Chris Thomas underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in early April. The doctors expected the simple procedure to alleviate the pain and swelling the Notre Dame guard had experienced during the 2003-04 season.
After all, Thomas had played in every one of Notre Dame's 32 games, leading the Fighting Irish in scoring and assists while logging an average of 38.3 minutes per game.
But when they opened up his knee, they discovered something even more amazing about Thomas' heart. "Our doctors were surprised," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "The knee was a lot worse than we even knew. It's incredible that he was able to be as productive as he was down the stretch."
The surgery did two things for Thomas. First, the doctors deemed the operation a success and predicted a full recovery for the dynamic point guard. And second, the rehabilitation forced Thomas to rest his body for most of the summer. That's not to say he liked it.
"We have to keep him off the court," Brey said over the summer. "He's driving our trainer crazy."
The expected return of Thomas is the primary reason for high expectations in South Bend. In addition to Thomas, Brey returns three starters from last year's 19-win team. Thomas and Chris Quinn will form a high-scoring backcourt. They will get a boost this season from the return of power forward Torin Francis, who missed the last 12 games of the '03-04 season, and forward Dennis Latimore, who sat out last season after transferring from Arizona.
FRONTCOURTThe possibility of playing the 6-foot-11, 252-pound Francis alongside Latimore, 6-8, 253 pounds, sent Brey rushing to the film room. There, he dusted off copies of games from the 2001 season when Notre Dame's frontline featured Troy Murphy and Ryan Humphrey.
"I've been looking at a lot of tape of Humphrey and Murphy together," Brey said. "We did a lot of high-low with those two guys. I've been showing it to Dennis, Torin and Jordan Cornette."
Latimore's more skilled and polished than Francis, especially on offense. His presence gives Notre Dame, which was perimeter-oriented last year, more balance.
Francis' 8.8 rebounds per game would have placed him fourth in the Big East if he'd played enough games. A chronic back injury ended his season prematurely, but Brey thinks Francis is ready for a breakout year.
The frontcourt is deep, too, with Cornette, Rick Cornett, incoming freshman Rob Kurz and Omari Isreal providing Brey with multiple options.
BACKCOURTBrey knew Thomas was playing in pain last season. In the last month of the season, Thomas rarely practiced.
"Twice I brought him in and asked 'Why don't we shut you down?'" Brey said. "He wanted no part of that."
Dragging that left knee, Thomas almost carried the Irish into the NCAA tournament. He finished third in the Big East in scoring and assists. "He was amazing," Brey said.
Quinn increased his role when Francis went out. He should be more comfortable this season, which should translate into more shots and more makes for the junior guard. Brey will use sharpshooter Colin Falls on the wing. Isreal could offer a long, athletic type at that position as well.
"We'll be tough with Chris, Chris and Colin on the perimeter," Brey said. "You've got to guard them and you can't help."
FINAL ANALYSISBrey guided Notre Dame to the NCAA tournament in each of his first three years in South Bend before missing out last season. The Fighting Irish should return in 2005.
"You're excited about the group when you think about it. A group that's played together for a while, and they've had success together," he said.
There's experience, talent and depth. The only question mark involves health. If Thomas and Francis can go, so will Notre Dame.
"We had two guys with major surgeries, and we still won 19 games," Brey said. "We'll see how many we can win this year if we stay healthy."