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Men’s Basketball: Seniors deserve Saturday’s opportunity

Pat Leonard | Friday, March 3, 2006

Call them painfully unlucky. Call them underachievers. Be fed up with Notre Dame men’s basketball. But then also recognize that Notre Dame – believe it or not – is on the verge of accomplishing what it set out to do at the beginning of the season.

That’s right, the Irish – the team with five conference wins and a knack for losing the close one – will qualify for the Big East tournament with a win over DePaul Saturday.

Of course, that’s easy to say, looking at the Blue Demons’ lowly conference record. It’s more difficult to do, remembering Notre Dame’s 73-67 loss to DePaul at Allstate Arena Jan. 7.

But the Irish have the advantage of playing where they’d rather be (at home), against a lower-level conference team, in an atmosphere that will recognize, honor and celebrate the careers of three of its biggest impact players.

Chris Quinn, Torin Francis and Rick Cornett all have waited for this opportunity. That’s not to say their dream heading into college was to earn a conference tournament berth. Three years ago, that dream was nearly an automatic reality for Irish players.

But it wasn’t a given coming into this season that this team would be able to reach Madison Square Garden in one piece – or get there at all. In fact, by oftentimes playing lazy defense, surrendering offensive rebounds and failing to execute down the stretch of games, the Irish seemed likely not to qualify as the conference schedule progressed.

But this team needed time to develop.

Plagued by poor on-floor leadership last season and injury in the previous one, Notre Dame had to regroup as it entered 2005-06. Quinn got the ball and the responsibility, and he responded by becoming one of the Big East’s top guards while earning Academic All-American honors from ESPN The Magazine, among other accolades.

Quinn never had to take the most important shots and the final drives when Chris Thomas was at Notre Dame. Francis hasn’t fully returned to his former self since having back surgery in 2004, though he’s certainly made progress. And Cornett, well, the backup forward never had an opportunity – for reasons still unknown – to showcase his talent until this season.

It trickles down to the younger guys.

Russell Carter, who some critics are calling the Big East’s most improved player, took time to grow into his role and did not have the opportunity last season because Jordan Cornette was too busy gunning 3-pointers in his stead.

Colin Falls has remained consistent as a shooter, but his game – like most shooters – thrives on the chemistry of the guys he plays with. If they play together enough as a group, basketball players begin recognizing where each other wants the ball and where they’ll be in certain situations.

But none of this really clicked, it could be argued, until Notre Dame’s 102-91 romp of Seton Hall Feb. 18. Notre Dame’s offense flowed. Baskets were happening so quickly, Pirates coach Louis Orr couldn’t believe it. And Cornett could be seen throwing down a furious two-handed dunk through a hard foul late in the second half, descending to the floor and staring down his defender, screaming in frustration and exuberance over the dominating performance his team had just set forth.

This begs a question: where has that been all year – that passion and efficiency. Why hasn’t Notre Dame shown it until so late, and when it shows that fire, only in spurts?

Two reasons. Because Notre Dame is not as athletic as most of its Big East opponents, and because the Irish fail to adjust to game situations.

In the Seton Hall game, the reason Notre Dame won so convincingly was that Brey appeared to run more set plays, sending back-to-back sets with slight variations that confused the Pirates defense and made the Irish look like a firing squad. That translated into fewer transition opportunities for Seton Hall, and that was the game.

But Notre Dame hasn’t stuck to that formula. It has played ‘not to lose’ in many games, forced then into close games as the clock winds down. And the Irish then put the ball in the hands of Quinn who – while fully capable of breaking down most defenders one-on-one – simply has not had the practice prior to this season of being the man at Notre Dame.

But he has become just that, illustrated most recently by his willingness to involve others in the victory over Providence Wednesday that put the Irish in this position. And Francis and Cornett have joined Quinn in the team’s final push.

That is how this team should and will finish – behind its seniors, its captains. Because regardless of how many close games they’ve lost or final plays they’ve seen fall short, these guys are starting to get it.

They deserve this final chance for redemption – all three of them – however simple and insignificant a conference tournament berth would seem.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Pat Leonard at pleonard@nd.edu