of Cornette’s natural shooting ability and confidence he gained last season by having him become more of a perimeter player.
“Jordan’s style of play will allow us to move him away from the basket this season,” Brey says. “He is naturally more of a perimeter player and I like the option he gives us by playing him either inside or outside. The key is he knows what to do when facing the basket and is comfortable doing that.”
“He’s also a terrific passer and is going to be able to feed the post players at angles the other guys cannot. Jordan is good off of the dribble and he has shown that he can guard players along the perimeter.”
Timmermans, who gives Notre Dame a tremendous physical presence inside, is the only true center on the roster. He struggled at the beginning of last season with a sprained right knee injury, but once he was healthy, the 6-11, 223-pound native of Driehuis, Netherlands provided significant minutes off the bench.
Timmermans missed the first 10 games of last season and played in 19 games overall while averaging 2.2 points and 1.8 rebounds.
His wide body makes it difficult for opponents to get around which creates havoc for players down low. Similar to Swanagan, Brey is going to count on him to do the little things like screening and going after the loose balls. In addition, Timmermans will need to become very aggressive on the offensive and defensive boards.
“Harold taught Tom how to play with that body type,” Brey says. “When Tom got healthy last year, he was a real key for us. He understands the game and his role. He is much more skilled than people think because he can hit his free throws and shoot the three-point shot.
“Tom wants to have a greater role on this team and is anxious to see more playing time. At the start of the season, he very well could be one of the starting five.”
Francis, a McDonald’s and Parade All-American, represents part of Notre Dame’s frontline. The talented 6-10, 220-pound forward from Roslindale, Mass., was one of the most sought after high school recruits a year ago. The skillful freshman has tremendous potential; the versatility of his game should make him an impact player immediately.
Francis averaged 28.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocked shots in his final scholastic season at Tabor Academy and led them to three consecutive prep school championships. An excellent student as well, he also was the recipient of the Morgan Wootten Award as the McDonald’s National Boys Player of the Year.
“Torin is going to have a huge impact on this program,” Brey says. “We’re going to count on him right away, but there is going to be some nurturing involved. We’ll bring him along in the same way we did with Chris Thomas this past season.
“Torin has terrific skills around the basket, excellent footwork and good hands. He’s not as explosive as Ryan (Humphrey), but he is very skilled. Torin will be helped by the fact that he has a veteran perimeter around him; he’s not going to have to carry us, but he is going to be a key player for us.”
As a freshman, Cornett will be one of the better rebounders on the team. His 6-8, 230-pound frame is the prototype of an outstanding rebounder. Rebounding and shot-blocking will be the primary objectives for the 6-8, 230-pound forward from Country Club Hills, Ill.
Cornett scored 2.488 points and grabbed 1,778 rebounds during his prep career at Homewood Christian Academy and averaged 21.0 points and 14.0 rebounds during his senior year. He led Homewood Christian to three straight Christian Schools International (A.C.S.I.) state crowns and was a member of the Illinois Warriors AAU team that captured the 2001 national championship.
“As a rookie, he is going to be one of our better rebounders because he has a great nose for the ball,” Brey says. “In addressing our rebounding concerns, that is something that he is going to do for us from day one. We need him to be aggressive on the glass at both ends of the court, that’s what he needs to focus his energies on. We’re really not going to ask him to be a scorer for us this season.
“Rick also is going to be someone who is going to block shots for us. He won’t be swatting them away as frequently as Ryan did, but he does have the talent to be very effective for us in that area.”
Peterkin gives the Irish added depth on the frontline, but Brey expects to bring him along slowly. The 6-8, 225 pound forward/center from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands signed a national letter of intent to attend Notre Dame in May. He averaged 25.0 points and 15.0 rebounds at the Antilles School during senior year. A unanimous two-time first-team All-Island selection and All-Island MVP selection, he has been a member of the Virgin Islands Junior National Team for two years.
“Omari emerged as on option for us very late in the recruiting process,” Brey says. “He’s going to be a great investment for our program and we’re going to be patient with his development. Omari has great natural ability and has good hands and footwork for a player his size.
“With Torin and Rick, we have the luxury of slowly developing Omari. There isn’t going to be a lot of pressure on him this year to be in our rotation.”
Notre Dame’s backcourt tandem of Matt Carroll and Chris Thomas will be the heart and soul of this year’s squad as they comprise one of the nation’s top backcourt tandems. Along with senior Dan Miller, they will ignite the Irish’s perimeter game that will look to carry the Irish throughout the early part of the season.
“Matt and Chris have a tremendous chemistry on the court,” Brey says. “They have learned to enjoy playing together and have a great deal of respect for each other. Both are winners on and off the basketball court. I’ll put them up against any backcourt in the country.”
A three-year starter Carroll averaged 14.1 points and 4.8 rebounds last season and closed out the ’01-’02 campaign with scoring and rebounding averages of 20.0 and 7.0, respectively, in Notre Dame’s two BIG EAST and two NCAA tournament contests.
Carroll, a top three-point shooting threat for the Irish throughout his career, he has made 91 starts in the 99 career games he has played. The 6-6, 212-pound product of Horsham, Pa.) heads into his final season with 1,186 career points for a 12.0 scoring average. He stands third all-time with 202 three-point field goals and needs just 58 to become the school’s career leader in that category.
“Matt is our most consistent player at both ends of the floor,” Brey. “He’s going to be an outstanding captain for us this year because of his leadership qualities and demeanor both on and off the court. “He has a tremendous presence at both ends of the floor and has been a special player for us at Notre Dame. Matt is going to be a tremendous asset in the development of our younger players this year.”
The arrival of Thomas generated great anticipation and promise even before the season began. The 6-1, 175-pound point guard from Indianapolis, Ind., more than lived up to his top billing in setting Notre Dame single-season marks for assists (252) and steals (72). In his first collegiate game, Thomas recorded the first triple double in Irish basketball history.
He finished second behind Humphrey in the scoring column as he averaged 15.6 points, in addition to 3.5 rebounds. The ’02 BIG EAST Rookie of the Year also ranked fifth nationally with a 7.6 assist average, while starting all 33 games and averaging 38.0 minutes per contest. He also showed his ability to hit the outside shot as he connected on 76 three-pointers, second most on the team.
“Chris had an unbelievable freshman year and I look for him to be just as effective this year,” Brey says. “He’s one of the best point guards in the country. Physically, we are looking for Chris to get stronger and to become more active as a rebounder.
“I look forward to him taking on more of leadership role and I anticipate that he will be a very vocal leader for us on the floor. Chris is very comfortable with his role on this team. He plays with such a sense of fearlessness when he is on the floor and that has been good for the other players on our team because they put so much trust in him.”
With the loss of David Graves on the wing, Miller will be a welcome addition to the Irish lineup in terms of his leadership and maturity. A transfer from the University of Maryland following three seasons, the former McDonald’s All-American is a 6-8, 223-pound combination guard/forward from Mt. Holly, N.J.
Miller displays a style of play similar to Graves and will be a tremendous asset on the floor in terms of both scoring and rebounding. He averaged 4.2 points and 2.1 rebounds during his junior year with the Terrapins after averaging 8.5 points and 2.9 rebounds as a sophomore.
“With Dan in our lineup, we are plugging in experience from a player who has been to the Final Four and has played in some big-time games. While he isn’t the shooter of a Matt (Carroll) or David (Graves), he is a better defender and rebounder.
“Dan has a tremendous feel for the game and a certain toughness, something we are certainly going to need. He fits our style of play well and has gained a tremendous amount of respect from all of his teammates after practicing with them last year. He’s one of those players who is going to have a tremendous impact on our program this season.”
Junior Torrian Jones is another unselfish player who has filled a variety of roles for the Irish during his first two seasons. The 6-4, 197-pount guard from Fairless Hills, Pa., played in all 33 games a year ago and earned nine starts while averaging 3.5 points and 2.0 rebounds. He has been one of the team’s most improved players over the course of the last two seasons and is one of the squad’s top defensive players.
Jones understands his role as a shooter, ballhandler and defender in the lineup. He also is one of the team’s most unselfish players and is always ready to fill whatever void there is on the court.
“I can’t say enough about the improvements Torrian has made in all areas of his game,” Brey says. “He filled a lot of different roles for us last season and got experience as a starter.
“He will be competing for a starting job, but is a very effective player coming off the bench. If he isn’t our starting rotation, he’ll certainly be the first player into the game. Torrian fits into that role very well and provides us with a defensive energy when he is in the game.”
After sitting out his freshman season following knee surgery, junior Chris Markwood returned the court last year and played in 18 contests. The 6-4, 198-pound point guard out of South Portland, Me., is a tremendous asset defensively when he is on the floor and is a particularly tough defender on the perimeter. He saw time at point guard last season, but with the addition of rookie Chris Quinn at that position, Brey may look to move Markwood to the wing spot as a defender.
“I look forward to Chris coming back because his leg has been healthy for more than a year now,” Brey says. “At times last season, we played him out of position because I didn’t know if he was comfortable at the point. He’s not a shooter, but he does have the ability to drive to the basket.
“This year he is going to be a utility guy for us. He’s a strong physical player who worked extremely hard throughout the entire time he was rehabilitating his knee. We need Chris to be a tough defender for us on the wing.”
Although Quinn will play behind Thomas at the point guard, don’t expect the 6-1, 175-pound rookie from Dublin, Ohio to be sidelined on the bench. Quinn, who averaged 22.7 points and 7.0 assists during his final prep season at Coffman, is an extremely talented player with excellent court savvy and a great scoring instinct.
Brey anticipates that there will be many times this season that he will be playing Quinn and Thomas in the backcourt at the same time. A two-time first-team all-state honoree, he was named the Columbus Dispatch Player of the Year following his senior season.
“Chris (Quinn) is very fortunate to be playing behind a player like Chris Thomas,” Brey says. “He (Quinn) is going to learn a lot from him (Thomas); it’s going to be a bonus for him going up against Chris (Thomas) in practice every day.
“Chris has tremendous passing skills; I’m not sure any player on our team, including Chris Thomas, passes the ball as well as he does. He sees the floor extremely well and has an innate instinct on how to get the ball to people. Guys like playing with him because he gives up the ball. But don’t be fooled, he’s also shown that he is a good shooter and can score points.”