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Men’s Basketball Commentary: Team seeks to fill Rob Kurz’s big shoes

Chris Hine | Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Coach Mike Brey said over and over how excited he was about this year’s team, but it seemed as though he was chomping at the bit, waiting for someone to ask this one question during his 40-minute chat with the media Monday.

It finally came about 35 minutes into the press conference.

“Coach, Luke Zeller, what are your expectations for him this year?”

Brey wasted no time, jumping at the chance to respond with a wide smile on his face: “I think he’s going to have a heck of a year.”

In fact, that’s exactly what Brey said to Zeller during a brief meeting last spring.

“I think you’re going to have a hell of a year,” Brey said.

The forward replied: “Yeah, I know, coach.”

“Get out of here,” Brey said. “I’ll see you in the weight room later.”

End of meeting.

The 6-foot-10 Zeller’s confidence has never been higher, and neither have the stakes for him and his teammates, who will head into the season with a high ranking and Final Four aspirations on their minds. This year, Zeller will be called upon to help Notre Dame replace Rob Kurz.

“Rob did a lot of things and I feel like I can do a lot of things too, to be able to fill in that role,” Zeller said. “Maybe not the same way, but fill in a different way and add to the team that way.”

And with Kurz’s exit also goes Notre Dame’s third-leading scorer from a year ago, a guy who was always good for, give or take, 12 points each night. Kurz was able to take some pressure off Notre Dame’s leading scorers – reigning Big East player of the year Luke Harangody (20.4 points per game) and first-team Big East selection Kyle McAlarney (15.1 points per game. And by the way, it seems the University has forgiven McAlarney and is no longer ashamed of that thing a few years ago – McAlarney’s No. 23 T-shirt jerseys are now on sale in The Bookstore).

Kurz was dependable, someone who Notre Dame could rely upon each night to help out McAlarney and Harangody.

“I’m ready. Our team’s balanced and we understand our roles and we’re ready to step up. If I’m called upon to step up, I’m definitely ready,” Zeller said.

Zeller will have help replacing that production this year. He’s one of the players – the others being senior forwards Ryan Ayers, Zach Hillesland and junior guards Jonathan Peoples and Tory Jackson – on Notre Dame who can step up and help Harangody and McAlarney when they’re having an off-night.

“We need those guys to step up. There are going to be nights when Kyle and I struggle,” Harangody said. “The great thing about this is that guys like Tory, Luke, Zach and Ryan can do that.”

Jackson had a memorable game last season that displayed what he might be able to do this season. In Notre Dame’s 82-70 victory over Pittsburgh on Feb. 21 at the Joyce Center, Notre Dame seemed on the verge of defeat as they faced a double-digit second-half deficit. Then Jackson took over, ending up with 16 points and 13 rebounds.

This season, Jackson, who averaged 5.8 assists per game last year, is prepared to be more of a scorer if need be. Even though he’s hardly the best shooter in the world, Jackson said he has improved his mid-range jumper to complement his ability to penetrate.

“I feel like I’ve got to figure out a different way to help my team when the two main scorers are struggling,” Jackson said. “They’re not going to have perfect games every night … I’m not going to force my shot at all, but the way we played in Ireland [on Notre Dame’s overseas tour in August], I felt like that could be a carry-over for the start of the season. I went over there and took what was given to me. They double-teamed ‘Gody or when Kyle wasn’t on early, I took it on myself to make the short-range jump shots, to get to the [free throw] line.”

Ayers and Hillesland are two seniors with a wealth of basketball smarts who can sense when they might need to step it up offensively and both have shown the ability to do so at key times. And Peoples came through in the clutch last year in Notre Dame’s 86-83 win over Marquette on Feb. 9, hitting two clutch free throws late in the game to propel Notre Dame to victory.

Replacing Kurz is not going to be an easy task for Notre Dame. He was someone who added a lot to Notre Dame both on and off the court, and it won’t be easy filling in those big shoes.

But the players this year know what they need to do and they have the experience to do it.

No wonder Brey was so excited.

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

Contact Chris Hine at chine@nd.edu