Thursday, March 17, 2005

Taking Inventory | by Teds

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Notre Dame's season in Big East play lived up to the adage about the madness-inducing month that everyone points toward in this sport: "in like a lion, and out like a lamb". Obviously, the team controlled its own destiny over the final two weeks of the season and failed to grab that one extra, elusive win that would have made it nearly impossible for Bob Bowlsby and his crack tournament committee to ignore the Irish. The infighting has been hot and heavy among ND fans between those who see black helicopters hovering over NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis and those who will only be satisfied once the new, force-fed team motto ("We have no one to blame but ourselves") is stitched to the front of next season's jerseys in scarlet lettering.

The dust-up is understandable, because expectations at the beginning of the season were as lofty as they've been during Brey's tenure. But with the NCAA dreams now dead, does the reality of what Brey was working with render the season a huge disappointment or merely the predictable conclusion for an outfit with warts that went unnoticed back in October? A review of the main players from the 2004-05 team is probably in order, as well as a peek at what the future might hold for those who will continue to fight the good fight next season.

Any discussion of the Irish team has to begin with Chris Thomas, the heart of the team and de facto posterboy for Brey's squad over the past four seasons. To say that Thomas has been a credit to this program would be an understatement, and he will go down in history as one of the best point guards and most memorable players to ever wear a Notre Dame jersey. That being said, the past two seasons of his career have been marred with health problems and poor performances in critical games. Here are Thomas' season-by-season averages:


The data shows that Thomas' averages have jumped around somewhat based on what Brey required of him within the framework of the team. His assist totals were highest during his freshman year with a solid, experienced supporting cast, then dipping the next two seasons as he assumed the role as primary scorer (as noted by the increase in points per game, as well as shots attempted), before leaning back toward his freshman effort this year with Quinn and Falls taking up some of his perimeter scoring slack. Thomas also became a more active rebounder as his career progressed, and that part of his game will be sorely missed next season on a team that couldn't ever seem to get enough of those boards. But the numbers that tell the greater story of Thomas' stagnation are his shooting percentages:


We can see that Thomas was progressing nicely going into his junior season, shooting well in general and becoming a more consistent threat from behind the arc. However, his percentages took a turn for the worse last year before practically cratering into the realm of self-flaggelation in the season just concluded. It's possible that failures on the part of Brey's coaching staff could have played a role in Thomas' erosion as an offensive threat, but his knee problems have obviously been a significant factor, as well. Watching Thomas struggle as his college career comes to a close, I'm reminded less of an "undeveloped player" than I am of a once-great NBA performer who can no longer force his body to regularly do the things it did when he was at the top of his game. It's a shame that his career has to end on such an underwhelming note, and the variety of his contributions will undoubtedly be missed. However, his departure represents an opportunity for Brey and his team to step out from underneath Thomas' formidable shadow, and the turning of this particular page can't come soon enough for the program.

Perhaps the most critical component in the team's life-to-be without Thomas is Chris Quinn. Quinn is not an imposing physical specimen, nor is he the sort of player who gets noticed much by the average fan on a court full of Big East-caliber performers. But a review of his statistics this season points to a player who was more effective and efficient than Syracuse's Gerry MacNamara, an oft-celebrated peer who strongly considered ND during the recruiting process and is sometimes compared to Quinn as his better.


Based solely on the statistics, Quinn appears to be the stronger player of the two, especially in terms of shooting. Of course, to put the numbers in proper context, one has to recognize that Thomas' play has supported Quinn's performance and taken lead-dog pressure off him. Next season, Quinn will be charged with the primary responsibility for handling the ball and running the offense. It's an open question as to how well he'll fare in the transition, but his experience and performance record to this point puts him in a good position to succeed. Quinn's absence over the last three games (only 33 minutes and 5 points in total) was an underrated factor in those losses. I believe that having a healthy Quinn finally manning his proper role next season will be a boon for this team, and I expect him to have a very productive final season as the baton is cleanly passed over to incoming freshman Kyle McAlarney.

Colin Falls lived up to the glimpses that he showed during his freshman season as a sharpshooter in the making, doubling his minutes (15.6 to 30.8) and nearly tripling his scoring average (4.6 to 12.4) this year. He led the team in three-point field goals made (second in the Big East behind McNamara), as well as free throw percentage (first in Big East). However, though his legitimacy as a long-range bomber is not in doubt, he has yet to establish that he's much more than a one-trick pony. His three-point shooting percentage (.414) actually propped up his overall shooting (.390), so absent was his offensive game within the arc. Falls' discomfort inside the circle was obvious based on his two-point shooting (.235) and the lack of attempts of such shots (just 34, compared to 215 attempted threes). He played almost 100 total minutes and into his sixth game this season before even attempting his first two-point shot against DePaul. And any hint of a game on that portion of the court completely disappeared once conference play started, as Falls shot only .148 (4-27) inside the arc during the Big East season.

To a certain extent, this is an unfair dismissal of Falls. Brey put him on the floor and in the offense for the express purpose of hitting those threes, which he did at a laudable clip (fifth in the Big East -- minimum 75 attempts). But as the season progressed and Falls reputation grew, so did the attention paid to him by opposing teams on the perimeter. Without an effective dribble drive, Falls could be taken out of the game, and this happened on numerous occassions, leading to something of a rollercoaster ride in output on a team already saturated with such performers. So while Falls was an effective and valuable player for ND, he was also one that needed to be shooting well to outweigh other parts of his game that weren't suited to play wing in the Big East.

It's likely that the departure of Thomas will mean a shift to shooting guard for Falls, which should be helpful to him on the whole. At 6'5", he possesses the size to take advantage of some of his peers, but he needs to improve his strength during the offseason in order to make the most of it. His defense improved last season, but he was still exposed by great athletes like UConn's Rudy Gay. He'll be tested by the quickness of opposing guards, and it's no guarantee that he'll ever be anything more than a tweener -- not strong enough to handle wings, nor quick enough to stone smaller guards -- on that end of the floor. Most importantly, Falls needs to work during the offseason to develop and hone his skills with the ball and creating shots off the dribble. Given some marked improvement in this respect, the potential is there for Falls to emulate former Irish star Matt Carroll down the road. However, there's also the possibility that his career could end up more closely resembling that of Keith Friel or Ryan Hoover. In the latter case, the 30+ minutes per game that Falls contributed this past year may not be asked of him again in future campaigns.

Along the frontcourt, no player more accurately illustrated the maddening, mercurial tendencies of the Irish team this season than Torin Francis. A former McDonald's All-American, Francis has shown flashes of greatness over his three seasons that made him look like an NBA lottery-pick-to-be while offering on other occassions the sort of handiwork that would make a first-time observer wonder if he'd ever played a day of college basketball in his life. Francis was sidelined for the final month of his sophomore year with back problems, and subsequent surgery to correct the ailment left him laid up for much of last summer and slow in getting a jump on the new season. This, in turn, precipitated both predictable and frustrating peaks and valleys in his performance over the first part of the year..

Connecticut and Syrcause are the two most recent national champions and probably also the two strongest teams in the Big East as the NCAA tournament opens this week. Both teams feature strong and athletic frontcourts, and one would surmise that lesser performers would tend to look worse in direct competition against them. So it's a bit of a surprise to discover that Francis averaged 16 points (shooting 53% from the field) and 8 rebounds in Notre Dame's 4 games against those teams this season. He also chipped in with a double-double -- 19 points and 13 rebounds -- in a tightly-contested loss at Villanova, another talented conference opponent with Final Four aspirations. At times such as those, he appeared to be assured and aggressive, a worthy adversary for his acclaimed opponents. But in other games, Francis was almost completely lost -- hesitant, clumsy and strangely invisible for a young man of his dimensions.

As a card-carrying member of the Ty Willingham Memorial "Coaching Begat Talent" club, I understand that I risk exposing myself as a hypocrite, but I feel quite strongly on the subject. What's holding back Torin Francis more than anything else is Torin Francis. I recognize that his recovery from offseason surgery set back his timetable, but it doesn't explain why he was capable of contributing three double-doubles over the first month of Big East play but performed so poorly against Providence in a key game in late February that he was benched for the entire second half. Anyone capable of "player of the game"-type impact when matched up against the best teams in the best conference in the nation should also possess the ability to perform at least adequately against average-or-worse opponents, and Francis was too often unable to contribute in such a manner. There seems to be such an inconsistency in his focus and level of intensity that it's difficult to suggest an appropriate remedy for the coaching staff.

There's a lot of talk about Francis attending the Pete Newell Big Man Camp duirng the upcoming offseason, which would probably be beneficial in terms of both instruction and experience against other quality players of his stature. Additionally, Francis' forays into ballhandling have graded out anywhere between "unorthodox" and "abominable", and I believe that he stands to benefit greatly from some isolated training on hand-eye coodination. Still, I think that the most important factor in his further development resides in his basic mindset and approach to his growing role on the team. If Francis could somehow channel Harold Swanagan just before tip-off of each game, he has the makings of an All-American sort of performer. Otherwise, it might be a matter of bringing Vince Vaughn in for a pep talk about bears, bunnies, fangs, sharp (bleeping) claws and the like.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Dennis Latimore was something of a poor man's version of Francis. He rode the performance rollercoaster just as his teammate did, but his highs weren't as uplifting and his lows not quite so traumatic. Greatness had been predicted for Latimore coming into the season, and his infusion was one of the primary reasons that expectations for the Irish team had been so promising. In retrospect, he was a talented but almost completely unproven player who wasn't ready for the Big East meatgrinder. The projections for him should have been tempered. Here are per-game averages for Latimore this season, both prior to the Big East season and from the conference opener (Seton Hall) forward:

Time Frame
Pre-Big East27.610.75.9
Seton Hall to BET17.65.33.6

Admittedly, Latimore's minutes being cut hampered his scoring and rebounding totals, but anyone who tracked him as the season progressed couldn't help but notice that he wasn't the same player in conference competiton that he had been in earlier contests against the likes of Michigan and Indiana. Coming from a part-time role in a less challenging conference with a different and less physical style of play, competing in the Big East was the sort of shock to Latimore's system that a full year of in-team scrimmages against Francis, Rick Cornett and Tom Timmermans couldn't adequately prepare him for.

Looking back, Ryan Humphrey was not only a fantastic athlete but also an experienced player and proven commodity during his two seasons at Oklahoma before arriving at Notre Dame. However, even he had to fight his way through the growth curve and was a significantly more effective player during the second half of his senior (second) year at ND than he had been previously. For a more contemporary example, Ed Nelson, former ACC Freshman of the Year and a major contributor on the interior for Georgia Tech two seasons ago, was little more than an afterthought (9.6 mins pg, 2.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg) in his first Big East campaign after transferring to Connecticut. But Jim Calhoun and the Huskies had the luxury of a strong, deep frontcourt and weren't dependent on Nelson's contribution. The pitfalls for Mike Brey and ND were greater. My guess is that Latimore will be a distinctly more effective and valuable player for the Irish next season, although his imprimateur as a former All-American blue-chip recruit remains somewhat in doubt.

Jordan Cornette was the best defender in the Irish frontcourt and primarily responsible for hindering Craig Smith, Hakim Warrick and other nationally-recognized opposing players. On the other end of the floor, he didn't have the consistent shot or slashing ability necessary to make him a dangerous wing, nor the power and presence required in this conference to qualify as a threat in the paint. On a different team, Cornette would have been an extremely valuable role player and a fan favorite, contributing 10-15 minutes of hardnosed, enthusiastic play and a couple of rejections every night. But on this team, Cornette was required to take on a regular position and was simply stretched too thin, his shortcomings exposed over the course of 26 minutes per game. His loss will be felt next year just as Torrian Jones' was this season, but the hope is that the Irish can cultivate another player or two who might attach a wider array of skills to the fiery attitude that served Cornette and ND well throughout his college career.

If Irish fans decided to hand out a Jere Macura Memorial Award this year for the ND player most inappropriately (in their minds, anyway) relegated to the bench, it would have to go to Rick Cornett. Cornett ran a bit hot-and-cold in his performance, but he once again displayed some worthwhile offensive skills and an uncanny knack for collecting loose balls and rebounds. He almost singlehandedly won an important game for the Irish at Providence late in the season, coming off the bench in Montanaesque fashion to log career-highs in points (14) and rebounds (14). His free throw shooting was execrable (41%), and he seemed lost on occassion. But considering the disparity in minutes between Cornett (9.4 per game) and those soaked up by Francis (26.4) and Latimore (20.6), it's a wonder that he wasn't hip-deep in hibernation mode when finally summoned from the bench. Here are the 2004-05 averages for the three players, extrapolated to illustrate their projected performances over 30 minutes per game:


Based on the numbers, Cornett is a player with the potential to score and hit the boards every bit as well as Francis and Latimore, although these figures also note that he suffers from the same shortcomings in ball skills that plague Francis. Overall, it's a mystery that Brey turned to the tough and athletic Cornett as little as he did this season, especially given the coach's public declarations about the shortage of tough and athletic players on the interior. If there was any reason to second-guess Brey's handling of the team this year, the continued ignorance of Cornett as a viable option on the frontline was Exhibit A. Looking toward next season, it would be nice to think that Cornett will finally get the opportunity to shine in extended duty. However, given the return of Francis and Latimore along with the expected contributions of freshman Rob Kurz and incoming freshman and McDonald's All-American Luke Zeller, it seems more likely that Cornett will be squeezed further, barring an unforseen injury or departure.

Among other minor contributors, Russell Carter and Omari Isreal showed flashes of potential, the former mostly on offense and the latter on the other end of the court. These two represent the sort of athletic wings that the Irish suffered without a major contribution from this year, and the accelerated development of one or both players over the upcoming offseason could mean a world of difference to next season's team. I'd stop just short of calling it imperative that one of the two proves to be an effective regular performer in 2005-06. Rob Kurz enjoyed his most extensive court time of the season last night against Holy Cross and offered Notre Dame fans a glimpse of his promising future. Kurz appears to have the makings of an effective inside/outside game, which should help Brey and the Irish offense thwart opponents packing in down low against the team's less mobile bigs.

Notre Dame finished the season 9-7 in the Big East, good enough for sixth place in the nation's most competitive conference. Given a review of the team's major contributors this season, what I see is essentially a sixth-place squad. Any expectations fans or analysts might have had back in October for a 25-win season or a trip to the Final Four for this team were couched solely in a best-case-scenario sort of wishcasting. That's no knock on the players who were part of this year's ND squad, as the sudden blossoming of particular performers or a team in general can't be scheduled like a dinner reservation. Many people expected great things from Jay Wright's Villanova squad the past two years (both ending in trips to the NIT), but it took them until this season to finally flourish into an outfit capable of winning big games in bunches and making a deep tournament run. Things in this sport don't often go according to plan, and anyone who wishes to put a particular coach or team on a regimented, year-by-year timetable is likely to end up disappointed, if not suicidal.

None of this is to say that Mike Brey and his coaching staff get a free pass for the disappointment of the current campaign. As unfit as this unit might have been to trade body blows with Connecticut, Syracuse and other national powers over the long haul, it's a team that had no excuse not to return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus. They started the Big East season with some close and headache-inducing wins but appeared to be on track to play meaningful basketball in March. Unfortunately, the proverbial pit of quicksand the team mysteriously slipped into over the final weeks of the season proved its undoing, and the more Brey and his charges struggled to escape, the deeper they sank into the muck. Everyone connected to this team will most assuredly limp into the offseason with a sour taste in their mouth, and the hope is that Brey and others will use the frustration of this lost season as fuel to regroup, retool and hit the ground running come October.

There is still sufficient time for Brey to prove that he's a coach capable of taking Notre Dame basketball to another level, but for the first time in his tenure, there is some well-deserved urgency in the short-term fortunes of the team. With the Big East expanding to include Louisville, Marquette and Cincinnati next season, the timing is especially poor for Irish basketball to be moving in the wrong direction. Righting the ship over the course of the next year -- and perception of this matters even bit as much as reality -- may ultimately make or break Brey's tenure at Notre Dame. As I've stated previously, I believe him to be capable of leading this program to the promised land, but some amount of change is in order. Good coaches adjust, and Brey needs to act accordingly and prove he is exactly that.

I still see good things ahead for Notre Dame basketball, but there's some heavy lifting to be done by coaches and players alike in the meantime.