December 15, 2006
Seeking rewards for the worthy
All cylinders were clicking last week when the Fighting Irish knocked off No. 23 Maryland and No. 4 Alabama. Players were fitting into their roles, playing off of one another, and basking in the fruits of their labors.
Well, now that the Irish have won six straight and with a string of five very winnable games to tap, head coach Mike Brey is still looking for ways to maximize the skills of 6-foot-11 sophomore Luke Zeller and his 6-foot-8 classmate Ryan Ayers.
Zeller has started all eight games for the Irish and is shooting a sizzling 67.7 percent from the field (21-of-31). But Zeller is averaging just a little more than 16 minutes per game. He's often the first player substituted for, which means over the final 35-to-36 minutes, Zeller is logging about 11-to-12 minutes of action.
"I've told Luke, 'I want you to hang your hat on being more physical,'" Brey said. "I'm going to show him some tape of his post defense against Maryland and Alabama where compared to his freshman year, it's a huge improvement.
"Not giving up the paint and protecting our lane often starts with him early in the game because he is guarding the center, the guy who can beat you up in the lane.
"I got on him about that in the Butler game. There were some basic drives early where I thought he could have rotated over, and if he couldn't get a charge, a hard clean foul (would have been appropriate).
"Since then, he's been very good. That's where we need his mind. We need him being a physical presence and rebounding the basketball."
Physical play is not a natural inclination for Zeller. Despite his size, he grew up as a jump-shooting, finesse player in Washington, Ind. He continues to bring quality offensive play and good decision-making to the mix.
"I've been really happy with his shot selection," Brey said. "He's finding niches to play off of our guys. That's why his percentages are good."
For Ayers, it's a little more complex. He's the ninth man in a rotation that sometimes goes only eight deep, as it did in last Thursday's 99-85 victory over Alabama. His playing time (11.6 minutes per game) has been limited mainly because of his inability to convert scoring opportunities.
Ayers missed his first 12 shots of the season before converting a lay-up and hitting a short jumper in a six-point, seven-rebound, two-assist performance against Winston-Salem State.
"He's got to make some shots," Brey quickly summarized. "The thing that blows my mind is he's really a good shooter and he (has an excellent) shooting percentage in practice. We could use him knocking down a couple open ones.
"I don't want to hang it all on that because he does have active hands defensively and he's long, and he's easy to play with. When he comes in the game, he passes and cuts. He doesn't disrupt (us).
"It's nice when you can bring a guy off the bench and a lot of times they forget about him. Maybe he hasn't even made the scouting report, and he gets a couple clean looks and he bangs down one or two. That's such a big lift. I think he's really close to doing that. Over the next five games, you would hope he'd get a chance to do that."
Like Zeller, Ayers also brings a team-first attitude that keeps the positive vibes flowing.
"(Ayers') attitude is fabulous," Brey said. "He's frustrated at times, but he keeps banging. I told him privately, 'I respect how you're in with both feet, cheering, helping your teammates.' He gets it.
"When you have a good head and a good heart like that, you just feel it's going to happen for a guy. You want to keep pushing because there's good karma there."
• Why not us?-The thought of Colin Falls, Russell Carter or Rob Kurz as an NBA player would have seemed a bit far-fetched not long ago. But with the skills those players bring to the basketball court and the example set by a couple of recent Irish players, playing professionally somewhere, perhaps even in the NBA, is no longer a stretch.
"They see what Matt Carroll (Charlotte Bobcats) and what Chris Quinn (Miami Heat) have done," Brey said. "Now they're going, 'Who knows?'
"I mentioned the other day to Kurz, (former Duke Blue Devil) Shavlik Randolph is on the (Philadelphia) 76ers roster. I'm watching Kurz and I'm saying, 'Why can't he be on (an NBA) roster some day?' I actually mentioned it to him because I'm still trying to get him confidence."
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