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Thrust into the spotlight

Andrew Soukup | Friday, March 19, 2004

When Torin Francis’ back injury knocked him out for the season, Irish coach Mike Brey looked at the lack of a true low-post presence and reluctantly told his team to become more perimeter-oriented.

The move worked in wins against Connecticut, Seton Hall and Syracuse, but teams soon took advantage of the absence of a dominant rebounder for the Irish.

But now, with the rise of Rick Cornett – who is averaging 15.5 points a game over his last two games – Brey now has the Irish looking back down low.

“It’s funny how our team has changed,” he said. “We now have a low-post presence again.”

So confident is Brey in the sophomore forward – who played scant minutes in most Big East games – that the Irish are back to the point where they run their offense through the post.

And that’s fine with Cornett, who is basking in the extended minutes he received in Notre Dame’s Big East tournament loss to Connecticut and its NIT win against Purdue.

“If I’m on the floor, I want my teammates to depend on me,” he said. “They know I’m not going to make too many stupid decisions with the ball. When I get it, if I’m double-teamed, I’m going to kick it back out.”

That’s what he did with devastating effectiveness in Notre Dame’s 71-59 win against Purdue Wednesday. In between banging bodies with a physical Boilermaker defense, Cornett grabbed six rebounds in 26 minutes on the court while impressing Brey with his ability to catch difficult passes from driving guards.

“Some of the catches he made of tough passes, scraping them off the floor, were, quite frankly, amazing,” Brey said.

After wins against DePaul and Connecticut, Brey thought that Cornett – considered by the coaching staff to be the most improved player in the off-season – had finally turned the corner that would allow him to be a major contributor.

Yet the sophomore still languished on the bench, pulled off the court for mistakes attributable to inexperience. Indeed, Cornett drew Brey’s ire Wednesday when he launched an ill-advised outlet pass to Chris Thomas that resulted in an Irish turnover.

But now, the player who approached Irish coaches on Super Bowl Sunday wanting more playing time has established himself with his actions, rendering pleas for more minutes moot.

Glances at the post-game box scores reveal Cornett’s improvement. In his last two games, he has missed just one of 14 free-throw attempts. The sophomore has also been Notre Dame’s second-leading scorer.

“”That’s one of the reasons I don’t want to stop playing him, because he keeps getting better,” Brey said. “I don’t want to put the balls away because I want this young man to keep blossoming.”