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Irish close out exhibitions tonight

Matt Lozar | Friday, November 14, 2003

“The Phonz” returns to the Joyce Center tonight.

Eleven years after graduating from Notre Dame, LaPhonso Ellis headlines an Illinois All-Stars roster facing the Irish tonight in what will be Notre Dame’s final exhibition tune-up before the season starts at home Nov. 24 against Northern Illinois.

Ellis played four years at Notre Dame and left his name all over the record books. He currently sits 11th in all-time scoring, third in all-time rebounding, second in field goal percentage and first in career blocks. In 1992, the Denver Nuggets selected Ellis with the fifth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

That type of physical player, along with the rest of the Illinois All-Stars, provides the Irish with a challenge they usually face during their rugged Big East schedule – something coach Mike Brey likes.

“Physically, they have [big] bodies, which is a good thing. They have Big East bodies,” Brey said. “I don’t know if they run as many sets as the last team [Hoop Group] we played. That last team we played was the most disciplined exhibition team I’ve ever seen. This team is a little bit more up and down, firing up a 3-point shot.”

Running up and down the court is not the type of game Brey wants his team to get into this season. The loss of Matt Carroll and Dan Miller to graduation takes away two big-time scorers from his lineup.

Their graduation increases playing time of Jordan Cornette and Torrian Jones, who are known – at least right now – more for their defensive skill than their offensive game.

“I don’t think we were a team that took as much pride as we should have last year in our team defense,” Brey said. “We were just so good offensively that we tried to outscore people. That’s the one thing we talked about early in the season – could we hang our hat on our defense a little bit more.

“Of course, [when Jordan and Torrian] are on the floor more, you are automatically a better defensive team.”

Jones recognizes along with Brey that this year’s team cannot rely on its offensive firepower alone. The Irish need to use their athletic lineup and force turnovers.

“Team defense has been the biggest point of emphasis since the last game,” Jones said.

“We are trying to get better at playing defense for 40 minutes and not just in spurts like I think we did last game. [We must be] defending and turning them over a little bit more. I think last game we played good team defense in having them shoot the ball, but we really didn’t get underneath them and force tempo. I think that’s something with the personnel we have this year [that] we can do a little bit more than in the past.”

Those turnovers could lead to something the Irish didn’t have a lot of last year – easy buckets.

“I think as a coach, you are always adjusting to your personnel and trying to play off your strengths. Our strength last year was that we were an explosive offensive team, so we rested on defense sometimes,” Brey said. “This year with Jones and Cornette on the floor more, [Chris] Thomas and [Chris] Quinn out there, those four being on the floor a lot together, we feel we can be a better defensive team and take advantage of the personnel we have.

“Maybe we can take advantage of the personnel we have and get some easy baskets off our defense.”

This team has been practicing since early September because of an October trip to Barbados. While Brey tries to simulate game conditions in practice, this team is still searching for its identity.

And they’re happy to play in front of a packed Joyce Center.

“I think we just want to get a better feel for each other even though we’ve been practicing for a while with this foreign tour,” Brey said.

“Also, I think to get accustomed to playing in front of a sold-out crowd because this building should be sold out for just about every game.”