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Men’s Basketball: All-around presence

Bobby Griffin | Wednesday, November 8, 2006

When freshman Luke Harangody managed to find forward Rob Kurz’s nose during practice Sunday, it took the Irish coaching staff about 20 minutes to let sophomore Zach Hillesland know he would be starting in the team’s final preseason game.

Hillesland responded by giving the Irish an all-around boost, showing an ability to score, rebound, pass, dribble, defend and create in transition. It was a pretty good effort for a rarely used bench player last season known more for his comedic presence in the locker room than his on-court abilities.

“That’s kind of my game, just go around, little things here and there, kind of make the team flow a little bit,” Hillesland said after Monday’s game. “I felt very comfortable out there … probably more comfortable than the first exhibition game.”

Hillesland’s statistics prove exactly how much he was involved – seven points, five assists, four rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 23 minutes.

“He’s one of those guys that fills every stat category,” Irish coach Mike Brey said Monday. “He’s a little bit unorthodox. He can guard anybody and he can handle the ball. We can definitely take advantage of the second big guy, the ‘four man’ guarding him.”

The sophomore forward was involved in even more plays where his name didn’t show up in the stat sheets. Hillesland was a ball hound on Notre Dame’s successful first-half full court press. He proved to be a great help defender. He also showed an ability to use his 6-foot-8, 225-pound frame to drive baseline.

And those plays don’t even account for the 360-degree pass he attempted in transition during the second half. Showtime anyone?

“I don’t know how fast Magic Johnson was, but I guess if you want to call me a little bit slower that’s fine because I never played against him,” Hillesland joked after the game. “I think [I could keep up with him in the race], especially nowadays because he’s like eighty, so whatever.”

Irish senior Russell Carter smiled at the comparison Monday, saying that he doesn’t mind going with Magic Johnson but he sees Hillesland more in the Larry Bird mold.

“He’s flashy, he knows what he’s doing,” Carter said. “It may not look like it, but he knows what he’s doing. I see that every day in practice, I’m just happy he’s out there.”

On a serious note, Hillesland could be a vital cog in Notre Dame’s system this year with the regular season beginning Friday. The Irish have proven scorers in Carter and senior two guard Colin Falls, and a creative play maker in point guard Kyle McAlarney.

They also have a trio of forwards in Harangody, Kurz and sophomore Luke Zeller – a former McDonald’s All-American who led the Irish in scoring Monday – who should handle most of the post duties.

But a basketball team is only as good as its depth, and with Hillesland as the second or third man off the bench – freshman point guard Tory Jackson has looked flashy and explosive this fall – he will create immediate mismatches against less athletic power forwards when Notre Dame sees man defenses.

“He’s so creative like that, out there on the floor … he does every thing, he passes, he can rebound it, he defends well, he can run the floor well,” McAlarney said. “I love playing with those kind of guys because they get their job done.”

But more important than Hillesland’s all-around ability – or his witty sense of humor – is his absolute command of the Notre Dame system. Brey has touted him as being the definitive leader in practice on the second team (the blue team).

“When we go blue against white, Falls knows our system best on the whites and Hillesland knows it really well on the blues,” Brey said. “He’s coaching all those young guys he’s got with him on the blue team.”

And given Hillesland’s strong command of the offense so early in his Notre Dame career, the forward sees some improvements that need to be made as the Irish progress in their season.

“I think we’ve still yet to put together forty solid minutes,” Hillesland said. “We’ve had spurts here and there where we’ve played really well offensively, really well defensively. Now we’ve just got to start building on that.”