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What saved the season

Andrew Soukup | Friday, February 20, 2004

Torin Francis lay behind the Notre Dame bench two weeks ago as trainers worked feverishly on his back to alleviate the back spasms, and teammates tried to knock off Pittsburgh. It would be another several days before an MRI revealed Francis was sidelined indefinitely with a bulging disc.

But when Francis didn’t return in the loss to Pittsburgh, the Irish were staring at a tough February schedule without their most reliable low-post presence. The road to the NCAA Tournament appeared to run off a cliff.

Then, the Irish got rolling.

“That’s what so great about sports,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “You’re always trying to work it as an exact science, when sometimes, things just happen.”

With Francis out of the lineup, Notre Dame turned to its perimeter players to carry the bulk of the Irish offensive load. When Francis was in the game, his presence in the post made it difficult for guards Chris Thomas, Torrian Jones and Chris Quinn to penetrate the lane.

That changed just two days later against Connecticut. Although the Irish had shown signs of using big men to screen perimeter players, Notre Dame unleashed a full-fledged attack called “five-out,” where all five players move around the perimeter setting. That left lanes in the paint for guards to drive and shoot easy lay-ups or pass the ball to the perimeter for a 3-pointer. It also helped that Tom Timmermans and Jordan Cornette, the two big men who played the bulk of the minutes with Francis out, were excellent passers and had the shooting range of a guard.

“It’s tough to guard, especially when everyone is hitting their shots,” Cornette said.

The player who has arguably benefited the most from the open-floor approach is Jones, who is nearly averaging a double-double in the last three Irish wins. As the team’s best penetrator, Jones has taken advantage of the open lanes he’s found when driving to the basket. He’ll either score (he’s averaging 13 points in the last three games) or pass the ball to the perimeter (he had a team-high six assists in a win against Seton Hall). But he’s also capitalized on his ability to rebound at will. For instance, in Notre Dame’s wins against Connecticut and Syracuse, the 6-foot-4 guard was grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds.

“For someone who slashes as much as me,” Jones said, “this has opened up a lot of opportunities.”

Thomas and Quinn have also benefited from the open lanes. When one drives, defenses either collapse and free up a 3-point shooter or defend the perimeter and give up a short-range jumper. And with the way the Irish are shooting lately – Notre Dame has made 43 percent of its 3-point shots – the Irish have shown they can take apart either a man-to-man defense (like Connecticut or Seton Hall played) or a zone (like the one Syracuse occasionally slipped into Monday).

“Coach Brey said it best, he said ‘that sometimes it takes certain teams longer to find their niche,'” Jones said. “Unfortunately, we had to lose Torin to find it. We realized that opening the floor up and running five-out is the best way for us to run our offense.”