Notre Dame basketball: Knight ready to roll as Irish open practice

Tom Noie

Set to celebrate birthday No. 23 in April, he has rotated into the role of resident old man of the Notre Dame men's basketball team.

No current player has been around the program longer than fifth-year senior power forward Tom Knight.

But as the Irish prepare to start the 2013-14 season Friday with the first of what will be triple-digit practices stretched across the next seven months, the 6-foot-10, 258-pound left-hander from Dixfield, Maine, may feel more like a wide-eyed rookie than someone who has gone to the NCAA tournament each of his first four seasons.

“Oh, man, I just can't wait for the first day of real practice,” Knight said Wednesday in all seriousness. “I don't remember myself ever saying that.”

For the first time in his collegiate career, Knight enters a basketball fall as a main guy in the minutes mix. Should the regular season start today, Knight would own one of the five spots in the starting lineup. Whether he's there when the home opener arrives Nov. 8 against Miami (Ohio) remains to be determined, but Knight plans to have his strongest say.

“The last few years, I was a big question mark with people wondering if I would contribute and what I could actually bring to the team,” he said. “I definitely think I can show more than I did last year. I'm glad I have the opportunity.

“It makes me more excited for the season than years past.”

It's been a slow climb for Knight. He sat out his freshman season (2009-10) to preserve a year of eligibility. He played sparingly as a sophomore. When former swingman Tim Abromaitis suffered a collegiate-career ending knee injury early in 2011-12, Knight set then-career highs for games played (30), starts (three), minutes played (266/8.9 per game), points (2.9) and rebounds (1.5).

When Notre Dame needed a spark in a second-round NCAA tournament loss to Xavier, Brey summoned Knight, who delivered some much-needed juice. The effort was expected to serve as a springboard into a larger role last season.

Irish coach Mike Brey instead gave Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman the first and longer look behind first team All-Big East power forward Jack Cooley. Only when Sherman's confidence hit the skids in early January and a sore knee shelved Scott Martin for the rest of the season was Knight given his biggest bite of the playing-time pie.

“In all fairness, I probably didn't give him enough of a crack early,” Brey said. “When it was desperation time, the man flat-out delivered.

“There was not more of a key guy for our season than Tom Knight when we called on him.”

Knight finished with career highs for games played (28), starts (16), minutes (17.5), points (5.5), rebounds (3.5), assists (21), blocks (26) and free-throw percentage (74.3). He also shot 48.9 percent from the field.

“Last year caught me by surprise,” Knight admitted. “I just tried to go out there and do what the team needed. I'll continue to do that, but if the team needs an expanded role, I'll try to do that.”

College basketball fans who don't give the sport a second glance until after football season may wonder if they've somehow hit the fast-forward on their calendars. Thanks to an NCAA rule adopted in May, teams can start practice 42 days before their first regular-season game. For many, that means Friday, which is some 21 days ahead of the normal mid-October start.

“This is a horrible rule,” said Brey, who sits on the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) board and voiced his displeasure with the rule the minute it was passed. “I don't believe we let the summer workouts be digested long enough.

“We're making a long season even longer, but we'll inch through this and make it work.”

Yet the accelerated schedule cannot come soon enough for a veteran Irish team that returns four starters off last season's team that finished 25-10 with a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

Individual workouts with the coaching staff and nightly pickup games ran its course about two weeks ago when the Irish realized they were ready for a new challenge.

“This is serious now and the things you do in pickup aren't necessarily the things you can do in practice,” said sophomore power forward Zach Auguste. “This is about learning how to play and how to win. I love it.”

No shortage of questions accompanies Notre Dame into the season, its first in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

•Can Eric Atkins be even more of a steady, consistent leader?

•Is Jerian Grant ready to take his game to another level?

•How does former Marian High School and McDonald's All-American guard Demetrius Jackson fit?

•Will another freshman help?

•Can Knight and Sherman tag-team in the low post well enough to offset the graduation of Cooley, who became a double-double machine?

•What's Pat Connaughton's potential? Auguste's?

•Is Cameron Biedscheid poised for a breakout year?

•Who will replace Martin's steady voice?

What will the team's identity be in the ACC? Is this the year the Irish finally do something in the NCAA tournament?

Answers will arrive in the coming months. In the short term, Atkins is anxious to address what type of team this can be defensively.

“Offensively, we usually figure something out, especially since we're bringing back a lot of people,” he said. “Defensively, I want to see our identity — being able to pressure people and make it uncomfortable to play against us.”

That's where the three-guard look of Atkins, Grant and Jackson likely factors heavily into the playing-time equation. Never before have the Irish been able to play three guards at once who have equal parts quickness, savvy, smarts, defensive ability and play-making capability. They tinkered with the look during offseason workouts. They may do a whole lot more with it over the next month.

“Defensively, that's where it's most exciting,” Atkins said. “We can just get up and guard people.”

With another long grind ahead, and the season starting even earlier, Brey won't punch the gas pedal. Expect the training wheels to remain for a few more weeks. The Irish plan to practice Friday for 90 minutes and won't go more than two hours until Oct. 14.

Junior Eric Katenda (ankle, wrist) and freshman Austin Torres (knee) are not yet available.

The early start will help the freshmen adjust to the increased expectations/demands that come with the regular season.

“With workouts and open gym, you have so many days in between them sometimes that they might be mad about how they played one day and it kind of lingers for them,” said Atkins, set to become the first three-time team captain in school history. “Now you have no time to be down on yourself.”

Notre Dame opens exhibition play Oct. 28 at home against Indianapolis.

Notre Dame forward Tom Knight (25) is looking forward to the start of fall practice as his role increases for the Irish. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER