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January 23, 2009When Zach Hillesland scored 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting in Notre Dame's conference-opening victory over DePaul on New Year's Eve, it seemed to signal the start of an impact-filled senior season for the 6-foot-9 Toledo, Ohio native.
But it's been a struggle ever since for Hillesland as well as the Irish, who have lost three of their last five Big East games.
Hillesland has scored just 17 points in the last five games combined on 5-of-17 shooting, all but making his DePaul performance a forgotten memory.
While Luke Harangody usually can be counted on for 25-to-30 points and 15 rebounds, and Kyle McAlarney is a regular long-range sniper, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that as Hillesland goes, so go the Irish.
"He is really a key for us," said Irish head coach Mike Brey of Hillesland. "He's not playing as well as he can, but God we need him.
"I watched our game with Connecticut last year and he was fabulous, he was a warrior, he was flying all over the place. We need that."
No one knows what the Irish need from Hillesland more than Hillesland.
"I haven't been the leader and the senior captain I've needed to be the past couple of games," Hillesland said. "I haven't really done what I needed to do to right the ship."
For Hillesland, it's much more than what he produces statistically. Harangody is the man, McAlarney is the shooter extraordinaire, Tory Jackson is the ball handler and distributor, and Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller supplement the long-range game.
Hillesland's worth is less statistically based. His role encompasses intangible and emotional qualities.
"I don't feel good about the team when we're not playing together, and I'm frustrated by that," Hillesland said. "I've always been a team-oriented guy. When we're playing together and we're playing well as a group, that's when I play my best as an individual within that group.
"For one reason or another, I didn't step up and say what I needed to say. I gave the team a pass when I shouldn't have. That's on me, it's on the rest of the seniors and the rest of the team."
The core unit of this team has played together long enough to not be offended by any criticism from within.
"It's nothing personal against any individual. It's a basketball thing," Hillesland said. "We're all in this together. We all love each other and we need to play as a unit. If we don't, we're not going to be as good as we can be in this league."
Hillesland has been studying video of last year's victory over Connecticut in which he scored a modest four points with six rebounds and four assists. More importantly, however, he brought energy to the court and cohesion to the team.
"When I'm talking to guys and playing with that kind of edge I need, I'm at my best," Hillesland said. "When I lose that edge, I fall out of the rhythm real quickly and I'm not dialed into the game.
"To me, that starts with being vocal and in tune with my teammates. When I'm not in tune with my teammates, I'm not at my best."
Will Hillesland be vocal Saturday night for the big game against Connecticut?
"You can bet your ass I will!" Hillesland laughed. "No more tight lipped-ness. Is that a word? I'm not going to keep my mouth shut. If something is out of line, I'm going to speak up and say it, and hopefully get our team on the right track."