July 29, 2003
The indications are evident.
When Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey assumed the head coaching duties in July of 2000, he had one vision - to restore the past glory and tradition of a basketball program looking for an identity. Brey envisioned securing an elite status for the Irish program.
After three consecutive NCAA tournament berths and last year's Sweet 16 appearance, Brey and the Irish appear headed in the right direction. When Notre Dame was bracketed in the West Regional with the likes Arizona, Duke and Kansas, it was a clear testament to Brey's vision.
"Last year's appearance in the Sweet 16 certainly was a strong endorsement for the momentum our program has gained during the past three years," Brey says. "Last season our players talked about getting past the first and second rounds and into that second weekend in March all season long. One of the trademarks of building a program is to develop consistency. I think we've done that the past three seasons."
With success, comes a level of expectation for consistency. No one knows of the pressures of getting to the top of the summit better than Brey, a participant in six Final Fours during his eight seasons on the Duke coaching staff.
The 2003-04 Notre Dame team returns three starters and seven monogram winners from last year's squad that finished with a 24-10 record and recorded the most wins since the 1986-87 campaign. Depth will be the hallmark of this year's team as the Irish will boast a potent attack from both the perimeter and inside.
Hopes for the upcoming season were bolstered when junior point guard Chris Thomas announced his plans to return to school after entering his name in the NBA Draft in early May. Thomas, one of the nation's most complete backcourt players, has been a primary catalyst for Notre Dame in his first two seasons. His ability to score and distribute the ball makes him one of the nation's most talented players. Thomas' return will certainly heighten the level of expectation for the upcoming season.
"With Chris coming back we can look to this year and be very excited about our basketball team," Brey says. "But I think the key to this season will be that we have a lot of guys in our locker room who have experienced winning and have been part of the success we have enjoyed the past three seasons.
"Our players expect a lot of themselves and they expect to do great things," he continues. "It's neat that they have such a high level of expectation. When the goals and hopes are really high, then the dreams can be big."
While the return of Thomas is an assurance that Notre Dame will be bonafide contender nationally, this Irish squad will be more than just a one-player team. Brey is known for his ability to both develop talent and recruit talented players. This year's returnees and newcomers will provide Notre Dame with its deepest team since Brey's arrival three years ago.
Notre Dame's frontline play will be strong with the return of sophomore Torin Francis, who started all 34 games for the Irish as well as senior Tom Timmermans and junior Jordan Cornette, two part-time starters a year ago. Sophomores Rick Cornett and Omari Peterkin are expected to contend for increased playing time and provide the Irish with depth up front.
Brey's backcourt will be bolstered by the experience of senior Torrian Jones, one of the team's most versatile players at both ends of the floor, and sophomore Chris Quinn, who will rotate with Thomas between point guard and shooting guard.
"There's going to be plenty of competition for playing time in the preseason," Brey says. "I expect that our practices, as they have in the past, will continue to be very competitive. Our depth all-around will be one of strengths this year."
"I'm really excited about our incoming freshman class," Brey says. "All three of these players are very athletic and will add versatility to our lineup. When looking at this class as a whole, it certainly is one that is going to help move this program forward." One of the challenges Brey will issue to his team this season is a better commitment to defense and guarding an opposing player. The Irish head coach was somewhat disappointed by his team's field goal percentage defense (Notre Dame allowed its opponents to shoot 41.2 percent from the field). In Brey's first two seasons, that had been strength of his team.
"We relied on out-scoring people too much last season," Brey says. "I don't want to take anything away from our offensive potency, but we weren't good enough defensively, and that is something that disappointed me. With all of the teams I coach, we're always going to be able to score a lot of points, but from the onset of this season, we're going to stress a strong commitment to defense as well."
While Notre Dame is expected to once again assemble a strong offensive arsenal, Brey has to replace two of its top three scorers lost to graduation- Matt Carroll and Dan Miller. Carroll capped off his remarkable career as the school's leading three-point shooter. In his final season in an Irish uniform, he averaged 19.5 points en route to earning first-team all-BIG EAST honors and honorable mention All-America accolades. Miller averaged an impressive 13.9 points per contest and was the team's second-leading rebounder at 5.7 boards per game.
With the losses of Carroll and Miller, the biggest question mark facing Brey will be finding a couple more outside shooting threats. Thomas is known for his three-point accuracy, but also look for Jones, Cornette and Quinn to elevate their game from beyond the arc. Falls is a player in the same mold as Carroll so it may be just a matter of time before he becomes a steady contributor to the Irish's scoring attack from the perimeter.
"Matt and Dan are certainly huge losses for us," Brey says. "I think we can replace them with a number of different guys. Jones and Cornette will provide us with an outside game on the wing, and then throw in Thomas and Quinn and also Falls and Carter. As we have in the past, we want to be able to stretch defenses out."
The versatility of Notre Dame's lineup will allow Brey the luxury of experimenting with different combinations on the floor. The Irish coach will utilize that option to create havoc for opposing defenses.
An untested and inexperienced frontline posed question marks for Notre Dame at the start of last season. With three key contributors - senior Tom Timmermans, junior Jordan Cornette and sophomore Torin Francis - back from that team, this will certainly not be an area of concern for Brey this season. It will be the first time during Brey's tenure that the Irish will have the fortune of returning all of its frontcourt players.
"Having Tom, Jordan and Torin all back will certainly give us a lot of options up front," Brey says. "We have three guys returning who saw a lot of playing time last season. They are seasoned veterans with a great understanding of our program and system and who are ready to help us reach the next level."
At 6-11, 235 pounds, Timmermans is a force for the Irish underneath the basket. The Driehuis, Netherlands center enjoyed his best outing in a Notre Dame uniform last season as he averaged 3.2 points and 4.2 rebounds and earned 11 starts in the 31 contests he played. Timmermans gives the Irish a physical presence both underneath and around the basket and he gained greater confidence each time he stepped onto the floor. He's a very skilled player with excellent passing abilities and a nice shooting touch.
"I'm excited about Tom," Brey says. "He played with a great deal of confidence last year and I expect him to carry that into this season. Tom's a great defensive player and is not afraid to go up against an opposing team's best player.
"I expect that we're going to see that same defensive intensity from him this year, but I also believe that he is going to be much more comfortable offensively. I'll like to see him develop his outside shooting, but for a guy with his size, he has excellent passing abilities."
Brey anticipates that Cornette's game will continue to flourish. The 6-9, 235-pound forward from Cincinnati, Ohio provided solid minutes for the Irish as a starter and off the bench last season, averaging 3.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots. Cornette's versatility allows him to play underneath and away from the basket. It is going to be that versatility which will allow Brey to mix up his lineup with different matchups on the floor.
"I just love the flexibility that Jordan brings to our lineup," Brey says. "He's a terrific defensive player and can guard anybody on the floor. Jordan has the ability to play inside, but also can step away from the basket and be as effective from the perimeter.
"He's an extremely tough player for opposing teams to defend. What is most impressive to me about Jordan is that for a big guy, he has such a high basketball IQ. He really thinks a lot when he is on floor. He's a great passer and thinks more like a guard. I love having him on the floor because he's always thinking about game situations."
After just one season, Francis, a member of the '03 BIG EAST All-Rookie Team, showed why he was one of the most sought after players in the country coming out of high school. Unquestionably, he will rank as one of the top big men in the country this season.
In averaging 11.1 points, a team-leading 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots, Francis' game is one of both power and finesse. A starter in all 34 games last season, he averaged 28.6 minutes per game. With the experience he gained and the confidence he attained after last season, the 6-10, 240-pound forward from Roslindale, Mass., will look to become more of a first option for the Irish offensively, especially in the low post. In addition, he'll likely be one of the nation's top rebounders.
"Similar to what Chris Thomas did in his freshman year, Torin Francis had a fabulous rookie season," Brey says. "We couldn't have asked more of him last season. One of the goals that I have talked about with Torin is that he works to become one of the best rebounders in the country.
"I also think that he can be one of the most dominant players in the low post both offensively and defensively. Torin is such a determined player with a hunger for becoming the best player on the floor. I look for Torin to elevate his game to another level and to continue to improve all aspects of his game."
After somewhat limited playing time a year ago, Rick Cornette is looking to become a fixture in the Irish lineup. The 6-8, 244 pound forward from Country Club Hill, Ill., has an imposing basketball frame. The second-year player will have a strong physical presence on the floor this season, while his natural rebounding ability will be a tremendous asset for Notre Dame. Cornett played in 12 games as a rookie and averaged 2.5 points and 1.1 rebounds.
"Rick's going to have a bigger role this season and we're counting on him to be a big part of our team," Brey says. "He has a tremendous physical presence on the floor as a defensive player. Rick's, greatest asset is his natural rebounding ability. The coaching staff and I are anxious to see his development and see how far he has progressed since the end of season.
Omari Peterkin did not see action as a rookie that allowed him to develop his skills and become acclimated to Brey's system. The 6-8, 260 pound forward is an extremely skilled basketball player with great hands and a soft shooting touch. The native of U.S. Virgin Islands is expected to continue to develop and see playing time this season.
"Omari is a very skilled basketball player," Brey says. "He has great hands and knows how to finish around the basket. The biggest thing that he has to continue to work on is his conditioning. He and Rick are going to be battling each other for playing time."
Notre Dame's other Omari, Omari Isreal, is somewhat of a question mark heading into his first season. The 6-8, 220 pound forward from Rockville, Md., tore his ACL during his final scholastic campaign and still is recovering from the surgery. He scored more than 1,500 points during his high school career. Isreal has good footwork and versatility to play in and around the basketball, but also the skill to move outside.
"Omari's situation is going to be day-to-day," Brey says. "He's an extremely talented player who gives us great flexibility at the forward spot. Because of our depth at forward and in the frontcourt, there isn't going to be a need to hurry his recovery or his rehabilitation. We're not going to have him rush back, and instead, be patient with his recovery."
Strong backcourt play has always been vital to the success of Brey's teams. Notre Dame's backcourt once again will rank as one of the nation's finest with returnees Chris Thomas, Torrian Jones and Chris Quinn. This talented trio will be the catalyst to the fortunes of this year's Irish squad.
Notre Dame got a big boost when Thomas announced his plans to return for his junior season after entering his name in the spring for the '03 NBA Draft. A two-year starter for the Irish at point guard, he may be the best combined scorer and ball distributor in all of college basketball during the upcoming campaign. Thomas heads into the season as a bonafide All-America candidate.
The 6-1, 182 pound native of Indianapolis, Ind., was Notre Dame's second-leading scorer a year ago with an 18.7 scoring average. An honorable mention All-America selection and second-team all-BIG EAST honoree, he led the Irish in assists (6.9 per game) for the second consecutive season.
Thomas' extraordinary talent and fearlessness make him a tough matchup for opposing defenses. His ability to score from anywhere on the floor and his adept passing skills have made him one of the nation's most feared players. The one area of Thomas' game that Brey would like to see him improve is game management.
"I'm excited to have the opportunity to coach Chris Thomas again," Brey says. "and he is just as excited about being back at Notre Dame. "He's one of the country's most exciting players at any position. I believe his draft experience in May and June has made him a much more focused player. I think that he is going approach this season in a much more business-like manner.
"Chris' confidence on the court trickles down to all of our others players. They feed off of that and he makes us such a better basketball team. His fearlessness on the court and his ability to make plays is a winning combination. I've talked to Chris about how to become better at managing the game, and I look for him to improve in that area. I do, however, want him to continue to be fearless on the court."
Senior Torrian Jones has displayed great unselfishness in his first three seasons, and has been someone Brey has been able to count on to fill any role on the floor. Best known for his defensive prowess, the 6-4, 195-pound native of Fairless Hills, Pa., will look to become an all-around threat at both ends of the floor this season. He will enjoy a more expanded role in the Irish lineup.
Jones averaged 4.9 points and 3.3 rebounds last year and played in 33 contests. His impact on the game, however, cannot be measured in statistics alone. His vocal leadership on the floor will be one of his greatest contributions this season.
Jones is a slasher that likes to drive to the basket, but he also has shown the ability to shoot from the outside. Look for him to become more offensive-minded this season and become more of a scoring threat.
"Torrian's role will be greatly expanded this season," Brey says. "He'll be our strongest voice in the locker room and his leadership is going to be very important to the success of our basketball program. We know that he is one of our best defensive players, but I think you're going to see a young man who displays more of an offensive game.
"I like the fact that he is a slasher and can drive to the basket. Torrian is going to be on the floor a great deal of time this season."
While not as flashy as Thomas, Notre Dame's other point guard, Chris Quinn, has talents equal to those of his backcourt counterpart. Although Thomas will handle a major of the point guard duties, Brey has no qualms about handing the ball over to the 6-2, 178-pound dynamo from Dublin, Ohio.
Quinn is an excellent ballhandler who rarely turns the ball over. He played in all 34 games last season and netted 3.9 points and dished off 1.5 assists. In addition, he turned the ball over just 15 times in averaging 15.3 minutes on the floor. Like Thomas, he will enjoy being one of Notre Dame's top three-point threats.
Brey will utilize Quinn primarily at that spot on the floor, but the flexibility of playing both he and Thomas at either of those two positions (point and two-guard) will create havoc for opposing defenses.
"Chris (Quinn) is looking forward to playing with Chris Thomas in the backcourt this season," Brey says. 'It's going to be a combination that is going to work very well for us. He's one of most consistent players in terms of his demeanor on the court. Chris (Quinn) never gets rattled on the floor, and that's what makes him so valuable.
"We're going to ask him to play extended minutes this season, to handle the ball a lot more and to play defense. He needs to hunt his shot a little bit more this season. Like Chris Thomas, he's a gutsy player who is going to keep us fearless."
Freshman Colin Falls, a 6-4, 200-pound shooting guard from Parkridge, Ill., is cut from the same mold as Matt Carroll. By the time his career at Notre Dame is complete, he certainly will rank as one of the finest outside shooters in school history. With the graduation of Carroll and Miller, he becomes a very important part of the Irish's perimeter attack.
Falls averaged 25.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists during his final season at Loyola Academy and finished as the career scoring leader with 2,045 points. He has excellent range from beyond the arc and is a very good all-around player. Falls also is a strong defensive player.
"Colin has a tremendous shooting touch and range," Brey says, "but he showed last summer and during his senior year that he has become a complete player and not just a shooter. He's a good ballhandler and is a very versatile athlete at both ends of the floor, although the strength of his game is as an offensive threat and scorer."
Russell Carter, a 6-4, 190-pound native of Paulsboro, N.J., adds tremendous depth to the Irish backcourt. An extremely athletic player, he averaged 30.0 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists en route to becoming just the fifth player in South Jersey prep history to lead the region in scoring in consecutive seasons. Much like Jones, he is a good defender with strong offensive skills.
"Russell is a great addition to our program because of his athletic
ability," Brey says. "He is an impressive player both offensively
and defensively. He know how to defend, but can also shoot the ball.
Russell also is a very fearless player. He's a great investment for
the future and is going to be someone who is going to continue to
develop and improve. We're anxious to watch his progress."