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Striving for new heights

Andrew Soukup | Friday, November 21, 2003

Every year of the Mike Brey era, the Notre Dame basketball program has made small but measurable improvements. Here are 11 key factors if the Irish want to see a fourth straight year of improvement.

Chris Thomas’ maturityWhen Chris Thomas withdrew from the NBA Draft in June, scouts told Brey the Irish would be getting a much more polished point guard. Now that Thomas is one of Notre Dame’s veterans, the Irish will be looking to him for leadership both on and off the court.Last year, Notre Dame’s success was often equated to Thomas’ success. When Thomas was on, the Irish were on. When he was off, the Irish struggled. That can’t happen this year.In the early-season exhibition games, Thomas has still demonstrated the flashy playmaking ability that made him so good to begin with, but he also showed that he can take care of the basketball better. No longer does Thomas appear as eager to force things on the offensive end.If Notre Dame’s top weapon has matured as much as the scouts say he has, then the Irish will be a formidable force indeed.The Thomas-Quinn backcourtJust how good can this backcourt be? Very, very good.Both Thomas and Chris Quinn have the ability to launch 3-pointers at will and both have shown they are adept at running the point. Where the genius of this pairing comes into play is when Thomas and Quinn rotate primary ball-handling duties during a game. Not only will it confuse defenses, but it will take the pressure off both guards who will likely be playing over 35 minutes every game.The point guard job will still be Thomas’, but the presence of the equally-adept ballhandling Quinn in the backcourt will only help make this duo one of the best in the nation.

Torin Francis’ improvementIn a rookie campaign that saw Francis earn all-Big East Rookie team honors, the then-freshman could either dominate in the paint or struggle against mediocre competition. While he improved as the season progressed and was a fiercesome presence in the postseason, Francis knew he had to bulk up to establish consistency.That’s why Francis walks around this year saying that he can’t make the same mistakes he made as a freshman. And for Notre Dame’s sake, he can’t.The Irish need to establish Francis as a scoring option early in each game, for it will free up Notre Dame’s deadly 3-point shooters. Francis himself has to demonstrate that he can be a solid defensive stopper as well as a reliable scoring threat to help the Irish as the season wears on.

Torrian Jones’ emergenceFor three years, Jones has passively played the role of the perfect teammate, deferring to more experienced players and coming in games when the Irish needed a spark only his athleticism could provide. But at the same time, Jones was one of the most vocal players in the locker room.This year, Jones finally gets to play the extended minutes he always wanted, but never complained for. He’ll be expected to somehow replace Dan Miller as a potent defensive stopper while relying on his athleticism to penetrate opposing defenses to score and rebound.Jones has tremendous potential, and the Irish need him to live up to that potential. He’s still a role player who knows he’s not the No. 1 scoring option, but he’s also going to get plenty of playing time.

Jordan Cornette’s versatilityIt would have been easy to be shocked that Cornette made four 3-pointers in an exhibition game when he made just six all last season. But while Brey jokingly says that Cornette isn’t as good a 3-point shooter as he thinks, the junior forward gives the Irish a weapon that can exploited in multiple ways.First, Cornette is one of the team’s most fundamentally sound players, with good footwork that often enables him to shut down his assignment each night. Second, he is effective at scoring both inside and outside. Third, his size quickness makes him difficult to guard, while at the same time, Cornette can match up well against a variety of opponents.Cornette typically starts out each season with a bang – he had 19 blocks in Notre Dame’s first two games last year – and on an Irish squad that struggles to play defense, the junior will be perfect as a stopper.

Depth at guardThe Irish have Thomas, Quinn and Jones. After that, they’re hurting for reliable options.Highly-touted sharpshooter Colin Falls has looked shaky in exhibition games, but the veterans on the team say he earned their confidence over the summer. Russell Carter has the ability to put points on the board in a hurry, but his defensive ineptitude will probably limit his minutes as the season begins.Notre Dame’s top guards can match up well against any other guard group in the nation. But if the Irish get into foul trouble or somebody goes down with an injury, Brey will probably have a tough time – at least early on – going to one of his freshmen. That’s why the early season-games are so vital toward helping Falls and Carter gain experience.The big-man rotationWho Brey plays in the middle will depend on who the Irish face. Francis and Cornette will undoubtably see significant playing time, as will the team’s biggest player, Tom Timmermans. And if needed, Jones can guard another team’s big man.But Brey has been pleasantly surprised by Rick Cornett’s improvement in early-season practices, and wants to find a spot for Cornett in the rotation. While he lacks Timmerman’s size, he gives the Irish a more reliable scoring threat down low and is a fierce rebounder.Brey typically uses an eight-man rotation, which means some of the big men are going to see cutbacks in playing time. But which ones?Early startNotre Dame started formal practices the first week of September, before the Irish had even played a football game. They practiced 10 times before a foreign tour to Barbados, and will have had a full month between their foreign tour and their first game.Is the early start, combined with a grueling schedule, too much? Nobody will know until February rolls around if early-season workouts will lead to late-season fatigue.

The non-conference gauntletBrey is a firm believer in scheduling tough teams to boost Notre Dame’s all-important RPI rating, which is partially based on strength of schedule and is one of the factors the NCAA Tournament selection committee uses to select the field of 64. But the Irish face one heck of a stretch that could hurt them if they don’t win enough.In addition to the traditionally difficult Big East conference schedule – where the Irish face all teams at least once – Notre Dame plays perennial powers Marquette, Indiana, Kentucky and UCLA. Plus, the Kentucky and UCLA games come right in the middle of Notre Dame’s conference schedule. On the other hand, Notre Dame faced a tough slate last December of three consecutive top 10 teams – and beat them all.Time will tell if the tough schedule will help or hurt Notre Dame.

February bluesSince Brey has been the head coach, the Irish have typically stumbled their way toward the finish line each season. In its last six games of the regular season, Notre Dame teams have gone 3-3 the last three years, and the Irish are a combined 17-11 in February and early March (as compared to 48-20 the rest of the season).The schedule makes this February particularly tough, too. The Irish have away games at Boston College, defending champ Syracuse, preseason No. 1 Connecticut and UCLA, plus home games against Providence, Pittsburgh and Connecticut. The “easy” game? Seton Hall, which was picked to finish sixth in a preseason poll. All the other Big East teams the Irish play in February were predicted to finish higher.

The value of defenseNotre Dame uses a 25-letter alphabet that begins with A, B, C and E. That’s right, no D.Brey seemed almost resigned to having to out-shoot teams to win games, like the Irish have traditionally done in the past. And while the Irish have the offensive talent to run away from other teams, they run into problems when their shots are falling.That’s because Notre Dame is a lackluster defensive unit. Aside from Cornette and Jones, easily the team’s top defenders, the Irish are often more focused on scoring than stopping.The Irish must commit themselves toward establishing a dominating defensive presence, especially in close games. Then, and only then, will they advance deep into the NCAA Tournament.