Notre Dame basketball: Steady Atkins ND’s new ‘voice’

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

Sensing the season was slipping away last March, Notre Dame point guard Eric Atkins wanted to say something.

He instead stayed silent and hoped that someone with more experience would straighten out the Irish when the effort and energy slid south early in the third-round NCAA tournament game against Iowa State.

When nobody said anything and Atkins decided it was time to voice his opinion, it was too late. The Irish were headed toward another early postseason exit. There was little good to glean from that night at University of Dayton (Ohio) Arena, yet Atkins often circles back to that game as a reminder of what he needs to do for the Irish to be better.

“I should have brought us together and made us focus more and get back on track,” said Atkins, who averaged 11.3 points, 2.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists last season. “We went too long without anyone talking or having a voice or stepping up.

“That should have been me.”

That now has to be him. The Irish have four seniors — all starters - — off last year’s squad that finished 25-10, but nobody has done more in the program than Atkins. His game and his ways have remained much the same since he arrived from Columbia, Md., and earned a key role with a veteran group that finished 27-7 in 2010-11.

Atkins plays with a steadiness that doesn’t draw the spotlight. He rarely forces the issue, routinely takes care of the ball and seldom tries to do more than he can. He’s there with the same effort every day in practice, every night in games. An extended senior season will see Atkins (101 career games) challenge the school record for games played, currently held by another point guard, Tory Jackson (136).

He always sits in the seat immediately next to coach Mike Brey during film sessions — “It’s not even by design” — and his pregame routine still includes a bag of Gummy Bears and a bottle of apple juice.

What has changed for Atkins is his voice. As a freshman, he deferred to fifth-year senior Ben Hansbrough, whose laser-like intensity helped drive the Irish to a special season that no one saw coming. In seasons that followed, Atkins allowed that year’s senior/seniors to have the strongest say.

Now set to become a three-year starter and one of the few three-time team captains — and the first during Brey’s 14-year tenure — the 6-foot-2, 182-pound Atkins accepts that for the Irish to get to where they want to go, be it in their first run through the Atlantic Coast Conference or the postseason, his voice has to be the most constant and consistent.

“I’ve kind of learned on my own, learned along the way,” he said. “I took some bumps and bruises with my leadership by not talking as much as I should.”

That changed in the offseason during the daily pickup sessions. In the past, Atkins would shoot at a side basket until someone with more clout determined teams. This summer, he was the one playing the role of general manager, deciding who was going to run against whom. If one team had a competitive advantage over the other, Atkins would fix it. Another team needed to swap a big for a perimeter player? Atkins made the switch.

That voice has remained through preseason practices.

“I think I’m doing my best job just talking all the time, making sure people are where they need to be and are accountable,” he said.

The confidence Atkins has in his voice carries over to his teammates.

“The confidence he has, he is the guy we all look to to run the team,” said junior swingman Pat Connaughton. “I feel a lot more confident this year because of him.”

Much attention this fall has focused on Irish other than Atkins. Like Jerian Grant, a first team All-ACC preseason selection that could be on the verge of having his best and biggest season. Or how power forwards Zach Auguste, Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman will compensate for the graduation of former first team All-Big East selection Jack Cooley. Or former Marian standout and McDonald’s All-American guard Demetrius Jackson and his transition to college as a freshman. Or what life in the ACC will be like for the Irish.

Atkins often gets lost in the shuffle. One preseason publication even identified him as Eric Watkins.

Inside the Irish locker room, there’s no mistaking Atkins’ name or game.

“He truly feels it’s his team and he’s the voice,” Brey said. “I’ve been really impressed with how he’s kind of run things. I’m really confident with him leading us as a four-year guy.”

The Irish know it.

“There’s no one more respected than Eric Atkins,” Brey said.

Named Tuesday to the preseason watch list for the Bob Cousy Award, given at season’s end to the nation’s top point guard, Atkins has never received a postseason honor outside the program. As a freshman on a veteran team, he averaged 25.4 minutes a game and led the Big East in assist/turnover ratio (2.56), but didn’t earn a spot on the all-rookie team. He led the conference in minutes played for league games last season (39.9), but that didn’t draw so much as an honorable mention All-Big East selection.

Some recognition was supposed to surface over the summer when he was invited to audition for a United States roster spot at the World University Games. Atkins barely had time to unpack before he was headed home from Colorado Springs. He was released after two days of training camp.

“A lot of people under-appreciate the type of point guard and type of player he is,” Connaughton said. “He just comes in night-in and night-out and is consistent.”

It all privately drives Atkins to be better.

“I don’t understand it,” Brey said of the lack of recognition/appreciation for Atkins. “That’s frustrating for me, maybe because he’s not flashy.

“There’s not a more efficient point guard in the country.”

Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins needs to be the constant and consisten voice of the Irish this season. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER