Work Progresses

Rome was not built in a day, and it's safe to say the post-Chris Thomas Notre Dame basketball team won't be either. As four of the five starters adjusted to new roles and responsibilities in their first game against Lewis University, the fits and starts at the offensive end didn't always make for good viewing. But the Irish used defensive intensity and timely contributions from newcomers Luke Zeller and Kyle McAlarney to put the Flyers away 59-40.

The first half started out like a bad rerun. As it had so many times the previous season, the Irish offense frequently bogged down on the perimeter. The Flyers threw double- and triple-teams at Torin Francis in the low post, and while the big man was more decisive and able to protect the ball than he had shown last year, it meant much fewer touches than either he or Irish coach Mike Brey wanted.

"I think Torin handled the ball better in the double-team than he ever has," Brey said after the game. "That's usually bothered him, and they obviously watched a lot of tape on us. But I thought he was fabulous tonight. He wasn't getting a lot in the post, but he made the safe pass all the time.

"I tried to swing the ball out as quick as I could," Francis said, "trying to find the open man. I figured this was something that would open things up for the rest of the team. We're going to see this from a lot of teams this year, so it was good preparation."

But at the other end of the court, the Irish defense flourished. Teammates called out switches and came over to help when Lewis players got free. Francis had three blocks on the shorter Lewis post players, which led to fast-break opportunities for the Irish. Chris Quinn, off to a cold 2-11 shooting start, turned up the pressure on the other end, forcing two steals and numerous bad decisions by the Flyers' backcourt.

Brey was happy the team kept its defensive focus. "It was nice to see, when we had to dig in, that we dug in pretty good in our man-to-man. We've worked more man-to-man than zone in the pre-season because it gets you in shape and makes you tougher. When you're not flowing offensively, you have to get back and guard. We had to rely on defending because nothing was going in at the other end. The big challenge with offensive guys is whether or not they're going to be tough enough to defend their man if their shot isn't going in, and for the most part, they did."

"We weren't really hitting our shots and getting it done on offense," Francis said. "So we wanted to get active on defense and it won the game for us."

A one-point halftime lead provided ample opportunity for the coaching staff to get their charges' attention. "This group needs to be taught," Brey said. "We need to teach and instruct, and that's the mode we've been in. That was the tone at halftime. We had to get the ball around to the open guy [after the double-team] and make enough of those shots to get them out of that [defense]."

With Brey rotating players in to find viable combinations, the offense slowly awoke from its slumber and used 13-2 and 11-0 runs in the second half to create a lead they would not relinquish. Quinn re-tracked himself by taking the ball right at the heart of the Lewis defense and geting to the foul line. Russell Carter, in his first Irish start, played under control at both ends of the court and contributed both points and defensive pressure with 11 points in a career-high 21 minutes. Rob Kurz showed more of the promise he had displayed last season against Holy Cross, with six defensive rebounds and two blocked shots.

And freshmen Luke Zeller and Kyle McAlarney, in their first appearances in an Irish uniform, certainly pulled their weight. Zeller's 20 minutes of play saw three assists and two blocked shots, and McAlarney shook off two early screen attempts by the Flyers to nail his first three-point shot, provide three assists of his own, and pressure Lewis into three steals.

"I thought McAlarney was really confident," Brey said. "He's fearless. And that's how he's practiced. Zeller got into a pretty nice rhythm, and I was happy to see him respond when there was game pressure on him."

"I don't let anyone push me around, no matter how big they are," McAlarney said after the game. "Coach wanted us to get up into them and contest everything. It feels good to get that first game under my belt, and now it just rolls from here."

"We're competitors, and we don't want to lose," Zeller agreed. "We don't want to lose a rebound, we don't want to miss a shot."

But the Irish remain a work in progress. "We're searching for rotations and combinations," Brey said. "Who's going to be our third perimeter guy? Do we play a bigger guy out there sometimes? All 11 scholarship guys are going to be a part of this and get a chance as we work through this."

"We have to work on getting better ball movement," agreed Kurz. "They got us out of our rhythm with the double-teaming. But we have a lot to build on from this game, and we've got to get back to work tomorrow."


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