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Basketball Insider: New year brings new chances for fresh group

Bob Griffin | Friday, November 17, 2006

Midway through October, Notre Dame held its annual media day. Coach Mike Brey answered questions and reporters had their first opportunity to speak with the team about the upcoming year.

The mood was strikingly different from last season. After a 2005-06 campaign defined by close losses, the Irish players were loose and optimistic, speaking openly about their NCAA Tournament dreams.

It was an attitude that can only result from feeling no outside pressure or expectations. Because let’s call a spade a spade. With three upperclassmen on the Irish roster in a league (the Big East) where battle-tested seniors rise to the top – see Gerry McNamara’s 2006 Big East tournament – nobody’s expecting much out of Notre Dame.

But that doesn’t mean the Irish lack the ability to turn some heads.

On paper, they lost their two biggest names, forward Torin Francis and guard Chris Quinn. As strange as it sounds, the team is better off without them. Francis peaked his freshman season, as nagging injuries slowly transformed him from an NBA draft pick into a European pro.

And for all of Quinn’s brilliance – he was a warrior and the team’s undisputed leader – he was perhaps carrying more weight than his slender 200-pound body could handle.

What that did to last season’s group was clear. Game-by-game it was either establish Francis inside, when his back never allowed him to dominate Big East forwards, or more often, let Quinn take over while teammates stood around watching.

But that era of Notre Dame basketball is over. This year’s group is fresh – reflected by the nine-man rotation that features four sophomores and two freshmen.

For the first time since the program’s 2003 Sweet 16 run, there’s a definite energy and excitement on the court. The Irish are playing off each other, making the extra pass and applying pressure on the defensive end.

And given the scoring balance seen in the team’s first four games – Notre Dame’s got chemistry. Nobody is standing around waiting for one player to take over the game.

That’s only one reason why this year’s group is in better shape than the last few seasons. Let’s look at four others:

u Colin Falls could be the best captain Notre Dame has had since its Sweet 16 run. Brey’s touted him as having great command of the Irish system, and his teammates look to him as a second coach – especially the younger guys who will be instrumental if Notre Dame does well this season.

But what’s more impressive is Falls’ early season willingness to contribute in other ways besides scoring. The senior guard has shown an interest in fitting into offensive sets and contributing off the ball, instead of camping out at the 3-point line or running baseline screens to get his 15 shots a game.

He also looks more athletic and quicker on defense than he’s appeared in his previous three seasons, which could be the result of the team’s focus on improved conditioning in the off-season.

u For all of Falls’ early willingness to play a secondary role in the offense, Russell Carter seems poised to emerge as the primary scoring threat. But he doesn’t appear to want the ball at the expense of keeping others involved in the offense.

There’s no debating Carter’s questionable body language at times. He admits he’s an animated player who grows frustrated when his shots aren’t falling – but all scorers have that attitude. And that’s exactly what Carter is – a scorer.

Notre Dame is going to go as far as Carter wants to take it this season. As the most athletic player on the floor for the Irish, and one of the top athletes in the Big East, Carter is a glaring mismatch. He’s too physical for most guards and too fast for most forwards. And if defenses start rotating his way, Falls will be waiting on the other side of the floor with open looks.

The key for Carter will be staying involved on the nights he shoots 30 percent.

u For the first time since the arrival of Chris Thomas, the point guard is not the focal point of Brey’s offense. But that’s no knock on sophomore Kyle McAlarney who has the athletic explosiveness Notre Dame has been missing at the point since Thomas’ knee injury.

But more important than his ability to get to the basket – which he has shown in the early part of this season – is his maturity and intuitive on-court awareness.

In the team’s second exhibition game against Bellarmine, McAlarney found himself on a fast break after stealing the ball near the 3-point line. Instead of taking it himself, he threw a casual bounce pass up to Carter – who up until that point had been having a slow night.

McAlarney understood he needed to get Carter involved, and doing that was more important than adding to his own point total in the lopsided game. Mature decisions like that from the Staten Island native will pay huge dividends on the young, developing team.

u Notre Dame has its most athletic forwards in Brey’s tenure at Notre Dame in junior Rob Kurz, freshman Luke Harangody and sophmores Luke Zeller and Zach Hillesland.

Kurz is becoming a legitimate inside threat for the Irish. His quickness, strength and agility separates him from the less complete forwards on Notre Dame’s roster, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him emerge in the Big East as a dominant big man.

Harangody is young, and will likely go through growing pains at some point this year, but his aggressiveness and attitude is something Notre Dame has been missing at the forward position.

Zeller spent the summer playing abroad, and it left him with improved post moves and more confidence. But he’s still more comfortable stepping outside and has been in foul trouble often early this season.

Hillesland could play every position on the court if he was asked given his ability to pass, rebound and lead fast breaks. He has the height to play down low, but is more effective when he can use his athleticism to spread out defenses.

u u u

Of course, none of this guarantees a successful season. Notre Dame came out flat against Butler, losing despite being more athletic and talented. But if it can use the loss as motivation for No. 10/11 Alabama and Maryland – the loss will hurt them less than the wins will help them.

Because Notre Dame has to prove it can handle the Big East grind and Falls, Carter and Kurz are the only truly battle tested players on the Irish roster.

Zelller was rarely used down the stretch last season, McAlarney was playing second fiddle to Quinn and Hillesland was hanging out with walk-on Chris Murphy at the end of the bench.

But if the Irish can get on a run early and build confidence among the young group, Notre Dame’s got a shot to win 10 Big East games in a schedule that doesn’t include Pitt or Connecticut.

And if not, at least it will be because of youth and inexperience – not injuries and excuses. The Notre Dame basketball hangover is over after three down seasons marred with injuries and disapointment.

It’s time for a breath of fresh air.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Bob Griffin at [email protected]edu