Irish point guard impresses coach with his improved control of tempo
BY ANDREW SOUKUP
They first met on an Indianapolis basketball court. One was two years older than the other, but that didn't stop them from becoming fast friends even as they clashed at rival Indiana high schools.
One won Mr. Basketball honors and headed to Arizona. Two years later, the other one won Mr. Basketball honors and headed to Notre Dame.
They played often in the summer and worked out together. And last July, both served as counselors at Nike's basketball camp.
But little did Jason Gardner and Chris Thomas know that when they met for the first time in college, the loser would be heading home for the season.
"We always played in the same leagues growing up, and we played on the same team [when I was in] seventh grade," Thomas said, jokingly adding of the 5-foot-10 guard, "I think he was the same size as he is now."
Gardner and Thomas, two of the nation's top point guards and two close friends, will clash Thursday when fifth-seeded Notre Dame takes on top-seeded Arizona in the West Regional semifinal.
But all Irish coach Mike Brey can think back to is when the two played each other at the Nike camp in July.
"In the pickup games, that matchup was intense," Brey said. "They are great friends, but they are the kind of guys that when they are between the lines they want to tear each other's heart out."
Thomas said that when his Pike High School team played Gardner's North Central squad, Thomas' team emerged with a 3-1 record. And while the Irish point guard isn't one to focus on individual matchups — "It hurts the team," he simply said — the spotlight will shine brightly on both players Thursday.
Gardner enters Thursday's clash averaging 14.3 points and just under five assists per game. One of many seniors on a veteran Wildcat team, Gardner passed up the opportunity to turn pro a season ago for the chance to win a national title with Arizona.
In some ways, he represents the kind of point guard Thomas could become in a few years.
"He's been to the Final Four. He's been to the championship game. He's played against the top players," Thomas said. "He's a leader and a captain, and is what makes that team go."
The same could be said about Thomas for the Irish. Often the sparkplug for Notre Dame's offense, Notre Dame tends to win when Thomas plays well and lose when Thomas plays poorly.
Cognizant of that fact, Brey spent much of the time before the NCAA Tournament challenging Thomas to work on managing the game. Whatever Brey said paid off tremendously in Notre Dame's first Tournament games.
Against Wisconsin-Milwaukee's full-court press, Thomas played all 40 minutes and committed just five turnovers. But he was even better in Notre Dame's 68-60 win against Illinois.
In the first half, when the Irish seemingly couldn't miss from 3-point range, Thomas was instrumental in pushing the ball up the court quickly. But when the Irish had trouble getting points in the beginning of the second half, Thomas settled the Irish down into more of a half-court offense. And in the final minutes of Saturday's game, the Irish often let the shot clock wind down to under five seconds thanks in part to Thomas' role in controlling the tempo of play.
"As I've always said, he's a work in progress as a point guard and is learning," Brey said. "But I thought he was great in Indy."
Thomas, whose happy-go-lucky personality disappeared as Notre Dame struggled down the stretch, seems to be in a much more jovial mood in the NCAA Tournament. He orchestrated Notre Dame's mass head-shaving — even saying Monday he might have to bring out the clippers again — and is back to cracking the occasional joke in press conferences.
When Notre Dame got off the bus Saturday, the players got to watch the last few minutes of the Arizona-Gonzaga double-overtime game. And as Thomas watched, he knew what team he wanted to win.
"I was hoping in the back of my mind that we would get Arizona," he said. "That would be my only chance to play against Gardner and it would be a great step for this program."
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, March 26, 2003