Notre Dame men's basketball: Atkins ready to get ‘rolling’

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

Subtle reminders continue to surface on and off the court that everything about the rest of this college basketball season has changed for Notre Dame senior guard Eric Atkins.

Arriving back at his off-campus apartment Thursday following four days at home in Columbia, Md., for Christmas, Atkins usually would have spent the day traveling back with roommate, teammate and close friend Jerian Grant. But Grant no longer is enrolled at Notre Dame after being kicked out of school for the spring semester following an academic misstep.

Following the Dec. 21 loss to No. 3 Ohio State, when Notre Dame (8-4) let an late eight-point lead slip away in 42 seconds, Grant took the team charter flight back to South Bend and spent the day of Dec. 22 cleaning out his apartment and moving some of his stuff into storage before driving home to Bowie, Md.

Atkins returned to a quiet apartment, and in a way, empty-handed after Grant left.

“It was definitely awkward; it was just me in there,” Atkins said Friday prior to the second practice of the day. “That will take some time to get used to.

“He has to give my mail key back. He left all the appliances.”

No Irish faces a bigger adjustment in moving on with basketball life without Grant, who led the team in scoring (19.0), assists (6.1) and steals (2.0) than Atkins. The two had long talked and planned and dreamed to take Notre Dame’s first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference by storm. They would play together in the ACC this season, then graduate together in the spring.

Coach Mike Brey often referred to the two as his “Baltimore-Washington Parkway guards.”

When recruiting them, Brey would visit one in Bowie or Columbia, and then hop on the BW Parkway for the short drive to the other’s house. Seldom would you see one without the other nearby. They would be at Eddy Street Commons together. They would leave the arena after games together.

The Ohio State game was their last game together. They shared a private moment afterward in the locker room and as of Friday, haven’t talked since. The tag-team tandem will be a solo act the rest of the way.

“It is hardest on Eric,” Brey said of Grant’s exit. “I know he wanted it to end different, that backcourt. We all did. But here’s the hand we’re dealt. Leading in this situation is even more of a responsibility.”

It’s one Atkins believes he’s prepared to handle. Dealing with adversity in his life is nothing new. Following his return to campus, Atkins dropped by Brey’s office to discuss which direction the Irish go from here. Who starts? How do the Irish play? Brey broached the issue of Atkins possibly being too caught up in wondering about what could have been with Grant instead of the challenge that it is.

Atkins quickly assured Brey that won’t be an issue. He’s OK.

“I did tell him just that – I’ll be fine,” Atkins said. “Let’s get this thing rolling.”

Not having Grant also will be a trying transition for junior captain Pat Connaughton. Anytime Brey was asked about one of his guards, he usually talked of all three — his veteran perimeter had played together and won together. At home or on the road, they were often a package deal – as those veteran guards would go, so went Notre Dame.

The Ohio State game was career game No. 81 that the three played together. Of those, 62 over the last two-plus seasons featured the three in the same starting lineup.

Connaughton, like Atkins, accepts that a greater burden falls on his steady shoulders to lead and help the younger guys along. There’s no choice but to keep moving forward, keep playing basketball. Still, there were times over the last few days of practices, which included two days of two-a-days, when Connaughton expected No. 22 to come sprinting out of the locker room, down the tunnel and onto the court.

“You still kind of think maybe he has a class meeting or something like that,” Connaughton said. “It’s not something that will totally sink in until we move forward and it’s like an everyday thing.”

In some ways, it is for this Notre Dame nucleus, which has experienced and worked through the loss of a key contributor each of the previous two seasons. Atkins was a sophomore and Connaughton a freshman when senior Tim Abromaitis was lost for the 2011-12 season following a knee injury the day after Thanksgiving. Nobody gave the Irish much of a chance after they staggered through the heart of their non-conference schedule 0-5. But they figured it out in time to go 13-5 in the Big East, including a school-record nine-consecutive wins.

Last winter, the Irish lost sixth-year swingman and ultimate glue guy Scott Martin six games into their final Big East season. The program again looked on shaky ground before the Irish finished out 8-4 with a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

Few expect Notre Dame to be serious challengers in the ACC, much less get back to the NCAA tournament a fifth-straight spring.

“I feel like every year I’ve been here we’ve lost a key guy and every year it’s been someone to step up,” said power forward Tom Knight, who has seen the Irish have to compensate for the loss of a key guy in four of his five years. “No one is giving us a chance and this is something we’re looking forward to. There’s no pressure on us. It’s going to be good for us.”

Knight was the one guy who delivered when needed last season. Two years ago, it was the addition of Connaughton to the starting lineup. In 2009-10, it was Carleton Scott who helped the Irish overcome a late-season knee injury to All-American Luke Harangody. Who’s it going to be this season? Zach Auguste? V.J. Beachem? Austin Burgett? Steve Vasturia?

As good as the starters have been, they have to be better. As well as freshman Demetrius Jackson has played, he has to bring more. All nine available scholarship players will be expected to do more without Grant. There are additional minutes and shots to be had, more points for someone to score. Possibilities exist for anyone and everyone to do more. But they must move forward without losing track of a common goal.

“We have to do it as a team,” Atkins said. “Everybody has to chip in now and really step up their game.

“We’re just going out there and letting it rip.”

TNoie@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6153

Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

WHO: Notre Dame (8-4) vs. Canisius (8-4).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Sunday at 5 p.m. (The game was originally scheduled to begin at 2 p.m.).

TICKETS: Plenty available.

TV: ESPNU.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDInsider.

WORTH NOTING: Canisius coach Jim Baron spent six seasons (1981-87) as an assistant at Notre Dame under former Irish coach Digger Phelps. … A four-time Atlantic 10 coach of the year at two schools (St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island), Baron is in his second season at Canisius after 11 at Rhode Island. … Baron led the Golden Griffins to a 20-14 season, 11-7 and fifth place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference last season after they had won five games the previous year. … Canisius advanced to postseason play (it lost in the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com tournament) for the first time since 1996 and won at least 20 games for the first time since 2000-01. … Baron’s son, Billy, was a first team all-MAAC selection and was tabbed the league’s preseason player of the year. He leads Canisius in scoring (20.0 ppg). … The Golden Griffins were picked in a preseason poll of conference coaches to finish third behind Manhattan and Iona in the 11-team league. … Canisius has won its last two and four of its last five. It has been idle since five players scored double figures in an 87-74 victory over Lamar on Dec. 21. … Canisius is a school of 3,300 students located in Buffalo, N.Y. … Opponents outrebound Canisius by an average of 4.4 per game, and shoot better from the field (45.6 to 44.4 percent) and from the free throw line (75.7-69.5). … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 19-4, including 7-0 at home. This is the first meeting between the schools since a 93-75 Irish victory on Dec. 22, 2002. … This game closes out non-conference play for Notre Dame, which opens play in its first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference on Saturday at home against No. 9 Duke.

WORTH QUOTING: “It’s like the beginning of a new season for us and that’s kind of how we have to approach it.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose team lost leading scorer Jerian Grant for the year because of academics.