Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com™
January 10, 2002
Belies His Youth
By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service
MORGANTOWN, W.V. (IE) – As the score got tighter and the pressure mounted, the directives could be heard from the upper reaches of the West Virginia Coliseum.
"C'mon, Harrr-Gett, shoot the ball. Do something out there," several anxious Mountaineer fans would yell. Their tone was not patient and nurturing.
Point guard Jonathan Hargett is West Virginia's most prized freshman since the Mountaineers joined the Big East Conference. Chosen by opposing coaches as the Big East pre-season Rookie of the Year, Hargett was expected to ignite the program here in the rugged hills.
Initially, he delivered the goods. In his third collegiate game, Hargett scored 28 points in an 88-85 West Virginia victory against New Mexico at The Pit in Albuquerque, one of the toughest venues in Division 1. The Mountaineers got off to a 6-1 start and flirted with the Top 25.
Right now, though, Hargett is struggling not unlike so many freshmen across the country, be it on the basketball course, the classroom or socially. The 5-11, 180-pounder from Richmond, Virginia cannot overpower opponents like he did in high school and AAU. Over a six-game stretch, Hargett barely made one out of every four shots and had a virtual even assist to turnover ratio. West Virginia's offense became stagnant and the Mountaineers have lost five of their last six to slump to 7-6 overall, 0-2 in the Big East.
Unfairly, West Virginia fans have lost patience with Hargett. There were only 6,552 fans in the14,000-seat Coliseum Wednesday. Notre Dame rallied from 18 down to win, 67-64, with Hargett committing the foul that led to the game-winning free throw. He also missed West Virginia's last shot. The impatient fans were out of their seats and in the parking lots before the buzzer sounded.
Hargett is a gifted player. He had a strong line against Notre Dame – 19 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals. But West Virginia fans have apparently turned on Hargett because he is not, well, Chris Thomas.
The Irish point guard, at least at this point, is not only the Big East Rookie of the Year, but a clear candidate for All-Conference. Mr. Indiana did not play flawlessly Wednesday in his match-up with Hargett, missing eight of 11 shots. But he was at his best with the game on the line, hitting six free throws in the last 79 seconds and effectively pressuring Hargett into critical turnovers. Thomas had a splendid eight assist to two turnover ratio and had three steals.
"I think my guy is going to be right there when all said and done," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey later when asked by a Morgantown reporter about Hargett's Rookie of the Year candidacy. "Jonathan Hargett is a great talent, he made big shots (Wednesday), I thought he played very well. But Chris Thomas seized the moment."
The numbers tell the story of these two players. Notre Dame is 11-3, West Virginia 7-6, and Thomas has an edge in every major statistical category, including points (16.9 to 14.5), assists (6.71 to 4.77), FG percentage (.424 to .301) and assist/turnover ratio (3.13 to 1.09).
IrishEyes was unable to talk to Hargett Wednesday since the West Virginia Athletic Department forbids freshman from speaking to the media. It is their way of acknowledging how much pressure the young men already have to endure from some of the more demanding fans in the Big East.
"Sometimes you guys forget," coach Gale Catlett preached to the media later, "that Jonathan Hargett is just a freshman."
It's slipped our mind continually that Thomas is a freshman, because he plays like a junior.
On a Notre Dame team that has noticeable flaws, Thomas is clearly the physical leader. The closer the score, the sharper his decisions, offensively and defensively. He was the best player on the floor in the second-half of all three of the Irish losses – Indiana, Alabama and Villanova. Right now, his biggest flaws are almost habitual slow starts and an 18-year-old body that can use another 15-20 pounds of sinewy muscle.
"I never think about playing badly, I never think about losing a game," Thomas told IrishEyes Wednesday night. "I have a lot of confidence in myself and my teammates. Things always have a way of working out if you just keep at it."
Thomas was 0-for-5 with one assist in the first-half Wednesday as Notre Dame fell behind by 15. He had 14 points and seven assists in the game-winning rally. Against Villanova Sunday he shrugged off a one-for-12 start, made four-of-his last six shots and directly played a part (either through a made shot, assist or steal) in 26 of Notre Dame's 36 second-half points.
There's a reason Thomas is the only player in Notre Dame history to wear the Number One.
Notre Dame plays three consecutive ranked teams – at Pittsburgh Saturday, at Syracuse Monday, home versus Kentucky a week from Saturday. The Irish have faced a stretch like that only twice in 23 years. But somehow it seems less daunting with a player like Chris Thomas calling the shots.
(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at email@example.com)