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Men’s Basketball: The future can wait

Pat Leonard | Friday, March 3, 2006

Torin Francis’ NBA pre-draft camp T-shirt hangs ironically on his 6-foot-11, 252-pound frame as he walks casually into the Joyce Center arena on a Monday afternoon.

The Notre Dame senior has two days before he must put his team on his back – a back that underwent surgery two years ago – and push them to the Big East tournament.

But Francis also has more on his mind than the average college senior handles.

He yearns for success, as he experienced his freshman season in a Sweet 16 appearance. He remembers setback and defeat, not only in recent postseason tournaments but also in individual growth.

Back surgery at the end of his sophomore season, a humbling and brief flirtation with the NBA Draft last spring and a return to South Bend have made the senior Irish forward who he is – a role player who averages a low career double-double (11.1 points, 10 rebounds) and has a chance to play professionally, no more and no less.

And with personal goals and team aspirations weighing equally heavy on his mind, Notre Dame’s senior forward and tri-captain realizes his up-and-down college basketball career is nearing its conclusion.

“I haven’t had the season I wanted to for myself personally,” Francis said Monday before practice of 2005-06, “but it’s not too late. We still have a couple games left, and there’s still time.”

And there’s one of Francis’ best friends, who has become his brother in quiet frustration, visible maturity and urgent senior year play.

Rick Cornett, known by many as the ‘other’ Notre Dame senior forward, stands now side-by-side with Francis as the Irish enter Saturday needing one more win to earn a Big East tournament berth.

And that’s significant because, up until this year, it was always one or the other. Don’t misunderstand. They’re great friends. They even made sure to have similarly light class loads their final semester.

“Our schedules kind of match up as far as having one or two classes now,” Cornett said Monday. “We worked hard from the beginning just to get all our work out of the way.”

Schoolwork, that is. Now, the two must continue to battle each other in practice while fending off the opposition in crucial games, on a mission to prove their worth as individual players and their team’s worth as a legitimate Big East contender.

“A little bit of my feeling is, if we’re gonna do this New York City thing, we should put it in their hands,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said of his two senior big men Feb. 23. “Either get us there or [don’t].”

Francis and Cornett have been frustrated for different reasons and have succeeded at different times, but as a pair, they have become dual weapons on the court (who knew?) and representatives of a relentless Notre Dame team.

From background to forefront

Cornett has played an average of 10.2 minutes per game in his four years as Francis’ backup, his assumed role before this season.

Beginning at the end of last season and continuing into 2005-06, Cornett has played not only in place of, but alongside of, Francis. And Notre Dame has reaped obvious benefits when Cornett plays more minutes.

He’s averaging nearly 13 minutes per game now. And this season, in the 13 games in which Cornett has logged 14 or more minutes, the Irish have averaged 5.8 more points per game (82.5) than they have for the season’s duration (76.7). They also have given up 2.8 more points per game than they do without his increased presence, but on a team that values outscoring opponents with a highly efficient offense, Cornett has stood out this season as a valuable asset.

That’s the good news. But Cornett, who hails from Country Club Hills, Ill., has not played as much throughout his career – or this season – as he would have liked.

“Any competitor wants to be on the court and [to] play,” Cornett said. “I just really have had to accept my role here and realize that some games I may play a lot, some games I may not, and not be upset about it but just keep working hard. Because when … they call me to go in there, I have to be ready to contribute and do well.”

Questions remain as to why Notre Dame never applied the red-shirt tag to Cornett in order to retain a year of eligibility during seasons in which he saw minimal action. Brey promises the staff deliberated long and hard on the issue and concluded each season that the Irish needed Cornett in a jersey.

“The Rick Cornett red-shirt discussion took place many times in the fall, and not necessarily his freshman year,” Brey said. “Do you hold him out maybe in one of the other years? But given where our numbers were – 10, 11 [scholarship players] – I was a little nervous, [especially with] Francis with back surgery coming back.”

Brey also knows Cornett has been frustrated with his playing time, but the coach said it took Cornett a while to fully realize what he had to do to earn minutes.

“The one thing he and I have always talked about is, in the offseason, being really committed,” Brey said. “And each summer he’s learned the commitment level to play at this level really is intense. He’s done more each summer. This summer was the most productive for him. He invested in the big man camp.

“He does have other interests, [and] that’s healthy. That’s well-rounded, but also then too you want kind of a maniacal focus.”

Cornett calls listening to music a serious interest but says basketball is his primary passion and is not sure he has lacked the necessary focus during his career. But, as Brey documents, the senior has handled his situation admirably – enough for Brey to call for a re-vote of team captains in January, leading to Cornett’s joining Francis and Quinn as tri-captains thereafter.

“The one thing about this young man is [that] his attitude has always been excellent,” Brey said. “He comes in and accepts his responsibility … He may go back and say, ‘Gosh, I think I should be doing more, but if that’s the way they’re setting it up, I’ll do it.’ He’s had a great frame of mind, and I respect him for that.”

Through success and failure

Francis entered his senior season with his own issues and goals – some of which, as in Cornett’s case, remain unfulfilled.

Francis has started in the middle for Notre Dame for four years, with the exception of being sidelined by a herniated disk in his back late during the 2003-04 season. He began a promising career averaging 11.1 points and 9.5 rebounds his freshman season playing alongside Matt Carroll, Dan Miller, Torrian Jones and Chris Thomas into the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

Then, the team lost valuable players, and injury crept into the picture.

Notre Dame settled for the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) the following season, though Francis had been averaging career bests of 14.2 points and 12.8 rebounds before injuring himself just over halfway through the schedule.

Francis has regained confidence this season and found his role, but during his junior season he struggled. And overall, even Brey admitted Francis does not “bounce” off the floor like he used to following back surgery on March 8, 2004.

“I think I’ve definitely progressed as a player,” Francis said, acknowledging – as his coach also did – that he’s improved in several facets of the game despite lower statistics. “I think I might have had a good year freshman year, but now I’m doing a lot of things better than I was freshman year as far as playing defense, getting more assists and getting more rebounds … I think it’s just that we haven’t really gotten to where I’ve wanted to as a team these past few years like I did my freshman year.”

Francis also is realistic, though, about where he stands as an individual talent.

“Kids, over their four-year career, become educated to what reality is,” Brey said.

Surprising many after what Francis admits was a sub par junior season, the Boston, Mass. native declared for the NBA Draft to be held in June 2005 and worked out at a pre-draft camp, where he got a T-shirt along with some humbling advice.

“A couple guys just told me I should go back to school and spend this year to develop some more,” Francis said. “I played pretty well at times, and other times I just played O.K. So that was the indicator that maybe I should come back … [and] have a good [senior] year personally and win as a team.”

And he claims he entered the draft as much to learn from the best players in the country as he did to qualify for the world’s top league, an intention Brey confirmed.

“Putting his name in last year was more of an educational process than [his thinking], ‘I’m good enough to go,'” Brey said. “It wasn’t an arrogant move on his part … The crazy thing about the draft [is if] you have a good two days in Chicago, you can be the 25th pick and then work out for some guys.

“… Whenever he was eligible for the NBA Draft, whether it was his freshman year, his junior year or this spring, he was gonna be in a dogfight to scratch his way into the league. He’s realistic about that. The one thing he can do is he can make a living playing the game somewhere for a while.”

What the future may hold

Brey said he feels Cornett also has the ability to make money by playing basketball after graduation, and his backup senior forward seems intent on aiming for just such a career.

He’s not focused on career aspirations yet, though. Cornett wants to leave a legacy at Notre Dame, and he wants to do it alongside his friend, teammate and fellow captain, Francis – something the starting forward welcomes.

“[Rick’s] a scoring threat, he’s a threat on defense and he goes after the boards,” Francis said. “I think when coach Brey has played us together this year, it’s worked.”

Francis scored 18 points and grabbed 12 points as the catalyst to Notre Dame’s 82-75 victory over Providence Wednesday. Cornett played sparingly, but even when he doesn’t see as many minutes, both seniors remain major reasons why this group has been so resilient through a difficult conference slate.

“That’s the type of guys we are,” Francis said. “Coach Brey and the coaching staff can only do so much. For us, it’s how we go out and practice, how we prepare for the games and whether we’re mentally ready for the games.

“We could have thrown in the towel a long time ago, but why would we if we still have the opportunity to do big things?”

They each had the opportunity to throw in the towel, on themselves and on the team. But now all they can think about is that New York City thing.