Notre Dame men's basketball: Rotation roulette continues

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

It was the equivalent of running with scissors, of unbuckling the seatbelt before a plane finishes its gate taxi and of waiting far fewer than 30 minutes after eating before diving into the swimming pool. Notre Dame walked a tightrope without a safety net midway through the first half of its season opener Friday against Miami (Ohio) by doing something it rarely does — sitting point guard and three-year team captain Eric Atkins for more than a handful of seconds. Atkins watched for three minutes — an eternity for someone who rarely left the floor last season when he averaged a career- and team-high 38.3 minutes. He led all players in the Big East by logging an average of 39.9 minutes in league games. Over the final 14 games, Atkins played at least 38 minutes in 12 of them. That included a career-high 60, which tied the school record set by former guard Chris Thomas, in the five-overtime thriller against Louisville. But midway through Friday's first half of a game the No. 21 Irish won 74-62, Atkins checked out with 11:18 remaining and the home team up 17-6. He didn't check in until the 8-minute mark with the score 26-10 as coach Mike Brey worked through a variety of lineup looks. After 188 seconds, Atkins had to get back in the game, if only for his coach's health. “That's about my limit,” Brey said of the three-minute rest. “That's usually when I start breaking out in hives.” While Brey weighed the chemistry/consistency/competency of various combinations — Was it a night for freshman guard Demetrius Jackson?  What might the starting power forwards offer? How about Austin Burgett continuing to cement his spot in the rotation as the spot-up four man? — Atkins embraced so many looks. “That was different, but I think it was pretty cool to see that,” he said. “That's good for us and good for the younger guys.” A typical Notre Dame preseason under Brey has been to figure out early how a rotation shakes out, and then stay with that set through the days and weeks and months of non-league play. Often around the first few days and games of conference play — this year that comes in the Atlantic Coast Conference — a tweak is made here and there. Three years ago when the Irish sailed to a 27-7 season, the rotation seemingly never shifted. This fall has been different. Even with sophomore swingman Cameron Biedscheid deciding to sit out the season to preserve a year of eligibility, Brey has been even more of a mad scientist. “We can basically put any five (different) guys on the court and they all feel comfortable,” said fifth-year senior power forward Garrick Sherman. “Everybody can play.” On Friday, Brey dipped nine deep in the first half. That ninth man, freshman guard Steve Vasturia, logged less than a minute, yet Brey wasn't afraid to dial up five different looks the first 12 minutes and eight the first 20. “Never have I messed around with so many different options in practice, different ways of playing,” he said. “On a given night, all of them could be used. We could be playing one way for a month and switch gears and play another way. “We have to be really open to what are we doing now? What's great for this team? How do we play?” Biedscheid's route toward a five-year plan and an early-October injury to sophomore Zach Auguste allowed Brey to tinker with five-man lineups that otherwise never would have gone further than summer pickup sessions. When Auguste went down with a broken left hand, it allowed Burgett, who seldom played last season, a chance in the rotation. Burgett responded with solid practices to the point where he started the first exhibition. On Friday, he remained one of the top three reserves and registered career-highs for points (7) and minutes (24). “A good night for Austin to defend and he delivered for us,” Brey said.“He really helped us and helped us move.” After extending the bench and spreading out minutes in the first half, Brey zeroed in on a core of six in the second. The perimeter troika of Atkins, Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton played 19, 17 and 20 minutes. Some guys who thought they might get a bigger bite of the playing time pie instead digested Brey's postgame message heading out of the locker room and into Sunday's game against Stetson (0-1). “If you play well coming off the bench in the first half, you're probably going to play in the second half, so play well in the first half,” Brey said of his post-Miami message. “That's a great way to get minutes in the second half. Real simple. “If you didn't like how you played, play better, because you're going to get a shot again on Sunday. Now get the (heck) out of here.” TNoie@SBTinfo.com574-235-6153Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins drives as Miami of Ohio guard Quinten Rollins, right, defends during the first half of a NCAA college basketball game on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)