Bears

Notre Dame Dons suprising with inexperienced roster

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Notre Dame Dons suprising with inexperienced roster

There are a lot of strange things going on with Notre Dame's basketball team. But the Dons are 14-4 so coach Tom Les isn't complaining.

There isn't a single player on the team who is averaging in double digits in scoring.

A player has scored 20 or more points in only two of 18 games.

Les is a fifth-year coach who was hired on a volunteer, no-pay basis--at his own request.

One of the team captains is a junior who comes off the bench.

The starting lineup includes only one senior and three underclassmen with no previous varsity experience.

This is a team that was picked to finish sixth in the conference race.

"I lost five starters from a 23-7 team. So experience-wide, on the varsity level, it has come this season," Les said. "I was apprehensive early. When the lights go on and referees are wearing long pants and people are in the stands, it is different than spring, summer and fall leagues. But these kids have responded."

Last week, the Niles school defeated Brother Rice 63-44, Loyola 50-46 and Nazareth 65-54. The Dons will host St. Patrick on Friday, then meet Downstate Morton on Sunday in the Whitney Young Shootout.

Matt Mooney, a 6-foot-1 junior guard who averages seven points per game, scored 16 against Brother Rice, 9 against Loyola and 18 against Nazareth to lead Notre Dame. Donte Stephenson, a 5-foot-9 junior, scored 10 against Loyola.

"We don't have a dominant scorer," Les said. "Who do we go to? We change it up. We go to the hot hand depending on who it is. It gives us an advantage. The teams scouting us don't know who to defend. They don't get a true indicator of which player will turn it up.

"In the state tournament, history says you need someone to turn it up on a consistent basis, an All-Stater, a big-time scorer. But we rarely have a scorer with 20 or more points this season. Who would be our most valuable player? I have no idea who it would be. So far that has been an advantage."

The lone senior starter and leading scorer is 6-foot-4 Joe Ferrici (8.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg). Mooney and Stephenson (8 ppg, 5 assists) form the backcourt. Stephenson, the floor leader, is called "Scooter" to differentiate him from 6-foot-3 sophomore Duante Stephens (8 ppg).

"Why Scooter? That's the way he flies around the court," Les said.

The other starter is 6-foot-6 sophomore Jon Johnson (6 ppg, 6 rpg, 3 blocks).

Top reserves are 6-foot-3 junior Eddie Serrano, 5-foot-10 senior Greg Leifel and 6-foot-5 junior Justin Halloran.

"Experience is key. We're starting two sophomores and one junior with no varsity experience. None of them have had big roles in the state tournament, in one-and-done games, in pressure-packed situations," Les said.

"One concern I have is when we get behind, we turn up intensity and focus. We can't afford to get behind in the state tournament because good teams will put you away."

Notre Dame has lost to four quality teams--Simeon, Evanston, Libertyville and Stevenson. The Dons trailed Simeon by nine in the third quarter before losing by 20. They trailed Marist by 16 at halftime but rallied to win. They trailed Zion-Benton by 12 going into the fourth quarter but rallied to win. They were disappointed by their 2-2 showing at the
Wheeling Holiday Tournament. To a man, they believe they should be 16-2, not 14-4.

"It was a great learning experience by playing Simeon," said Eddie Serrano, who shares the team captaincy with Ferrici. "We learned we need to play hard from the get-go to win. We competed against the best team in the nation (Simeon). No one backed down. We weren't intimidated. We came out to play. We stuck with them and cut their lead to nine points in the third quarter before they pulled away. If we can compete with them, we can compete with anyone.

"We can go far (in the state tournament) because not many people can understand what it is like unless they experience it themselves, to not have a go-to guy. It is a rare case but it can work out. It is pretty unique. But we find ways to win even without a dominant scorer. It starts off the court. We all get along very well. It's not easy to find with many teams."

Serrano said he and his teammates accepted a lot of advice from last year's team, which featured a pair of dominant scorers in Rodney Pryor and Clinton Chievous. They finished 23-7, losing to Niles North in the sectional semifinal. Two years ago, the Dons were 20-9, losing to Glenbrook North in the sectional final.

In fact, Notre Dame has advanced beyond the sectional round only once. In 1997, coach Denny Zelasko's 23-8 team lost in the Class AA quarterfinals to Rockford Boylan.

"To be successful, we knew we would have to have more guys who could score for us," Serrano said. "Last year's team wasn't as close as this year. The kids hung out with their own class. Our success starts with the fact that we have a lot of humble guys. We know we have to sacrifice for each other. No one player thinks he is the best guy out there. We need each other. We learned that even with two good players, you need to be a team to
be successful."

Les has been encouraged by how his team has bounced back from its disappointing fourth-place finish at Wheeling. "They are very coachable. They understand the importance of defense. We have found ways to win because our man-to-man defense has kept us in games," he said.

Les, 57, has a special attachment to Notre Dame. A graduate of 1971, he is 10 years older than his more celebrated brother, Jim, the former NBA player and former coach at Bradley University who currently is a head coach at California-Davis. Les has one significant distinction, however. He is Bradley's all-time assist leader.

After graduating from Bradley, Les wasn't able to follow Jim into the NBA. Instead, he began a career as part owner in a Crystal Lake-based Althoff Industries, an electricalmechanical contractor.

Ten years ago, he got the itch to get back into basketball. He served as head coach at Marian Central in Woodstock for five years. When Zelasko retired at Notre Dame five years ago, Les received a call from the school's new principal, the Rev. John Smyth, former executive director of Maryville Youth Center in Des Plaines and a former All-American basketball player at the University of Notre Dame.

"Would you be interested?" Fr. Smyth asked Les.

He didn't have to ask twice. Les met with Fr. Smyth and Notre Dame athletic director and football coach, Mike Hennessey. He accepted--on a volunteer, non-paying basis.

"I have a quality relationship with Fr. Smyth," Les said. "When I was in high school, many orphans from Maryville went to Notre Dame. I spent a lot of weekends there. My parents and I met Fr. Smyth. I was influenced by him. He's the No. 1 reason I'm here.

"Another reason is the foundation that Notre Dame had built for me in my personal life. This is a way of giving back. I'm fortunate enough that I work in a business where I can come and go as I like. I'm having the time of my life."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: How hot is John Fox's seat?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: How hot is John Fox's seat?

Seth Gruen (Bleacher Report/”Big Ten Unfiltered” podcast), Chris Emma (670TheScore.com) and Matt Zahn (CBS 2) join Kap on the panel. If the Bears lose badly to the Lions, should Sunday be John Fox’s last game? 

Plus Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill joins the panel to talk Bulls as well as the Niko/Portis cold war.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here:

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

John Fox on Friday sought to clarify some comments he made earlier in the week about Tarik Cohen that seemed to follow some spurious logic. Here’s what Fox said on Wednesday when asked if he’d like to see Cohen be more involved in the offensive game plan:

“You’re looking at one game,” Fox said, referencing Cohen only playing 13 of 60 snaps against the Green Bay Packers. “Sometimes the defense dictates who gets the ball. I think from a running standpoint it was a game where we didn’t run the ball very effectively. I think we only ran it 17 times. I believe Jordan Howard, being the fifth leading rusher in the league, probably commanded most of that. I think he had 15 carries. 

“It’s a situation where we’d like to get him more touches, but it just didn’t materialize that well on that day. But I’d remind people that he’s pretty high up there in both punt returns, he’s our leading receiver with 29 catches, so it’s not like we don’t know who he is.”

There were some clear holes to poke in that line of reasoning, since the question wasn’t about Cohen’s touches, but his snap count. Cohen creates matchup problems when he’s on the field for opposing defenses, who can be caught having to double-team him (thus leaving a player uncovered, i.e. Kendall Wright) or matching up a linebacker against him (a positive for the Bears). The ball doesn’t have to be thrown Cohen’s way for his impact to be made, especially if he’s on the field at the same time as Howard. 

“They don’t know who’s getting the ball, really, and they don’t know how to defend it properly,” Howard said. “… It definitely can dictate matchups.”

There are certain scenarios in which the Bears don’t feel comfortable having Cohen on the field, like in third-and-long and two-minute drills, where Benny Cunningham’s veteran experience and pass protection skills are valued. It may be harder to create a mismatch or draw a double team with Cohen against a nickel package. It's easier to justify leaving a 5-foot-6 running back on the sidelines in those situations. 

But if the Bears need Cohen to be their best playmaker, as offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said last month, they need to find a way for him to be on the field more than a shade over one in every five plays. As Fox explained it on Friday, though, it’s more about finding the right spots for Cohen, not allowing opposing defenses to dictate when he’s on the field. 

“We have Tarik Cohen out there, we're talking about touches, not play time, we're talking about touches so if they double or triple cover him odds are the ball is not going to him, in fact we'd probably prefer it didn’t,” Fox said. “So what I meant by dictating where the ball goes, that's more related to touches than it is play time. I just want to make sure I clarify that. So it's not so much that they dictate personnel to you. Now if it's in a nickel defense they have a certain package they run that may create a bad matchup for you, that might dictate what personnel group you have out there not just as it relates to Tarik Cohen but to your offense in general. You don't want to create a bad matchup for your own team. I hope that makes sense.”

There’s another wrinkle here, though, that should be addressed: Loggains said this week that defenses rarely stick to the tendencies they show on film when Cohen is on the field. That’s not only a problem for Cohen, but it’s a problem for Mitchell Trubisky, who hasn’t always had success against defensive looks he hasn’t seen on film before. And if the Bears are trying to minimize the curveballs Trubisky sees, not having Cohen on the field for a high volume of plays would be one way to solve that. 

This is also where the Bears’ lack of offensive weapons factors in. Darren Sproles, who Cohen will inexorably be linked to, didn’t play much as a rookie — but that was on a San Diego Chargers team that had LaDanian Tomlinson, Keenan McCardell and Antonio Gates putting up big numbers. There were other options on that team; the Bears have a productive Howard and a possibly-emerging Dontrelle Inman, but not much else. 

So as long as Cohen receives only a handful of snaps on a team with a paucity of playmakers, this will continue to be a topic of discussion. Though if you’re looking more at the future of the franchise instead of the short-term payoffs, that we’re having a discussion about a fourth-round pick not being used enough is a good thing.