By TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune Staff Writer
3:09 PM PDT, October 29, 2011
SOUTH BEND - When a college season stretches nearly seven months and practices tumble well into triple digits, it’s necessary to sometimes stray from the script.
Saturday was one of those days for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.
Operating on the main floor of Purcell Pavilion while observers wandered in from tailgating, the Irish workout looked just like any other under coach Mike Brey. There was individual instruction, 5-on-5 situations and free throws to end the 75-minute session. To the casual fan, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
But the presence of two individuals made this practice far different than maybe any other during Brey’s tenure in South Bend.
Knowing that nearly 80 individuals associated with the program would be back on campus for the annual basketball reunion, and with his team short on able practice bodies, Brey extended invitations to former guards Matt Carroll, now with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, and Tory Jackson, set to rekindle his professional career in the NBA Development League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants, to suit up, tape up and go to work.
Imagine quarterback Brady Quinn returning to run a two-minute drill in practice. Or center Ruth Riley posting up in The Pit and demanding an entry pass from Skylar Diggins.
“As soon as I got the text this week (from Coach Brey) that said, ‘I want you to practice,’ there was no hesitation,” Jackson said. “Anytime I can give back and help the young guys, it’s good.”
Carroll originally was expected back the previous weekend for the football game against USC. But those plans fell through. So with the NBA still mired in a lockout, Carroll, who serves as the union representative for the Bobcats, knew he couldn’t miss a second chance to return.
“I said, ‘I’m there. Let me get my (plane) ticket and I’ll let you know what time I’m getting in,’” he said. “To get a chance to be here was really special.
“I’ve had a blast.”
Wearing gray low-cut Nike basketball shoes to go with his adidas-issued Notre Dame practice gear, Carroll wandered out of the locker room just after 11 a.m. and was immediately ordered by former teammate and current Irish assistant coach Martin Ingelsby to grab a basketball and jump into the rotation of Irish guards working on pre-practice shots. Jackson, who had arrived minutes earlier, already was well into his sweat and running through the same routine he last experienced as a senior during the 2009-10 season.
Many of the current Irish once called Jackson their teammate. Everybody on the roster still was in middle school when the 31-year-old Carroll, eighth on the school’s all-time scoring list (1,850 points), was busy becoming a first team All-Big East selection his senior season. But they worked with him as if they had played pickup together for years. Carroll screened for them, passed to them and, regardless if a play finished with a basket or a miss, exchanged quick hand slaps.
“Your shot, big man,” Joey Brooks yelled before finding Carroll for his trademark corner 3-pointer.
Carroll stayed long after practice ended to share words of encouragement and drill tips with Tim Abromaitis, Brooks and Jerian Grant.
“I got a chance to meet a lot of the guys I didn’t even know,” he said. “One of the biggest things for me and my message I wanted to get across for them is being here is special. You don’t realize it until it’s over.”
Carroll didn’t even bother to check with his agent about insurance to make sure it would be wise to participate. For him, there was no debate - it had been too long since he ran through the regular practice routine. He needed a sweat.
“There was no stopping me,” he said. “I wasn’t going to dunk (though he did once), so I knew I’d be all right.
“If there’s one positive about the lockout, it gave me a chance to do this.”
Stepping back onto the arena floor to play for the first time since he graduated following the magical run to the Sweet 16 in 2003 was nothing like stepping back in time for Carroll. Saturday was the first time he had been back to campus since the arena renovation. For a minute, he didn’t think he was in the right place.
Where were all the multi-colored seats that threatened to distract as pure a shooting stroke as any Irish has ever owned? Where were the bleachers? The old, tired and run-down feel of the place?
“I felt like I was walking into an NBA arena,” Carroll said. “It’s beautiful. I love it.”
Jackson still was his usual hyper, talkative, energetic self. He leaped high into the air to swat a certain Tom Knight dunk at one end of the floor, ran the blue (reserve) team with a cocky confidence on the other. He also made sure to give sophomore point guard Eric Atkins a strong look. Atkins, many agreed afterward, responded with one of his most efficient practices this preseason. He was crisp, mainly because he had his hands full with Jackson.
Afterward, Jackson brushed aside any concern that this might be a long, rebuilding year for a program that went 27-7 overall and 14-4 in the Big East last year.
“I don’t think they’re going to miss a beat,” he said. “With the guys that graduated, some of these guys here are going to come out of their shadows. The guys that didn’t get playing time last year, they’re going to be good this year.”
Staff writer Tom Noie: