Tumultuous season caps Atkins’ Notre Dame hoops career

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

Running across campus for class through another morning arctic blast, running to the basketball office for a quick meeting with an assistant coach and running the team in practice this week left Notre Dame senior guard Eric Atkins little time to relax and reflect.

Sometime Saturday prior to being introduced during Senior Day ceremonies leading up to an ACC clash against Pittsburgh (21-7, 9-6), Atkins will stand in a Purcell Pavilion tunnel with his mother, Dominique, by his side and roll through his four-year Rolodex of emotions and memories.

Through tough times and good times, it’s been quite a time.

“I’m just going to think about all the great times that I’ve had with my teammates and coaches and time spent on the floor,” said Atkins, the only three-time team captain in program history. “Hopefully, I don’t drop any tears. After that, I’ll be ready to play.”

Atkins has been ready to do just that for Notre Dame (15-14, 6-10) from nearly the moment he stepped into a near-perfect situation for any young point guard wanting to prove he could play. As a freshman, Atkins established himself early during fall workouts as a kid who could be trusted alongside a veteran core.

With a starting lineup that featured five seniors, the 6-foot-2 Atkins settled into his reserve role and played in all 34 games, averaged 5.8 points and 3.2 assists in 25.4 minutes, led the Big East in assist/turnover ratio (2.56) and helped Notre Dame rip off a modern-day school record 27 victories in a near-dream season.

Though he often made it look easy, that was far from the case.

“That was a shell-shocking experience for me,” Atkins said. “You weren’t playing with nothing to lose. Every single game was huge. Even on that team, I felt I had to be the most calm guy.”

Even before he had played a minute, before he had learned the first of many leadership lessons from eventual Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough, Atkins proved that he had that something that could make him special. Workouts weren’t even a month old before Atkins was quizzing the head coach about specific sets.

That was different. He was different.

“When he came in, I knew he would be good for us,” said graduate student/captain Tom Knight, who along with fifth-year center Garrick Sherman and walk-on guard Patrick Crowley also will be honored Saturday. “As soon as I watched him play in pickup, I knew he was going to be big for this program.”

Heading into the final regular-season home game of his Notre Dame career, Atkins is one of five players in school history (Elmer Bennett, Tory Jackson, David Rivers, Chris Thomas ) with at least 1,000 points (1,370) and 500 assists (567). Saturday is the 131st game and 103rd start of his career. He’s played a staggering 4,514 minutes — and averaged no fewer than 37 each of the last three seasons. He currently leads the ACC in minutes (37.8). After sitting out two games early in his sophomore season because of illness, Atkins has started 94 straight.

He’s been the rock that Irish coach Mike Brey covets/requires from his point guards.

“I’ve got a lot of favorite guys; he’s right up there,” Brey said. “Special. Steady. Just a good guy.

“I don’t know if I’ve been more connected to a guy than Eric. He’s had an amazing career.”

Albeit a quiet one. Brey often said that Hansbrough’s white-hot intensity could heat a building up or burn it down in 2010-11. But it was the leadership of another senior during that rocket ride of a season that Atkins admired. Rather than follow Hansbrough’s fiery route, Atkins peeled a page from former Irish power forward Ty Nash.

Sure and steady nearly every day, Nash took a more measured approach. He didn’t say much, but when he did, people listened. They respected what he said. And responded.

“He wasn’t a person that yelled or anything, but he always brought people together and got everything settled in a calm way,” Atkins said. “I’m not the loudest guy, but I always want to bring everyone together really calm and settle everyone down.”

That leadership has been tested in ways Atkins never figured. Everything about what this season might have been and could have been and should have been forever changed in the hours after the Dec. 21 game when the Irish let an eight-point lead slip away in the final minute against Ohio State at Madison Square Garden.

While Atkins retreated afterward to his home in Columbia, Md., for Christmas break, his best friend and roommate, Jerian Grant, returned to their off-campus apartment to move out. An academic misstep cost Grant the spring semester and one final conference run alongside Atkins.

Finding a way to work without Grant fell on the shoulders of Atkins, who did his best to make sure it didn’t all fall apart as the Irish staggered through a stretch of eight league losses in 10 games.

Atkins never publicly complained, never wondered what might have been, never ducked answering the constant questions of why and how everything seemed to be crumbling. He just continued to play, continued to lead, continued to be a steady voice amid the chaos.

“He’s not out there hooting and hollering; he’s a leader by what he does,” Knight said. “He’s such a solid, consistent player.”

Standing in that tunnel Saturday, Atkins may think for a moment of Grant, now spending the semester crisscrossing the country visiting relatives, keeping his game on point and trying to stay busy and seemingly counting the days until he returns. Atkins also might think of another former classmate and teammate — Alex Dragicevich. The three all signed in the fall of 2009. But after Grant had to go away for a semester and Dragicevich transferred to Boston College following two seasons at Notre Dame, only Atkins is around for what should have been their day.

“It’s definitely weird, me being the only one here,” Atkins said.

Atkins likely will give a quick thought to his late father, William, who died of cancer during his son’s freshman year of high school. This would have been a big moment for the two to celebrate together — the father’s dream of the son capping what has been a quality career.

What would Atkins have wanted his father to know, wanted to say about his four years?

“I would really hope that he said that I had a great career and that I was a great person to my teammates,” Atkins said. “That’s something he would definitely want to be remembered for me.

“I think I have accomplished that.”

TNoie@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Eric Atkins will have a chance to reflect on his career at Notre Dame during Saturday’s Senior Day ceremony. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)