- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Chris Thomas arrived for last Thursday's shootaround prior to Notre Dame's exhibition game with his homework assignment finished and printed.
He handed it to Irish coach Mike Brey.
Brey read it and was amused at how dead-on Thomas was in his assessment. He was proud to see the care Thomas took with the brief, one-paragraph essay question.
Certainly two or three years ago, and possibly even last year, Thomas might not have handled such a relatively easy chore with as much attention to detail. He might not have been as forthright.
But this is it for Thomas -- his last season at Notre Dame, the final chance to deliver a conference title and a Final Four berth, and leave a lasting impression on potential NBA suitors.
That's why Brey trusted Thomas to give an educated answer when he asked his point guard to describe their relationship. Brey got the idea from a USA Today article on the point guard-coach relationships on NBA playoff teams last May.
Thomas' answer read:
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Coach: Mike Brey
Point guard: Chris Thomas
Seasons together: 3
Chemistry: Brey's communication with Thomas is very important to his team's success. He depends on Thomas to run the team, take good shots, and deliver the ball to his teammates in situations that allow them to create. Thomas has displayed great instincts on the court due to Brey's allowance for mistakes and turnovers. Thomas is Brey's voice on the floor and their trust in one another will take this team far in the tournament.
Late Thursday night after the Irish's exhibition game against St. Joseph's (Ind.), Brey handed out copies to his staff. No one was surprised by Thomas' candor. Everyone agreed that Thomas hit his role and their relationship. And it is obvious to those inside the program that Thomas has changed.
He understands what he has to do at the point. No longer does he want the reputation of someone who is erratic with his shot selection or would ever think about his scoring over his distribution. An invasive knee surgery last April woke him up to the necessity to value every possession, game, practice and drill.
Thomas, who should be regarded as one of the top returning point guards in the country, is ready to be a true playmaker.
"I want my team to leave a legacy," Thomas said. "I've waited three years for it to finally be my team. I want to be one of those guys to take it to the end and take this team to St. Louis."
Thomas has a chance to make good on his quest. The Irish are as loaded as they've been under Brey. The Irish return junior forward Torin Francis, who missed the final 12 games of the season to have surgery to repair a herniated disk. Arizona transfer forward Dennis Latimore is eligible and, with Francis, makes the Irish high-low offense even tougher to defend. Wing Chris Quinn, one of the more underrated shooters in the country, sets up shop next to Thomas. Small forward Jordan Cornette has a sweet stroke from 15-to-19 feet. All five starters are 21 or older.
The bench also is stocked like never before. Junior forward Rick Cornett is slender but is considered an enforcer in the paint. Sophomore guard Russell Carter has the athleticism to get up and jam on the break and is sturdy enough at 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds to defend bigger guards. Sophomore guard Colin Falls is a 41-percent 3-point shooter. Redshirt freshman Omari Israel has the range to be a defensive pest after sitting out last season with a torn ACL.
"We've never had a bench this deep and that's why St. Louis is within reach," Thomas said.
Thomas is proving to be a more intellectual leader, too. He's trying to seek out his teammates on their turf, even when there are no plans. He said he'll call up one of his teammates and go to dinner with them to see "where their minds are at." He lives off-campus but will go to the dorms to see his teammates to bond and ensure he understands everything about them.
"I've got to be a coach on the floor, and look at everything from coach Brey's standpoint," Thomas said. "He doesn't need me to score. I'm a natural scorer but he doesn't need me to do that with Francis and Latimore down low. I've never had two big posts here so getting the inside-out 3-pointer (kicked back out) could be my easiest shot."
During last Thursday's exhibition, Thomas looked to drive and dish to Francis and Latimore to open the game long before he thought about his shot.
"He's smarter at making decisions because maybe two years ago, the old Chris would have come down and taken a shot, but now his first option is to go in the post," Francis said. "He knows how to get to the next level. They're looking for him to be a point, not a two."
Thomas, who has started every game in his career, opened his tenure with the Irish with the school's first and only triple-double, scoring 24 points, dishing out 11 assists and picking up 11 steals against New Hampshire. He led the Irish to the NCAA second round, beating Charlotte and losing to Duke. He finished fifth nationally in assists (252), which was a Notre Dame single-season record. So, too, were his 72 steals.
His sophomore season was even better, averaging 18.7 points (up from 15.6 ppg) and shooting a higher percentage overall (40.3 to 38.7) and on 3s (38.5 to 36.9). His assists dipped a bit (down to 236) as did his steals (62). But he led the Irish to the Sweet 16 with wins over UW-Milwaukee and Illinois before losing to Arizona. Thomas was the catalyst with then seniors Matt Carroll, Dan Miller and stud freshman forward Torin Francis.
He was so jazzed about his play that he declared for the NBA draft.
He turned down an invitation to the Chicago pre-draft camp and instead opted for individual team workouts. But he couldn't get a guarantee that he would be a first-round pick. So he returned for his junior season, which at the time, seemed like his last.
But it didn't go as scripted. The Irish struggled without Carroll and Miller. Francis got hurt. The burden on Thomas was too much. And, so too, was the pain in his knee that he ignored.
Thomas scored as well as he did as a sophomore (19.7 ppg) but his percentages dipped (38.5 overall, 35.1 on 3s) and his assists (150) and steals (50) were career lows. He finished with a thud, going 7 for 25 and 4 of 14 on 3s in a third-round NIT loss to Oregon at home.
The truth is he wasn't healthy enough to play up to his potential. He practiced only a few times a week, never back-to-back. Brey said he asked Thomas three times once Big East play began to shut it down for the season and have surgery. Thomas said it was too late in the season to redshirt, so he didn't consider quitting.
"He would stop me in mid-sentence and say he was good," Brey said. "It was denial. But we were going good and beat Connecticut, Seton Hall and at Syracuse to get us right on the bubble. He drove us with one-and-a-half legs."
Thomas said the pain first occurred when the team took a preseason trip to Barbados. He said he never had bounce in his shot or in his legs. He said his shots were all arms. He wore a knee brace in the third game, a 71-58 loss to Marquette, and shot 4 of 21, 3 of 14 on 3s.
"It was my worst game of the season," Thomas said. "I would ice during practice. I couldn't go a full practice, when I practiced. Coach would cater to me, shortening practices. I was going off adrenaline at the end of the season."
The knee injury, coupled with the NIT, put the NBA out of the question last spring.
Thomas had surgery on April 9. He was cleared to play on Aug. 9. In between, he went through a rigorous recovery. Thomas said he had a micro fracture, a three-centimeter gash where he was missing cartilage, leading to bone-to-bone rubbing in his knee. He said his kneecap was also out of alignment, causing inflammation. Both issues were fixed.
But he had to wear a portable knee machine that moved his knee for six hours a day. He was in an immobilizer for six weeks as well. He used a cart at times when he was tired of the crutches.
"I couldn't reach my foot to put on my socks," Thomas said. "It was tough. But I'm 80 percent now and I'm still feeling better than at any point in the season a year ago."
Brey said he could see how some college basketball fans, pundits, NBA personnel and even opposing coaches and players could be saying, 'He's still around? What's wrong with him?'
"I can see how why Troy Murphy told me, 'I can't come back (for his senior season) coach. They're going to pick my game apart. I've got to get out of here,' " Brey said.
But Thomas' situation is different.
"Chris knew if he didn't come back, that he would miss being a senior captain on a college basketball team, miss being the voice," Brey said. "I told him the NBA needs to see you play the way I need you to play. He's really hungry to lead this team."
Thomas said he wants to be a polished player, but one with potential, before he enters the NBA. So, how would he evaluate his career, thus far?
"Unfinished," he said emphatically. "I want to give back something to the fans and to the program. I want to put up a banner."
He's not concerned about being just another understudy instead of a headliner in the Big East (Providence's Ryan Gomes was named preseason player of the year). He isn't too irked that point guards Chris Paul of Wake Forest and Raymond Felton of North Carolina seem to get more ink, either.
But he said he envisions himself at the Wooden Award in Los Angeles in April, possibly sitting side-by-side to Paul. He views himself as the No. 1 point guard in the country. He wants to make the big shot late in the game. But more than anything he wants to be in St. Louis, the site of the Final Four, the same location of Notre Dame's last and only trip to the Final Four in 1978.
Andy Katz's 3-pointer from Notre Dame
1. Brey isn't afraid to embrace the NCAA Tournament: Brey instilled an NCAA attitude from day one in South Bend. Every year, he has his staff make copies of the tournament bracket and has it framed. He keeps the poster-sized brackets up in his office, the locker room and in his house. He said he wants the team to always focus on the ultimate goal, one that should be reached.
The Irish went through an 11-year drought from Digger Phelps' second-to-last team in 1990 to Brey's first in 2001.
2. Francis back to his freshman-year form: Francis said he's pain-free and was fine as soon as he had the surgery to repair his herniated disk. He said the numbness down his leg was too much to bear before he shut it down last season.
Francis averaged 11.1 points and 8.4 rebounds in 34 games as a freshman, 14.2 and 8.8 in 20 games as a sophomore. But he is playing loose again and even more confident.
Brey said that Francis is benefiting from playing with Latimore, something that Francis concurs.
"We'll be unstoppable in the post together," Francis said.
3. Latimore is a much more mature and refined player, but not a savior: Latimore knows that a redshirt transfer takes on mythical proportions. Latimore started one game at Arizona in two seasons. He quit the team on Feb. 23, 2003, stopping 23 games into the season.
He said he wasn't comfortable in Arizona's offense, since he considers himself more of a face-up player rather than a back-to-the-basket forward. His minutes, 12 a game, didn't sit too well, either.
"We've got a lot more freedom here under coach Brey and he's got great player relationships," Latimore said. "The minutes here and the way they run the offense is why I'm a better fit here."
Latimore said his passing skills will shine at Notre Dame, but he still needs to rebound better and doesn't need to be a big-time scorer. He's right. If he passes, rebounds and blends in offensively then he will have done his job.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.