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MEN’S BASKETBALL: High expectations not met as team loses in NIT opener

Pat Leonard | Friday, May 13, 2005

Two years ago, Mike Brey lost a solid portion of his team’s core, and Notre Dame needed time to rebound.

Shooting guard Matt Carroll and small forward transfer Dan Miller had graduated after leading Notre Dame to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament, leaving Chris Thomas and Torin Francis as the primary returning players to cope with a 2003-04 season that resulted in an NIT berth and a third round exit.

This past year, however, Thomas was a senior. Francis was recovered from a back injury. Arizona transfer Dennis Latimore was eligible to join Francis in the frontcourt, and the program was celebrating its 100th season.

Expectations rose, which is why a second straight NIT bid and a first round exit qualified as a severe disappointment.

“I was prepared for the NIT, and that’s how I prepared the team,” Brey said after his team was denied an NCAA bid for the second straight season. “We probably made a [heck] of a run at that bracket, but it wasn’t enough … It would have been more of an unbelievably pleasant surprise if we got in.”

Holy Cross ended Notre Dame’s season at the Joyce Center on March 15 before a crowd of only 2,517 fans. The Crusaders (25-6) managed a 78-73 victory over the Irish, who played without shooting guard and second-leading scorer Chris Quinn (bruised clavicle).

Notre Dame finished 17-12 overall and 9-7 in Big East play, the fifth straight season Brey’s Irish had a winning record in conference play.

Though the team made a push in its most difficult stretch of the Big East schedule and had control of its own destiny, the Irish dropped three of their last four, including home losses to UCLA (75-66) and Pittsburgh (85-77) and a first-round exit from the Big East tournament.

Rutgers, who the Irish had defeated exactly a week before, dashed Notre Dame’s hopes at Madison Square Garden in a 72-65 decision. Ricky Shields led the way for the Scarlet Knights with 21 of Rutgers guards’ 38 points on the night. Notre Dame guards scored just 21 total points.

Prior to the late-season collapse, during which Brey described his team as tired and lacking energy, the team showed flashes of cohesion but was defined by inconsistency.

Notre Dame opened the season with a 12-3 record, including four wins in its first five conference games. The first two Irish losses came in a crucial three-game stretch early in the season. Michigan (61-60) and DePaul (84-73) humbled Notre Dame on national television, while the Irish were able to steal a victory in Bloomington, Ind., from Mike Davis’ Hoosiers in between. The win was the first for Notre Dame at Indiana’s Assembly Hall since 1973.

Meanwhile, whether at home or on the road, the team’s self-declared leader – senior point guard Chris Thomas – set program records and led the Irish in scoring but could not lift his team over the top.

Thomas (14.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg) played his best basketball in the season’s most difficult stretch, a four-game nightmare against Connecticut, Syracuse, Boston College and Pittsburgh in which the Irish survived with a 2-2 record. He also became only the third player in Division-I basketball history to notch 2,000 points and 800 assists, joining Gary Payton and Sherman Douglas in an elite category.

Thomas, however, struggled throughout the season and did not receive enough contributions from his supporting cast, either.

Though Colin Falls emerged as a primary scoring threat (12.6 ppg) and Quinn remained steady, the frontcourt disappointed coaches and fans. Center Torin Francis notched 21 points in the tournament loss to Rutgers, but he also averaged less than 10 points per game. Transfer forward Dennis Latimore averaged only seven points, showing flashes of brilliance against Michigan and Connecticut but playing inconsistently enough to force Brey to use a deep bench.

Rick Cornett, Omari Israel and Russell Carter all saw significant minutes, with freshman Rob Kurz turning in an 11-point, seven-rebound performance against Holy Cross.

Brey said next season will see more of a youth movement, with four recruits headed to South Bend in Ryan Ayers (Pa.), Zach Hillesland (Ohio), Kyle McAlarney (N.Y.) and Indiana Mr. Basketball Luke Zeller.