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Irish-Boilers has significance for many

Matt Lozar | Wednesday, March 17, 2004

For a first-round NIT matchup, tonight’s game means too much for too many people.Start with Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. As soon as the pairings were announced Sunday night, he heard from his mother Betty. While that isn’t unexpected, the reason is.Brey’s mother is a Purdue graduate.”I’ve been getting a lot of pressure [Sunday and Monday],” Brey said. “This is a big one for the Brey family.”While Brey’s mother has been serenading him with the Purdue fight song, Brey grew up learning all about the Boilermakers.Now enter Chris Thomas, who knows all about growing up on a basketball court in West Lafayette, Ind.Thomas spent his childhood growing up at Purdue basketball camps. One year as a member of the older league, and a relative unknown middle-schooler at the camp, Thomas won the camp’s MVP award and started to garner the attention of Purdue’s assistant coaches.”I won a lot of awards and that’s probably the most successful I’ve been in any camp I’ve been to,” Thomas said. In between learning to shoot with his left hand and running across campus between the gym, dining hall and dormitories, Thomas developed a natural affinity to the campus and even considered attending Purdue at one point. Thomas’ father, Frank, was good friends with former Purdue assistant coach Frank Kendrick and the relationship between Thomas and Purdue grew.”I really thought about it. The opportunity was great for me, but it faded away,” Thomas said. “My growth was definitely stemmed through them.”Thomas has another significant connection to this game – Pike High School teammate David Teague is a sophomore guard for the Boilermakers. Thomas and Teague grew up together playing for rival middle schools.While Teague always had the talent to be a star player, he had a difficult time grasping the mental side of the game, Thomas said, especially when Teague would commit three fouls in two minutes. That is until halfway through high school.”It’s the biggest improvement I’ve ever seen in a teammate of mine between his sophomore and junior year,” Thomas said. “He’s just smarter. He always had a stroke. He just didn’t know how to play. He stepped up everything in his game. He can score on anybody, defend and rebound.” One more connection for Thomas relates to Boilermaker guard and South Bend native Brandon McKnight. Three years ago, McKnight finished as the runner-up to Thomas for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball award. While Thomas is trying to ignore all of the outside pressure, all of these connections for Thomas have put one strain on the Indianapolis native.”Everybody is calling,” Thomas said, “for extra tickets.”The connections for Brey and Thomas don’t even mention former Notre Dame and current Purdue center Ivan Kartelo returning to Notre Dame after transferring to Purdue in 2001. Or the fact that these two football rivals haven’t played on a basketball court since 1966.All of the connections turn a first-round NIT game into something personal.”From Purdue’s point of view and Notre Dame’s point of view, you are a little disappointed that you aren’t in the NCAA Tournament,” Brey said. “I think it is going to be an electric night in here [tonight] and I think that is great for both teams.”