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MEN’S BASKETBALL: Building to last

Bobby Griffin | Thursday, October 13, 2005

With the new conference structure and the number of young players, Notre Dame’s focus heading into the season is simply making it to the tournament.

That is, the Big East tournament.

While in years past the team’s primary focus has been the NCAA tournament, the Irish have a more realistic approach to the season – get to the Garden.

“I told our guys, we’re not picked in any polls,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “I think for this group, that’s probably a very good atmosphere for them to be in.”

Brey spoke about the importance of taking small gradual steps this season and working hard in the process. With that as the main daily objective, the NCAA tournament is not on the team’s mind.

“Let’s slow the whole game down a little bit and see if we can just plug along and be better each day,” Brey said.

This is the first season in the reformatted Big East. With the addition of Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida, the conference is even stronger than it was last year, when it sent six teams to the NCAA tournament.

The presence of five new teams means not everyone will be included in New York City when March rolls around. The Big East tournament will only take 12 of the 16 teams, forcing Notre Dame to focus on this tournament as their main preseason objective.

“I don’t want to hear guys talking about getting back to the NCAA tournament,” Brey said. “I said ‘Hell, the only tournament we should be worried about getting a bid to is the Big East tournament, because not everybody gets to that damn thing.'”

Notre Dame will also have to deal with the amount of youth within their system that will be competing for minutes.

The Irish have four incoming freshmen – Kyle McAlarney, Ryan Ayers, Zach Hillesland, and McDonald’s All-American Luke Zeller – and Brey expects each to make an impact.

“They do have a very good feel for the game, they know how to play,” Brey said. “That’s one of the things that we’ve been pretty good at is having guys with basketball IQ.

“The youth will get their chance, and we have to nurture them and coach them and be patient with them and bring them along.”

Senior point guard Chris Quinn already has noticed the maturity and development of his new teammates so far this fall.

“They’re coming along well,” Quinn said. “I don’t think they are your typical freshmen anymore.”

Aside from the freshmen, the departures of Chris Thomas and Jordan Cornette have opened up playing opportunities for younger guys who have been a part of the team but have not necessarily had a starting role.

Rob Kurz, Russell Carter and Omari Israel all began seeing more minutes towards the end of last season. In Notre Dame’s lone Big East tournament game against Rutgers, Carter scored 12 points in 22 minutes. Kurz had 11 points in Notre Dame’s NIT loss against Holy Cross on March 15.

After Israel’s left knee swelled up in August, the forward had his knee scoped and debris removed from the area. Brey estimated Israel would not be ready until Nov. 1.

“We have to get those guys reps and playing time through November and December to get them ready for league play,” Brey said. “We’ve got 11 scholarship guys, and it’s a matter of me being patient with them and developing them.

“We’re not going to develop guys at the sacrifice of not being successful in this league, because we’ve been really competitive in this league and we want to continue to do that.”

The Irish coach has traditionally had a core group of seven or eight guys that played night-in and night-out, but this year that is not the case.

Besides Quinn and junior shooting guard Colin Falls, nothing is set in stone – not even the frontcourt that includes seniors Rick Cornett and Torin Francis.

“I’ve talked about our guards pretty confidently, but after that, who knows?” Brey said.

Brey’s lack of a solidified starting five will slow the process of identifying his team’s offensive and defensive style and identities.

“I think with this team, more than any team, you can’t have preconceived notions or a preseason plan like this is what we’re doing offensively, this is what we’re doing defensively,” Brey said. “They’ll tell us, and we’ll have to adjust – definitely more than any other year I’ve been here – to what personalities and skill levels [are] kind of exposing [themselves].”

Quinn’s ability to run the offense and the team will be most important to the squad’s on-court chemistry.

Quinn is coming off a season in which he averaged 12.6 points per game, mostly at the off-guard spot, as the point guard duties belonged to Thomas.

“I’m excited to fill that role,” Quinn said. “It’s my senior year, and its something that I look at as an opportunity for me to show how I am as a basketball player and a leader.”

The Irish have already had the opportunity to practice together before the official start of this season.

College teams are now allowed to workout as a full team in the off-season for limited time, rather than the individual sessions coaches were limited to in the past.

Brey said the team has broken the two-hour workouts into an hour of individual work and an hour of full-team work about five or six times this fall.

“This time of year usually I’m used to all the assistant [athletic directors] and administrators telling me who I should start because they’ve been watching the damn pick up games all fall and I haven’t been able to see them,” Brey said.

The Irish will open their preseason Thursday, Nov. 3 at home against Lewis University.