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Four years later, seniors represent new identity

Pat Leonard | Thursday, March 3, 2005

When you first think about it, the question seems so obvious it shouldn’t need an answer. On the other hand, the question is so loaded most people would opt not to answer it at all. Which is why the question, full of history and drama and significance beyond even words, needs to be asked.

What will Notre Dame basketball be without Chris Thomas?

Don’t dismiss it. Though every team graduates seniors and every program moves on, this year’s Notre Dame team seems different. Comparing the state of the program four years ago to its status today, one answer to the question becomes clear.

It will not be the same.

Amid heavy criticism from fans and under the spotlight of national media, Thomas has accomplished what he hopes others will continue – the revival of Notre Dame basketball.

He has had his bad days, bad weeks and bad streaks. He has thrown the ball away trying to make the extra pass, the highlight reel assist. But give Thomas a break. All he is trying to do is win.

Talk to his teammates, his coaches, his managers. They all say the same thing, and it sounds like this – Chris Thomas cares more about this team than anyone else.

That may be true, but if it isn’t, that is only because the other Irish senior cares just as much.

Following Sunday’s 75-65 loss to UCLA at the Joyce Center, coaches and players were quiet and reserved, disappointed in the loss. Jordan Cornette was devastated.

The senior forward sat in the first seat in the locker room – not his normal post game spot. He held his head in his hands, with elbows rested on limp knees.

Cornette seemed on the verge of tears.

“That’s one the thing with senior leadership, you’ve got to make sure everyone’s heads are right and the morale is high,” he said Tuesday night. “That’s one of the toughest tasks as a senior.”

Days later, Cornette was back to being the most vocal person in the Notre Dame locker room.

“I’m always trying to be that voice in their heads keeping the [team] focused,” Cornette said. “I think especially down the stretch, this is when any team, especially our team, needs the senior leadership.”

The Irish need the leadership, especially, because of who the seniors are.

Thomas recently joined Sherman Douglas and Gary Payton (two NBA stars) as only the third Division-I player to register 2,000 points and 800 assists during a career. Maybe he set the bar too high when he notched a triple-double in his first game as a freshman, and all of the fans that gave Thomas a hard time felt they had the right to compare his play to that one game.

But while criticism is justified for Thomas’ play on occasion, the Irish point guard can do a large number of things the Notre Dame program has not seen for a while in a single player.

The most important of those things is that Thomas can win consistently. And Notre Dame, under Thomas’ lead, for the most part has done that.

This senior class has value even down to the walk-ons, who the floor general says has everything to do with his success in games.

“I told [senior walk-on Greg Bosl] this about a month ago, people don’t realize the impact he has on our team,” Thomas said. “They don’t get any PT [playing time], but their importance in practice, knowing other teams game plans has been a huge part of our success this season.”

On Saturday, Thomas will walk with Cornette and Bosl onto the floor to face Pittsburgh on Senior Day, their final home game at the Joyce Center.

“It’s going to be a culmination of great experiences, big games, the resurgence of Notre Dame basketball back on the map,” Thomas said. “It’s definitely going to be an emotional time, but it will be a great motivator for us going into the tournament and finishing the season strong.”

Thomas and Cornette deserve a deep NCAA tournament run. Four years ago, such a statement would not logically attach itself to Notre Dame basketball. But now, Thomas more than anyone deserves a memorable postseason to put an ideal finishing touch on a statistically and historically amazing career.

What will Notre Dame basketball be without Chris Thomas?

The Irish hope they don’t find out until April.