Notre Dame men's basketball: Program opportunity awaits Irish

South Bend Tribune

This time around, it’s less personal and more about the program.

When Note Dame and Duke last met in Greenville, S.C., for a second-round NCAA tournament game in 2002, the slam-dunk storyline was teacher against pupil. Irish coach Mike Brey worked against his mentor and former boss Mike Krzyzewski for the chance to go to the Sweet 16.

The Irish fell short that Saturday, losing 84-77 to the top-ranked and top-seeded Blue Devils. It was, Brey said afterward as he breathed a sigh of relief in an emptying locker room, a difficult day for so many reasons.

Brey and Krzyzewski meet again Saturday in sold-out Purcell Pavilion as Notre Dame (9-4) and No. 7 Duke (11-2) open league play in front of a national-television audience. Now, though, it’s not about beating his former boss but about getting Notre Dame to establish itself in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“Maybe if I was the 36-year-old head coach, it would be a little different, but I’ve been doing this awhile,” said the 54-year-old Brey, now in his 14th season in South Bend. “It’s certainly not Krzyzewski and Brey.”

Even now, 18 seasons removed from his eight as an assistant at Duke, Brey has to remind himself that it all did actually happen because it seems a spectacular blur. During Brey’s learning under Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils won two national championships (1991, 1992), advanced to four championship games, appeared in six Final Fours and were a perennial ACC power. They also played in what many believe is the greatest game in history when Duke beat Kentucky in overtime of the 1992 East Regional final at The Spectrum in Philadelphia.

“There’s many great memories with Mike K.,” Brey said. “The eight years raced by when I think about it. It seemed more like I was there four.”

On Saturday, Brey will be less concerned with taking a walk down memory lane with Krzyzewski on the opposite bench and focused on getting Notre Dame to take its first step – actually a massive leap – into its new league.

It’s much the same as when Brey was hired at Notre Dame by former athletic director Kevin White – now Krzyzewski’s boss – that summer’s day of 2000. Long considered a doormat in the big, bad Big East, Notre Dame saw that eventually evaporate under Brey. The Irish won big games against the league’s established pro-grams (Connecticut, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Syracuse). They won a regular-season West Division championship. Suddenly, the NCAA tournament wasn’t such a pipe dream.

The program built enough equity that when the run of the conference as everyone came to know it came to an end last March, few Big East teams had been as consistent as Notre Dame. By the end, Brey had become the fourth-winningest coach (146 victories) in league history.

A win Saturday against Duke would help Notre Dame establish itself early as an ACC player.

“If you can have success against a program like that, it endorses your program,” Brey said. “When we beat programs like this in the early days of the Big East, we started to look like we’re legit.

“You’ve got to beat some good ones to get back in that solid, regular-season delivery.”

Aggressive Atkins

Moving forward with the rest of his final season of college basketball means Notre Dame senior captain Eric Atkins will have to jump back in time to his junior year of high school.

That’s when Atkins was a shoot-first, score-second, pass-third guard for Mount St. Joseph High School in Columbia, Md. A two-time Balti-more Catholic League most valuable player, Atkins averaged 23.0 points, 6.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds as a junior. As a senior, he averaged 15.0 points, 4.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds.

“We had a lot of injuries his junior year (so) he had to shoulder much more of a scoring load,” Mount St. Joseph coach Pat Clatchey said. “Senior year, he didn’t have to score.”

When Clatchey saw that Atkins scored a career-high 30 Sunday against Canisius, he went in search of a final stats sheet. He liked what he saw – 10-of-14 from the field, a career-best 6-of-8 from 3 and 4-of-6 from the free throw line.

“From a coaching standpoint, when you see that someone scores 30, you’re like, ‘OK, was it efficient and productive or was somebody just jacking up shots?’” Clatchey said. “His numbers looked very efficient and productive.

“He’s capable.”

And with the Irish basically starting over without leading scorer Jerian Grant, who is no longer enrolled at Notre Dame because of academics, a larger burden falls on Atkins to shoulder more of the scoring load. He’s capa-ble, but also has to be willing.

“Eric can get 30 anytime he wants from now on,” Brey said. “I think it comes naturally for him.”

For Atkins, scoring more doesn’t necessarily mean doing more.

“That’s really not a problem for me,” he said. “That’s usually how I played in our open gyms when I wasn’t on Jerian’s team and I never was on his team.

“It’s good to hear Coach Brey give me that extra boost of confidence and tell me to go do it.”

Polished Parker

It’s rare for a McDonald’s High School All-American who is expected to do plenty right from the jump of his first season of college basketball to match the hype of his press clippings, but Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker has delivered.

When Brey watches Parker on film, he has a hard time believing he’s a freshman. He seldom has played like one.

“The way he plays the game, the poise, the de-meanor are more that of a guy that’s played 100 college games,” Brey said of someone who’s played 13. “He was going to be the guy as a freshman, but he’s handled it more like an upperclassman than a freshman.

“He’s a beautiful basketball player.”

The Irish are expected to run waves of defenders at the 6-foot-8 Parker. Junior captain Pat Connaughton might get the first chance out of a man-to-man, but Zach Auguste, Tom Knight, Austin Burgett and V.J. Beachem also need to help.

“A lot of different guys have to guard him,” Brey said. “We’re going to try and slow him down like we did Baron.”

Not quite.

That would be Canisius guard Billy Baron, who erupted for a game-high 33 points, including 27 after halftime, with six steals, six rebounds and five assists in Notre Dame’s last game Sunday, an 87-81 overtime victory.

What’s in store?

Exactly what should Notre Dame and its basketball fan base expect from the ACC after 18 seasons in the grind-it-out, knock-you out Big East? From all accounts, a fan-friendly way of play.

“It’s a faster-paced game with a lot of points, a lot of athletes, especially on the perimeter,” said Duke senior guard Tyler Thornton. “We’ve got a lot of great wing players in our conference and it’s really exciting.”

Duke (85.2 ppg.) and Notre Dame (80.1) rank first and tied for second with North Carolina in league scoring. Of the 15 conference schools, 12 average at least 72 points per game. But don’t let the fact that Clemson (69.2 ppg.), Miami (Fla.) (65.0) and Virginia (64.8) are offensively challenged fool anyone into thinking they may be gimmie wins.

“It’s a grueling, grueling conference,” said Duke junior guard Quinn Cook. “You don’t get a night off. You beat a good team on Tuesday, you get another good team on Saturday.

“Night in and night out, it’s the best.”

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey will meet his former boss, Mike Krzyzewski, when the Irish meet Duke Saturday afternoon. SBT Photo/MIKE HARTMAN