Can Knight help ND men get right

South Bend Tribune

Seen as a savior for stepping in and delivering during crisis time last winter, Notre Dame power forward Tom Knight aims to do it again and salvage something from his final season.

The script wasn’t supposed to stray this way for Knight, who graduated last spring but returned for a fifth year after sitting out his freshman season in 2009-10. A bit player to begin last season, Knight became a key guy when former captain Scott Martin was lost in January with a knee injury. Knight responded by starting a career-high 16 games. His averages of 5.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 17.5 minutes also were career bests. It was enough for coach Mike Brey to insist that Knight was a key reason — sometimes THE reason — why the Irish went 25-10, 11-7 in the Big East.

Looking to build off that effort, Knight entered 2013-14 a starter for the first time in his collegiate career. When Knight and fellow power forward Garrick Sherman had difficulty co-existing in the low post — there just didn’t seem to be enough room to allow the 6-foot-10 Knight and the 6-11 Sherman ample operating areas — Knight moved to a reserve role. He last started the final non-conference game against Canisius.

Knight was just all right in Atlantic Coast Conference games against Duke (three points, two rebounds) and North Carolina State (four points, one block), before his season took an unexpected turn two days before the first conference road game against Georgia Tech. He suffered a sprained left ankle the day before the Irish left for Atlanta. Unsure how much it might swell because of air travel, Knight stayed home and watched the Irish lose 74-69.

Rather than race back into the rotation four days later at Maryland, Knight staggered to the university infirmary with a serious case of the flu. It became pneumonia, something Knight had caught each of the previous two years.

“I’m not going to say it was life-threatening (but) it was pretty bad,” Knight said. “When flu turns to pneumonia, it’s never a good thing.”

What should have been one game missed because of the ankle turned into two, then three and finally four for Knight, who also stayed home from last week’s loss at Florida State. The following day, he returned to light drills, after which his legs felt terribly heavy and tired. The next day, he was back in practice for the first time since suffering the sprained ankle on Jan. 9.

His availability for Saturday’s game at Wake Forest was doubtful at best. He just hadn’t practiced or played. But when Notre Dame announced that sophomore power forward Austin Burgett would be sidelined for at least 10 days following an outpatient cardiac procedure to address a rapid heartbeat, a procedure scheduled for Tuesday, Knight had no choice. He had to go.

Game-sluggish after 17 days away from competition, Knight was active and aggressive after checking in at the 16:01 mark of the first half. Less than two minutes in, he had his first basket since Jan. 7. Less than three minutes later, he had a rebound put-back. Knight also worked well on the defensive end. He was quick to the floor for a loose ball and offered an additional interior presence the Irish have lacked for much of league play.

With the Irish down to eight available scholarship players, Knight logged 17 minutes – the most he’s played in 10 games — at Wake. He finished with eight points on 4-of-4 from the floor, three rebounds and a steal. He was one of the few bright spots in another otherwise forgettable afternoon.

“We need him,” Brey said. “It’s key to have him back getting healthy when Burgett may not be back, maybe for the rest of the season. I don’t know.”

Knight knows what Notre Dame (11-9; 2-5 ACC) has lacked as they limp into Tuesday’s home game (9 p.m.; ESPNU) against sizzling Virginia (15-5; 6-1).

“You’ve got to hustle, be willing to get the loose balls, stick your head in there when guys are throwing elbows,” he said. “You can’t back away from this challenge and that’s what we need to focus on.”

It’s something Knight believes the Irish haven’t focused on. There have been too many times when guys have looked to score or score more rather than do the dirty work. He believes his presence can help. He’ll rebound. He’ll set a screen. He just wants to battle.

Having Knight back allows sophomore Zach Auguste and Sherman to play a little more confidently, and cohesively.

“It’s good to have Tom back,” Brey said. “You’re kind of in that mode of playing three big guys and rotating. Some of our best wins — Indiana and Duke — we’ve played with those three big guys rotating through and were able to be very dominant in the paint and the front line and on the backboard.

“That’s the identity we have to run with right now.”

There have been times during Knight’s career when he thought it might never end. It was a constant grind of practice and games and travel and travel and games and practice. And school work, something he took care of by graduating with a degree in management consulting and psychology last May.

Averaging 4.7 points and 3.0 rebounds in 13.8 minutes, Knight is guaranteed only 12 more games (11 regular season, one ACC tournament). He doesn’t want to go out the way the Irish have played in losing five of six since beating Duke. He’s been to the NCAA tournament all four of his previous seasons. He doesn’t want the last year to be the only time he misses it.

“I just have to go out with the mentality that this is my last go-round,” he said. “I’ve got to work hard to get back in the rotation. If I can get back, just give everyone (heck).

“It’s time to turn it around.” 574-235-6153 Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame's Tom Knight (25) competes for a rebound with Duke's Amile Jefferson (21) during the Jan. 4 game at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN