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Men’s Basketball: Misleading point

Bobby Griffin | Friday, March 3, 2006

Notre Dame senior point guard Chris Quinn emerged from the locker room Monday ready to answer questions about the most important week of his senior season – maybe of his entire Irish career – minutes after teammates Russell Carter and Kyle McAlarney walked through the lobby.

Carter was wearing a large T-shirt, loose basketball shorts and diamond earrings. McAlarney had on an oversized sweatshirt and large fleece pants – typical outfits for college basketball players.

But Quinn looked nothing like the second-leading scorer in arguably the best conference in the country. The unassuming guard, wearing a black fleece, jeans and running shoes, looked more like an economics major than a top Big East basketball player.

That’s part of what makes Quinn such an interesting story. Three years ago, he was an unrecognizable freshman playing behind guards Chris Thomas and Matt Carroll. Fast-forward to today, and his coach is mentioning his name with every basketball player’s three favorite letters – NBA.

But Quinn’s senior year has not had a storybook script. The Irish guard has been responsible for leading Notre Dame through a difficult season in which it has lost 10 conference games by a combined 35 points.

“[Quinn is] really a stable guy,” Irish coach Mike Brey said Monday before practice. “He’s always handled his business, he’s been amazingly resilient [and] I think he’s been hardened – and I mean that in a positive light – by experiences.”

And while Notre Dame has struggled closing out tough games, some of Quinn’s success hasn’t been fully appreciated.

Quinn has solidified himself as one of the best players in the Big East, if not the country. His 21.2 points per Big East game puts him second in a league full of future NBA prospects.

But it’s Quinn’s willingness to lead Notre Dame on the floor that remains his biggest asset. Nobody hates losing more than Quinn, but nobody also is more willing to accept the responsibility.

Average college student

McAlarney remembers meeting Quinn during summer practice. He had considered Quinn a shooting guard while watching him on television last season and was shocked to see his leadership abilities during workouts.

“When I came here, I was like, ‘Wow this kid is legit, he’s the real deal,'” McAlarney said. “A lot of people underestimate him every game, but now I think the country knows he’s one of the best guards in the country.”

McAlarney’s initial feeling was not unique. Quinn has established himself as a top player in the Big East this season, but it took three years for national audiences to recognize his on-court ability.

Much of this is due to his slender, inconspicuous appearance – one atypical of an elite college basketball player. But that’s exactly what Quinn has become.

Heading into Wednesday’s game at Providence, Quinn was among the top five in the Big East in seven major statistical categories – minutes played (first), points per game (second), assists (second), 3-point field goal percentage (second), free-throw percentage (third), assist/turnover ratio (fifth) and 3-point field goals made (fifth).

And Quinn’s average build has allowed his opponents to overlook his abilities in the past. But as this season has progressed, opposing coaches are beginning to take notice of the Irish captain.

He doesn’t rely much on flashy moves but has the awareness and athleticism to compensate for his lack of flair. He also has shown an ability to get his teammates involved all season. His 6.0 assists per game is second-best in the Big East by nearly a full point margin.

“I think he’s going to be underestimated for his entire career, because you look at him and he looks like a normal college student,” McAlarney said. “He has some deceptive quickness about him [and] he just goes by you.”

Quinn’s performance this year has put him in an unfamiliar position. After spending three seasons in a secondary role, he is now in the national spotlight.

He was always confident in his ability (he said he thinks he’s one of the best guards in the country) but is still shocked when he is viewed differently than his peers.

“I don’t think of myself as a celebrity – I think of myself as a regular guy like most people,” Quinn said.

Quinn said it feels like yesterday he admired not only professional and college players but also varsity high school players. It would be easy for a player of Quinn’s caliber to develop an ego, but the senior guard has maintained a sense of humility and is overwhelmed by the attention he receives.

“It means a lot to me … to be looked up to by people,” Quinn said. “When I was younger, I always looked up to people, as well. As I’ve grown and matured, now I have other people looking up to me the way I looked up to other people – it’s pretty cool.”

Not-so-average future

But even though Quinn looks more like a typical Notre Dame student than a potential first team All-Big East player, his appearance belies his career path. While Quinn is still adjusting to the spotlight, he might have more attention ahead of him.

“He has made himself an NBA prospect, clearly with the feedback I’ve gotten with the year he’s having,” Brey said Monday before practice.

Brey said he has received calls expressing interest in the senior guard – a situation few anticipated.

“When we signed him, nobody would have projected [he would be an NBA player],” Brey said. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think many people would have projected that in July, or even October or November. But there’s been a buzz about him, and I’m happy.”

That sudden buzz might seem peculiar given Notre Dame’s 5-10 conference record this season. But Quinn has earned respect for putting the team on his back, accepting responsibility for Irish losses and recording impressive individual numbers in the process.

“It’s easy to be captain of a team that’s 15-7 and cruising along,” Brey said. “Not only do we ask a lot of him on the floor, [but] he’s had a lot of demands as a captain and a leader.”

Brey said he doesn’t know where Quinn ranks nationally among top players – or even top point guards – but the coach said his captain would receive attention from NBA organizations once the season ends.

Quinn does not speculate where he will be playing professional basketball in the future, but he does express an interest to play somewhere – whether it’s in America or Europe.

“I’m definitely looking forward to playing professional basketball somewhere next year,” Quinn said. “At this point, I’m just focusing on finishing out my senior year in the best way possible, and then after the season, I’ll take a step back and see where I fit.

“Personally, I think I’m right up there with anybody.”

Quinn routinely speaks with old Notre Dame players who have gone on to professional careers both in the NBA and Europe. He gets feedback from players like Carroll (NBA, Charlotte Bobcats) and Thomas (Fabriano, Italy). Just last weekend, Thomas stayed at Quinn’s house after the Marquette game.

“All those guys really help me a lot,” Quinn said. “Just seeing the different things that are out there and the different ways of going about it [helps].”

Focused on the present

Before Quinn starts worrying about his future career in professional basketball, he is responsible for leading the Irish in their final game of the season Saturday against DePaul.

“He certainly isn’t thinking about [next year],” Brey said. “He’d like to maneuver this group his senior year into some postseason stuff.”

Quinn didn’t envision such a tough final stretch. Brey said getting to the Big East tournament was going to be a challenge, but Quinn said he expected to make it to New York from the beginning.

“It has been a tough year,” Quinn said. “It hasn’t gone exactly the way we [had] planned it at the beginning of the year. There have been a lot of close games.

“As a senior, it’s not the way you want to go out, but you can’t change it now.”

But while Quinn can’t change the past, he does have control over what is left of this season. When Quinn has played well, Notre Dame has put itself in the best position to win games (Quinn is averaging 22.4 points in five league wins).

Quinn’s teammates have complete faith in their starting point guard and his ability to lead Notre Dame down this tough final stretch. He scored 16 points in the second half against Providence Wednesday to keep the Irish from losing the must-win game.

“[We] as a team, we’ve been through a lot,” McAlarney said. “Just watching [Quinn] deal with it the right way helps the team.”

So while Quinn might feel nostalgic with his college career winding down, he knows he must remain focused and not think about past mistakes. Quinn said it upsets him to think he might only play in one NCAA Tournament – his freshman year, the Irish advanced to the Sweet 16 – though he also said he’d drive himself crazy if he got carried away with “what-ifs.”

But there is one clear what-if Quinn is focused on. Beating the Blue Demons would give the Irish a Big East tournament berth and would allow Notre Dame to continue its season. A loss would bring the end of Quinn’s collegiate career.

So once again, it’s up to Quinn. The season might come down to another game situation. And then the Irish guard will have to exchange his black North Face for his black jersey, transforming from a standard college student to a standout college athlete.

But Quinn is used to that role. Only this year, people are starting to take notice.