Notre Dame basketball: Katenda plans to contribute

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

Battling for post position during the season’s second basketball practice Tuesday, Notre Dame sophomore forward Eric Katenda barely flinched when his protective eye-wear was knocked off and slid across the floor of The Pit.

A whistle stopped play for obvious reasons, though Katenda is determined not to let anything slow him this season.

Prior to what would have been his freshman year at Notre Dame in the summer of 2011, Katenda suffered a freak basketball injury that severed the optic nerve and cost him vision in his left eye.

Since Katenda has been on campus — an arrival delayed for months after the NCAA red-flagged his high school transcript — it’s been everything but the injury that has kept him from the court.

Katenda has had issues with his knee, an ankle, a hip and his studies.

Days prior to Friday’s first practice, Katenda then fell and tweaked his wrist.

“Can he stay healthy long enough for us to evaluate him?” Irish coach Mike Brey wondered. “That’s not been the case and it’s not had anything to do with his lack of eyesight. He has adjusted to that fine.

“That’s a great athletic body. You’d like to have that as a weapon.”

Katenda has had it with calling the training room his home away from home.

“I feel good now,” he said prior to Tuesday’s 95-minute practice, which was open to the media. “At this point, I’m going to play. If I break my arm, I’m going to play. I don’t care.

“I’m OK health-wise so I’m ready to go 100 percent.”

Katenda has been down this road too many times in too few months. After sitting out the last half of last season to focus on academics, Katenda was prepared to take a big offseason step.

When it was time to take that step, he couldn’t because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot.

When rest didn’t help, surgery was required. When surgery initially didn’t alleviate the pain, Katenda flew home to France. After a couple weeks in Paris, the foot felt fine.

“I played a couple times in France and there was no pain,” he said. “It was like, ‘Oh, I guess it’s gone now.’”

Gone too is the player who averaged 15.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals his senior season at Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kan.

Back then, Katenda was a 6-foot-8, 205-pounder who played with plenty of perimeter skills. He’s now 6-9, 230 and not afraid to play around and sometimes above the rim.

“My game is completely different from the last time I played in a game,” he said. “Back in the day, I would just run, jump, shoot. Now I’m an older guy.”

And wiser. Katenda admitted that he was so driven to not allow his vision to be an issue that it affected his academic focus.

Eligible to dress in uniform for the first time following the end of the 2012 fall semester, Katenda remained in street clothes. The message in it from Brey was clear — you’re not dressing if you’re not studying.

“I was thinking so much about getting ready to play that I completely forgot about school,” Katenda said. “Then when it was time to play, school caught up to me and said, ‘Uh, you forgot about me.’

“It was just time management. It’s all good now. I know what I need to know now.”

Katenda participated in Tuesday’s entire practice. He drew praise from the head coach for his footwork in the lane, and also drew Brey’s ire when he was slow to gather an entry pass and attempt to score in a halfcourt drill.

There were times when he looked like someone who could crack the rotation, others when he worked like someone who hasn’t played in an actual game in 2½ years.

“It feels good to be competitive again and play at this level,” he said.

Katenda still believes he can deliver on a promise made shortly after he was poked in his left eye while watching a pickup game at a Washington-area basketball court in the summer of 2011.

He vowed then that he would play at Notre Dame. He still believes he will even with a long road still ahead and the depth chart stacked against him.

“There will be a time when I’m out there and I’ll be like nothing ever happened,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

And for those who wonder if Katenda may never play in an Irish game?

“Let the doubters doubt,” he said. “They’re going to see me soon enough.”

Three no crowd

Most of Tuesday was devoted to the Irish working in their “21” halfcourt defense where they play man-to-man and contest everything.

“We’re going to be married to ‘21’ for a while,” Brey told the Irish during a pre-practice video session that focused almost solely on defense.

When the Irish went to five-on-five drills, it didn’t take long for former Marian High School standout Demetrius Jackson to rotate in alongside senior guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant.

It’s a lineup the Irish likely will get to in a hurry this season.

“It gives us another gear,” Brey said. “It’s quick. It gives us the ability to contest a little more defensively.”

Quick to pressure the ball-handler near midcourt, Jackson also proved he can stay with his man in the paint. When fellow freshman V.J. Beachem looked to use his size (6-8) to his advantage, the 6-1 Jackson blocked his shot.

“I like where he’s at,” Brey said of Jackson. “He adds a burst and he’s an energy-giving guy when he’s playing with those regulars.”

Brey wants Jackson to be even better with the ball and allow his natural basketball instincts to take over, but that will come with time.

“He will be a very key guy for us this season,” Brey said.

Baseline bits

•Former Notre Dame swingman Joey Brooks attended Tuesday’s practice. Brooks left the team last March to audition as a tight end with the football team. He’s now enrolled as a student only in graduate studies at Notre Dame.

•Former Irish small forward Scott Martin is off to a solid start with Newcastle in the British Basketball League. Martin, whose sixth season was limited last winter to 18 games because of chronic left knee soreness, is averaging 15.0 points and 11.5 rebounds in 33.5 minutes.

•Following through on Brey’s promise to ease into the season even with such an early start, the Irish will not practice again until Sunday. Players will spend the rest of the week doing periodic skill work.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, right, works with forward Eric Katenda during a men's basketball practice on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, in the Joyce Center at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER