Notre Dame men's basketball: Irish honored by invites

Guards Atkins, Grant set to audition for USA squad

South Bend Tribune

Affirmation that his game has been really good finally arrived from a most unlikely source for Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins.

Set this fall to begin his third season as a team captain and fourth as a main guy, Atkins never before earned any all-conference honor. Not after he led the Big East in assist-turnover ratio (2.8) as a true freshman on an Irish team that won 27 games and tied the school record with 14 league victories. Not after he helped steer the Irish to a third-place league finish as a sophomore. Not after he led the league in minutes (38.3 per game) and was second in assist-turnover ratio (2.56) last winter.

Atkins seldom dwelled on reasons why coaches considered other guards in the Big East better or more valuable. But when an invitation was extended in the spring for him to possibly represent the United States in next month's World University Games in Kazan, Russia, Atkins took a few moments to let it sink in.

It was as if the offer was an olive branch that said, Yeah, you are a really good college guard.

I've never been recognized for my game or anything like that before, but it was really cool to get that invitation, Atkins said. Now I just have to go out there and prove that I belong.

Atkins aims to earn one of the 12 roster spots on a team that will be coached by Davidson's Bob McKillop by doing much of the same as he's done since he arrived at Notre Dame  take care of the ball, get it to the right guys at the right times in the right spots, take care of it some more, hit the open shot and be an extension of the head coach on the court.

I just want to be the best pure point guard out there, Atkins said. I'm not really stressed about going out there and scoring more or doing more. I'm going to play my exact same game.

And play it alongside the same guy he does while at Notre Dame. Fellow senior guard Jerian Grant also was one of 27 players extended an invitation to the tryouts this week at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Neither Irish guard has represented the United States at any level.

When you hear USA Basketball, you know some of the guys who have played for them and to be able to try-out is exciting, said Grant, who led the Irish in scoring (13.3 ppg.) last season. You've got all the best college guys out there, and for them to invite you, it means you're one of the top guys.

Training camp opens Monday, the first of six days of two-a-day practices. McKillop and his assistants  Michigan's John Beilein and Frank Martin of South Carolina  will shave the roster to 12 by next weekend in preparation for the World University Games, which run July 7-16.

Neither Irish guard has ever been to Europe, and the thought of traveling halfway around the world when they should be in summer school and working through daily conditioning with the Irish basketball team was a bit much for both to comprehend late last week.

It would be different and exciting, said Grant, whose younger brother, Jerami, a sophomore-to-be at Syracuse, is a member of the USA U-19 team competing this week in the Czech Republic.

While Atkins wants to continue to be his usual steady self, Grant believes coaches may see something new about his game since the end of last season.

There were times when Grant had trouble finding his scoring and defending groove, times when bad plays affected his ability to make good ones. Like Atkins, Grant can effectively play both guard positions. But he believes his game has become much more cerebral since the 2012-13 season ended with a second-round NCAA tournament loss to Iowa State.

Mentally, I feel like I've grown as a player in knowing what I have to do, said Grant, a second-team all-league pick last March and member of the Big East all-rookie squad in 2012. I'm not going to get frustrated; I'm just going to play my game.

Atkins and Grant admitted that within minutes of receiving and accepting their USA invitations, they were scanning the list of the 25 other invitees to size up who's who at their respective positions.

The 6-foot-5, 202-pound Grant needs no introduction to Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick, someone he outplayed twice last season. Other shooting guards in camp include Tyler Haws of Brigham Young and Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble.

True point guards on the roster include Bryce Cotton (Providence), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana) and Kendall Williams (New Mexico). Duke guard Quinn Cook, a close friend of Atkins, was invited but chose instead to remain in summer school.

I've got to go up against some big points, said the 6-2 Atkins. I've thought about my matchups and how I will defend them, but they have to defend me as well.

Connaughton on campus

A two-week hoops hiatus ended late last week for Irish junior swingman Pat Connaughton, who returned Sunday to campus after a cameo in the Cape Cod summer baseball league with the Harwich (Mass.) Mariners.

A starting right-hander on the Irish baseball team, Connaughton started two games on the Cape. Connaughton pitched nine total innings with 10 strikeouts, five walks and a 1.00 ERA. He finished 1-1 while allowing nine hits and four runs, one earned.

Notre Dame hoops coach Mike Brey had offered the native of Arlington, Mass., the opportunity to spend the entire summer pitching in the prestigious summer league. Knowing this is a key summer for him to become more of a vocal leader with the basketball team, Connaughton chose to return to summer school.

With Atkins and Grant leaving Monday for Colorado Springs, a larger leadership role falls on the shoulders of Connaughton and fifth-year senior Garrick Sherman.

It's going to be a great time for Sherm to step up and be a leader, for Pat to step up and become a leader, Atkins said.

Connaughton enjoyed a solid sophomore year. He started all 35 games and averaged 8.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 32.1 minutes. He shot 44.5 percent from the field, 37.7 percent from 3, 70.8 percent from the foul line and became the team's main defensive stopper on the perimeter. He also set career highs for rebounds (164) and assists (75).

Irish items

nFifth-year senior Tom Knight recently underwent surgery for a sports hernia. Workouts were limited for him last week, but he's expected to be fine in time to participate later this summer in an eight-day trip to Estonia as part of the East Coast All-Stars.

nBrey will spend Thursday  NBA draft night  in the studios of NBATV in Atlanta as a guest analyst. Former Irish power forward Jack Cooley looks to become the first Notre Dame player taken since 2010, when the Boston Celtics selected former Irish All-American Luke Harangody in the second round.

nIrish freshmen V.J. Beachem, Demetrius Jackson, Austin Torres and Steve Vasturia have been issued their jersey numbers for the 2013-14 season. Beachem will wear No. 3, Jackson No. 23, Torres No. 35 and Vasturia No. 32.

nFormer Irish swingman Joey Brooks has returned to Notre Dame to begin graduate school. Brooks graduated in the spring and had a chance to attend graduate school elsewhere, where he would have immediately been eligible to play his final season of basketball after sitting out last year with the Irish. Brooks still hopes to join the Notre Dame football team for the 2013 season. He left the Irish basketball team in March to work as a backup tight end during spring practice.

nNotre Dame will officially join the Atlantic Coast Conference in seven days  July 1  as its 18-year affiliation with the Big East ends. While the ACC logo has been added to some areas of Purcell Pavilion, names of schools from the former Big East still hung above the arena exits as of late last week.

 Notre Dame's Jerian Grant, left, and Eric Atkins have a chance to represent the United States during the World University games next month in Russia. Atkins and Grant leave Monday for tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colo. (South Bend Tribune/ROBERT FRANKLIN)