Break refreshes after trying run for Notre Dame men

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

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Three days away felt like three weeks in a way for a Notre Dame men’s basketball team that recently wrapped its first extended break since before Christmas.

Likely because of joining the Atlantic Coast Conference so late — it was around this time last year when Notre Dame announced that its 18th season in the Big East was its last — the Irish did not get a mandatory league bye week until the final week of the regular season.

Following the March 3 loss at No. 14 North Carolina, Notre Dame (15-16, 6-12 ACC) does not play again until opening the 61st-annual ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., as the No. 13 seed Wednesday at 1 p.m. against No. 12 Wake Forest (16-15, 6-12).

Prior to preparations for its inaugural ACC tournament trip, Notre Dame took three days off last week. It was such a shift from the regular-season grind that senior captain Eric Atkins insisted he had no idea that the Demon Deacons were the first-round tournament opponent until about 30 seconds prior to meeting the media early Sunday afternoon.

Atkins had more important matters on his mind, like staying off his feet.

“It was really nice to finally rest my legs,” said Atkins, who played at least 38 minutes in eight of the final 10 regular-season games and led the league in minutes played (38.1). “That’s all I did. I really didn’t do anything else. You’re just sitting there and resting up.”

A nine-day gap between games allowed Atkins to rest up and a pair of teammates to heal up. Fifth-year senior center Garrick Sherman (chip fracture, right pinkie finger) missed the North Carolina game. Junior swingman Pat Connaughton (sprained left ankle) really should have skipped the season finale in Chapel Hill before going for 17 points and 13 rebounds in 37 minutes.

Sherman was said to need at least 10 days to get healthy. He was back doing his usual low-post work when practice resumed Saturday.

“It feels a lot better,” Sherman said of the finger, which was whacked twice and popped out of place in the March 1 overtime home loss to Pittsburgh. “The strength in it, the ability to move it is a lot better.

“I should be good to go Wednesday.”

As should Connaughton. He and Atkins are the only Irish to play in (and start) all 31 regular-season games. Connaughton twisted the ankle late in the second half of the Pittsburgh game and was doubtful at best for North Carolina. He still needs treatment for the swelling, but doesn’t expect it to be a postseason problem.

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ll definitely be able to fight through it after a week off.”

Getting away from hoops could not have come at a better time for an Irish team that staggered through conference play. Picked in preseason to finish fifth in the ACC and a seemingly sure-fire NCAA tournament team, Notre Dame lost eight league games by seven or fewer points. Only two teams – Boston College and Virginia Tech – finished below Notre Dame in the conference standings.

No bye week to fall back on kept the Irish on the grind of 18 straight league games from the first week of January to early March.

Notre Dame was ready for spring break a week before it arrived on campus.

“It was good to get our energy back,” Connaughton said. “It was good to collectively take a breath as a team and figure out how we’re going to go about this ACC tournament.”

Advancing beyond Wednesday’s first game and a Thursday date with No. 5 seed Pittsburgh means concentration on two critical areas that have been season-long concerns for the Irish – defense and rebounding. Being good for an entire game instead of bits here and pieces there, something the Irish rarely did in league play, also is a must. If not, they’ll be headed home early.

“We’ve played every team tough,” Sherman said. “We’re not scared to play anybody.”

Familiar foe

Notre Dame and Wake Forest met once during the regular season.

Playing their fourth road game in five games, the Irish led by as many as five and trailed by as many as seven in the first half before taking a one-point lead with 2:24 remaining in a 65-58 loss Jan. 24 in Winston-Salem, N.C.

It was the first game for Notre Dame without sophomore Austin Burgett, who suffered a rapid heartbeat earlier that week at Florida State and missed four games. It was the first game back for senior captain Tom Knight, who had missed the previous four games. It also was the final regular-season start for Irish freshman guard Demetrius Jackson, who played 22 minutes without taking a shot.

“It was a little bit of an interesting afternoon for us,” said coach Mike Brey. “Having said that, we were there in that under-four minute timeout, but a key stop or a key defensive rebound or a key loose ball, we couldn’t get.”

Notre Dame managed five points – all from Sherman – the final 3:50.

“It was a game we kind of let go,” Connaughton said. “We were there. They made some of the toughness plays that we didn’t make.”

Knight moves

After Connaughton and Sherman proclaimed themselves healthy, Knight strolled slowly onto the court Sunday in sweats and a T-shirt to sit out practice after suffering a sprained ankle in Saturday’s workout.

Knight is expected back Tuesday and should be available for the ACC tournament opener.

“I think he’s going to be fine on Tuesday,” Brey said. “Not major like it was (before) but never a dull moment.”

Knight also suffered a sprained left ankle leading into Notre Dame’s first league road game of the season in early January against Georgia Tech. He then developed the flu which turned into full blown pneumonia and caused him to miss four games over two weeks.

Injuries, illness and ineffectiveness saw the Irish field 12 different starting lineups.

Notre Dame's Eric Atkins (1) drives the ball against Boston College's Joe Rahon (25) in the first half of the men's basketball game Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, at Purcell Pavilion. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)