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MEN’S BASKETBALL: Four freshmen on track for playing time

Pat Leonard | Thursday, August 18, 2005

When Kyle McAlarney caught the ball in one particular July summer practice, something didn’t look right.Cutting sharply from the right low block to a screen at the foul line elbow, McAlarney curled, received the pass, pump faked and then blew by a flat-footed Colin Falls.Here was a freshman, a right-handed freshman, taking two hard dribbles to the left and finger-rolling a left-handed lay up over Big East forwards and centers.On the court, a glimpse of the team’s future had unfolded. That future may come more quickly than expected.The 6-foot-1, 190-pound point guard from Staten Island, N.Y., is one of four true freshmen who spent six weeks this summer on campus practicing with the team.Though coach Mike Brey is not allowed to observe or coach the summer ball, upperclassmen like seniors Chris Quinn and Torin Francis have told the coach they are impressed with their four newest teammates – McAlarney, Ryan Ayers (Blue Bell, Pa.), Zach Hillesland (Toledo, Ohio) and Luke Zeller (Washington, Ind.).”Our older guys learned to respect them this summer because they took care of their academic business and they worked … in the weight room,” Brey said. “They’re workers.”And I think when older guys see incoming freshmen have that work ethic, that’s a little more mature than your typical freshman, they respect that.”Brey said all four freshmen took two classes over the summer and finished with over a 3.0 grade point average. Ayers, a wiry 6-foot-7 shooter who averaged 16.4 points in his senior season at Germantown Academy, gained 10 pounds of muscle over the summer.In time, Ayers could fit the mold of former Irish forward Dan Miller, a 6-foot-8 shooter who created mismatches against guards and forwards alike.But this summer, whether it was Ayers doing bench presses, Zeller being more physical in the post, Hillesland covering every player on the floor or McAlarney scoring, Brey said all of the freshmen worked on both the strengths and weaknesses that will earn them playing time immediately.”More than any year I’ve been here, the freshmen as a whole need to have an impact [this year],” Brey said. “And they will get every chance to have an impact. We push them to compete for playing time right away and not wait their turn.”The Irish will look different from last year, when seniors Chris Thomas and Jordan Cornette led an older, more established group that also included senior transfer Dennis Latimore.Quinn will start at point guard, with Falls returning as a definite starter and Francis anchoring the low post after pulling his name out of the 2005 NBA Draft in June.Other than those names, however, the lineup and the game plan will be determined by which players – including all four of the freshmen – step up.Hillesland, the first player of the four freshmen to commit to Notre Dame (Feb. 2004), stands at 6-foot-8, 220 pounds and adjusts well to the style of play in any situation, Brey said.The St. John’s Jesuit star played with two other Division-I recruits in high school and was recruited early by schools like Ohio State, N.C. State and Stanford, Brey said, but the Irish knew early that he would be a good fit.He averaged 13.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game in his junior season.Zeller is the player most familiar to the local Notre Dame fan base. He earned Mr. Basketball honors in Indiana after hitting a half court buzzer beater to win the Class 3A state title.And McAlarney looks to be the heir apparent to Quinn once the senior’s final campaign ends in the spring. To prepare the team for such a transition, McAlarney will have to see the floor to gain experience, but Brey said he won’t force anything.”He needs to back Chris up, but there’ll be times when we’ll have both of them on the floor,” Brey said. “I don’t know if we’ll do it in as heavy doses as we did with Quinn and Thomas. But he’s earned the respect of the older guys. We need him to help us right away.”In a Big East Conference expanded to add Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida, the Irish have gotten deeper with their four additions. And depth means options for Brey, who feels confident about the progress of his freshman so far.”They’re a little more mature than your typical freshman group,” he said.