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Brey’s ‘high-strung child’ keeps teammates loose

Chris Hine | Thursday, March 20, 2008

Don’t ask DePaul center Mac Koshwal what happens when Zach Hillesland gets angry.

In Notre Dame’s 89-80 over DePaul on Feb. 2, Irish coach Mike Brey lit into Hillesland, saying the junior forward could be playing better defense on Koshwal.

On one particular play in the second half, Koshwal muscled his way past Hillesland for a bucket, prompting Brey to let Hillesland have it as he came down on offense.

“I thought Koshwal dropped step and went through his chest a little too easy there. So, I just kind of commented on that,” Brey said with a laugh before practice Monday.

Only Brey’s re-telling of the story lacked a few other choice words he had for Hillesland. Whatever else Brey screamed at Hillesland had its desired effect – a few seconds later, Hillesland took Koshwal to the hoop and slammed it home.

“It fired me up, so next time down the floor, I was just ready to boil over and I knew next time I get the ball, I’m going to go to the rack to try to finish,” Hillesland said. “… Koshwol was guarding me and I knew he wasn’t as quick as I was, so I gave him a little fake went baseline, help came, went to dunk it and it turned out well. Then, I kind of let some frustration out afterwards.”

Hillesland turned to Notre Dame’s bench and yelled something, though nobody on the team was exactly sure what he was saying as he ran down the floor like a man possessed.

“I don’t know what he yelled, and I don’t know if it was English, quite frankly,” Brey said. “And if it was, if you had a delay on it, like they do on radio shows, there would’ve been a lot of delays.”

Interactions like this happen occasionally between Brey and Hillelsand.

“Zach is my high-strung child,” Brey said. “So, with him, every now and then, we can light each other up a little bit. That’s one of the reasons he gives us great energy.”

Hillesland’s energy is one of many attributes he brings to the floor on a nightly basis – the ability to guard anyone on the floor, to rebound, handle the ball, and even a little creativity on the offensive end.

“He’s a tricky player, as athletic as he is, sometimes he gets stopped in his dribble and he’ll kind of go under the defender and hit a weird, tough shot,” Irish guard Kyle McAlarney said. “That’s just the way he plays and he’s a lot of fun to play with and watch play.”

Hillesland does a little bit of everything, and his stats reflect that. Headed into Notre Dame’s NCAA Tournament first-round matchup against George Mason, Hillesland is averaging 6.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, and a little over 2.4 assists per game. But Hillelsand’s teammates said his biggest contributions can’t be measured with numbers.

“There’s just so many things he does well,” McAlarney said. “There are times when I’ll be a little winded and I’ll just be like Zach, ‘Take the ball up.’ He can handle the ball, he’s guarding the other team’s most athletic guy, rebounds, he’ll come down and dunk on you.

“He’s not the best shooter, but you’ve got to give him a lot of credit, he’s improved his mid-range game a lot and on top of that his basketball IQ is really high and he fits into our system really well.”

Hillesland and one of his best friends off the court, junior forward Ryan Ayers, also helped keep Notre Dame’s team chemistry intact when Hillesland took over Ayers’ spot in the starting lineup before Notre Dame’s game against Villanova on Jan. 26.

“Certainly, at first, it was kind of an adjustment. There’s a certain aspect for him of ‘Oh, coach took me out of the starting lineup,’ but it wasn’t like a demotion or anything. [Coach] was just trying to shuffle it up a little bit,” Hillesland said.

After the switch, the Irish won seven of their next eight, and those initial questions Hillesland and Ayers had with the switch disappeared.

“I didn’t want his psyche to go down at all,” Hillesland said. “That was my first concern. But after the first couple of games we played pretty well it kind of faded away and it was going to work out for both of us and the team.”

In the end, the switch didn’t affect either’s playing time significantly. Ayers averaged 26 minutes in conference play while Hillesland averaged 22.7, both figures up slightly from non-conference play, when Ayers started.

As the Irish get ready to play George Mason in the pressure-packed atmosphere of the Tournament, they can count on Hillesland to provide them with a little laughter, especially if he’s angry when playing FIFA on Xbox 360.

“If he loses in a FIFA game, he blames it on the ‘stupid glitches in the game,'” McAlarney said. “He’ll throw chairs, throw a little temper tantrum.”

George Mason might want to make sure Hillesland wins at FIFA before he hits the floor Thursday night – because there’s no telling what an angry Zach Hillesland is going to do.