Notre Dame men’s basketball: Atkins key to help Irish fight back
Imagine there exists a reference book that is required reading for Notre Dame men’s basketball co-captain Eric Atkins when his leadership is tested.
Worn and weathered from bouncing between the bottom of his locker and the backseat of his car, the tome would have several dog-eared pages that serve as quick reference guides for the only three-time team captain in team history. Passages on some pages that carry catch-phrases from coach Mike Brey — “The ball is gold” — would be marked in green highlighter.
But there would be no chapter for what Atkins had to work through this week after Notre Dame (2-1) was removed from the national rankings with a rare November non-conference home loss Sunday to Indiana State.
Following that 13-point setback in a game the Irish were seldom in, Brey turned over leadership duties to Atkins and co-captain Pat Connaughton. Instead of doing most of the talking during practices, Brey let his captains communicate.
“It’s different,” Atkins admitted. “This is the first time having a loss to someone like that. A loss is never good, but it shocked us a little bit.
“The shock factor is good for us now to know that we’re not as good as maybe we thought we were or everyone has been telling us. We have to get better.”
There was only one way for Atkins and Connaughton and the Irish to be better — get back on the practice floor and play. It didn’t matter who wore the gold (starters) jerseys or who was in the blues (reserves). Colors and combinations were mixed and matched this week, which also included a double day of work (Wednesday) in preparation for Friday’s home game against Santa Clara (2-1).
Instead of hanging their heads and wondering about the hows and whys of what happened Sunday, the Irish spent much of the week working. Practices were hard. Intense. Focused. Needed.
“I don’t think it’s on our minds as much as people think, like it’s really hurting us,” Atkins said. “It’s like, ‘Man, we shouldn’t have lost.’”
The Irish found an edge that’s been absent the first three games.
“What I’ve liked is we’ve played (ticked) off, which is a good trait to have after a loss,” Brey said. “It’s a time where our leadership has to set the tone and kind of guide us in bounce-back mode.
“We’ve been good in that.”
With no previous reference point, Atkins knew of only one way to guide the Irish through the turbulent time. He got aggressive. In scrimmages. In huddles. In the locker room. Everyone noticed. Teammates understood that coasting the way the Irish had done this month no longer is acceptable.
When the three-time captain’s locked in, everybody else better follow.
“We were missing that,” Atkins said. “We got kind of complacent early on, even our practices leading up to our first two games, which we won. It’s great that we’re getting back to competing every day and being angry.”
Atkins is OK that the Irish tumbled out of the national rankings. After checking in at No. 21 in the Associated Press poll prior to Indiana State, Notre Dame received exactly one vote in this week’s poll.
It’s a long road back into the rankings, but that’s not necessarily bad for this bunch.
“Now that we’re not ranked we can play with a chip on our shoulder,” Atkins said, “which is good for us.”
With no previous experience in dealing with an early-season home loss to a team many believe the Irish should have beaten, Brey brought the Irish back to mid-February of last season. Having won five of six, Notre Dame sailed into Providence that Saturday for a noon game and was promptly pounded in nearly every phase — much like the Indiana State game — for a 71-54 loss. Prospects of moving on to Pittsburgh for a Big Monday game and winning two days later seemed slim, but the Irish understood what they needed to be better — defend, compete, rebound — and did it.
Despite trailing 19-3, the Irish won 51-42.
“We get smoked at Providence, we regrouped and stole one on the road,” Brey said. “That frame of mind is a pretty good reference point.”
Reference points aside, Indiana State made it look so easy by dissecting a seemingly deflated Notre Dame defense. The Sycamores finished at the rim with drives that seemingly started from Granger. Shooters were left open for easy looks that were like layups from 3. The visitors dictated second-chance opportunities and pace and poise.
In every way defensively, the Irish folded.
“That’s something that can’t happen,” said senior guard Jerian Grant. “We’ve got to keep focusing in defensively when teams go on a run. We can’t just stop playing.”
Offensively, the Irish need to get back to being ultra-efficient. When it started slipping away against a team that refused to go away, any semblance of an offensive rhythm was a rumor. Guys drove to the basket early in the clock. The extra pass or two that’s a program staple never surfaced. Quick shots replaced good shots. Nobody moved. Nobody cut. Everybody stood and watched and wondered.
It’s not who the Irish have been over the longest of hauls.
“We just have to be more poised,” Grant said.
More tough stuff is coming. Time for these Irish to write a new chapter.