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Basketball Insider: The odd couple

Chris Khorey | Friday, November 17, 2006

One is a spot up shooter and a quiet teacher. The other is a slasher and an emotional firebrand. Together they have one goal – leading Notre Dame to its first NCAA Tournament berth in four years.

Sharpshooter Colin Falls and all-around athlete Russell Carter have opposite styles on the court, but as the only two scholarship seniors on the Irish roster, their leadership will be key for a Notre Dame squad bent on returning to the NCAAs.

“Whenever we go out on the floor, whoever we’re playing, we’re playing for the NCAA Tournament,” Falls says.

When Falls and Carter arrived on campus, NCAA appearances were a regular occurrence. The Irish had made the Tournament three straight years and advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2003, the spring before the two seniors arrived on campus.

“When I got here expectations were higher,” Falls says. “We’ve played below expectations a little bit for whatever reason, but it’ll be good if we can leave on a high note.”

Now, as seniors, Carter and Falls are looked up to by their underclassmen teammates and have worked together to instill a new attitude.

“If we’ve got something to say, we’ll say it to the group,” Carter says.

And what they’re saying has worked so far, as an Irish team that features five freshmen and four sophomores is talking seriously about being a contender this year.

“We need to make the NCAA Tournament,” Falls says. “That’s the only thing on our minds.”

The quiet marksman

Falls was born in Chicago, Ill. and grew up in the northwestern suburb of Park Ridge. From a young age, he had clear basketball abilities.

But he wasn’t always just a jumpshooter. In high school he led his Loyola Academy team with 25 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game, graduating as the school’s all- time leading scorer. He was Mr. Everything for the Ramblers, one time scoring 51 points in a game.

When he got to Notre Dame, however, he found himself behind guards Chris Thomas and Chris Quinn. Falls knew he had to find niche if he wanted to get on the court, so he worked tirelessly on perfecting his jump shot.

“When I got here, my role the first few years was to spot up and take passes from Chris Quinn and Chris Thomas, so I’ve really worked on my shot a lot,” Falls says.

His freshmen year, Falls averaged almost 16 minutes a game and drained 37 threes, a huge total given that he only made 47 shots. It was during this season that he gained his reputation among Irish fans as a three-point specialist.

The next year, Falls played a much larger role, starting 22 games alongside Thomas and Quinn and averaging 12.6 points per game. He hit a Notre Dame-sophomore record 93 threes that years, including eight in one game against Pittsburgh.

Having solidified his spot in the starting lineup, Falls found himself called upon to be one of Notre Dame’s top scoring threats last year in his junior season. With Thomas having graduated, Falls was the second leading scorer for the Irish with 13.8 points per game. He also set the school record for three-pointers in a season (102).

Of course, last year wasn’t all rosy for Falls, who saw the Irish fall in numerous close games. On Jan. 24, with the Irish trailing by four and less than 10 seconds to play, Falls launched a desperation shot while colliding with Hoyas guard Brandon Bowman.

The shot hit nothing but net, and Falls drained the clutch free throw as the Joyce Center crowd went wild.

Unfortunately for the would-be hero, the Irish couldn’t capitalize and ended up losing in double overtime.

It was a game that summed up last season for Falls. Something would go well, only to be countered by another numbingly close loss. He had his personal ups and downs as well, as any shooter does, getting hot one game and finding nothing but iron in the next.

Falls credits coach Mike Brey with keeping him going through the rough stretches.

“Every year you’re going to have a couple games where you go 1-of-6, 2-of-7 from the three-point line,” Falls says. “That’s why Coach Brey’s the best. He sticks with his guys and lets you work your way back into a rhythm. Shooters go through slumps and you have to shoot your way out of it.”

That calm wisdom translates into Falls’ leadership style on and off the court. He’s not very vocal while playing – in one of Notre Dame’s exhibition games he greeted an official’s bad judgment on an out of bounds call with a simple “that was off him” before turning to play defense.

But young players credit him with patiently teaching them when they were confused about Brey’s system or the college game in general.

“A lot of upperclassmen have helped me, especially Colin Falls,” freshman point guard Tory Jackson says. “He’s really helped me understand what’s going on out there.”

The high flying screamer

Carter is as loud on the court as Falls is quiet. He routinely screams and whoops after a made basket and is always trying to fire up the crowd.

It’s not that Carter wants to draw excess attention to himself – it’s just the way that he learned to play growing up in Paulsboro, N.J., across the river from Philadelphia.

“I love playing basketball,” Carter says. “It’s fun being out there. Playing back at home, when you play basketball you always got to talk a little something to show you’re the best.”

Carter has had plenty of fun through his basketball career. He averaged 30 points per game in leading Paulsboro high school to a 24-4 record his senior year.

His first year at Notre Dame, Carter made a splash despite only appearing in just 11 games and scoring nine total points.

Carter’s roommate and friends made T-shirts and led cheers for him to come into the game. The T-shirts, which can still be seen on occasion at the Joyce Center, quoted Carter saying he would make people remember his jersey number – No. 43.

“My roommate made T-shirts and he said ‘say something for the shirt’ and I said that,” Carter says.

He also says he chose the number to be distinctive.

“There aren’t very many people with then number 43 and those that have it aren’t very much known,” Carter says.

Brey continued to ignore Carter’s cheering section during the guard’s sophomore year. He got in more games than in his freshman year (24) and he got his first career start against Holy Cross in the NIT, but he averaged only 3.5 points per game.

The next year, Carter moved into the starting lineup and became a major contributor, averaging 11.6 points per game, good enough for third on the team. He also increased the size of his cheering section with his dramatic athletic plays and soaring dunks.

“When a play breaks down, you have to improvise and that’s when creativity will show,” Carter says. “Who doesn’t like to show their creativity? That’s basketball.”

Sometimes, however, Brey’s definition of “when a play breaks down” is different than Carter’s. The coach has made it no secret to the guard that he wants to see him work within the offense more.

“We pretty much stick to our motion offense,” Carter says of Brey’s game plans. “We can’t be robots but we generally stick to the script.”

Carter is ready to become a star for the Irish in his senior season. He led the team with 20 points in the opening win against IPFW Nov. 10 and added 20 more against Lafayette Tuesday.

But through it all, Carter just wants to have a good time.

“We need to continue to have fun,” he says. “If we have fun, then everything will follow course. If we treat it like a job and people don’t want to be here we won’t have success.”

The future

If either Falls or Carter is going to have a career in the NBA, a lot is riding on their performance – both individually and collectively – this season. But neither has given up the dream of playing professionally yet.

“If you don’t want to get to the next level, why play basketball?” Carter said.

Falls has even gone so far as to pursue Irish citizenship, which he can get through his grandfather, in order to make it easier for him to play overseas next year – if he doesn’t find a spot on an NBA roster.

“I want to play basketball for as long as I can,” he said.

But before that, Carter and Falls have one more goal for their time at Notre Dame – make good on their last chance to reach the NCAAs. This year is the odd couple’s chance to shine, with Falls’ quiet leadership and clutch jumpers and Carter’s emotion and crowd-electrifying plays leading the Irish in the Big East.

Because for as much as Carter and Falls are opposites – they want the exact same thing this season.

Maybe they’re not so different after all.