Notre Dame's Atkins MVP; Brey plans to stay

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Drama dominated the second-annual “Evening with Notre Dame Basketball” last spring when former Irish power forward Jack Cooley concluded his senior speech, dropped to a knee and proposed marriage to his girlfriend.

Monday’s edition of the annual season-ending event was a little more mellow and over a whole lot sooner for an Irish team that long exhausted the drama quotient this winter. A trying first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference saw Notre Dame finish with its first losing season (15-17, 6-12 ACC) since 1998-99. It also marked the first time since ’98-’99 that the Irish missed postseason.

“We got put on the mat this year,” said coach Mike Brey.

Notre Dame lost its leading scorer (Jerian Grant) for the spring semester following an academic misstep, lost sophomore Cameron Biedscheid to a transfer in late December, lost freshman guard Demetrius Jackson for two games in mid-February to concentrate on academics and lost main guys Zach Auguste, Austin Burgett, Tom Knight to ineffectiveness, illness and injury.

Anything that might have happened did for the Irish, who struggled to sustain any ACC consistency after setting the conference bar higher than it could again hit after their first league victory Jan. 4 over Duke.

The program’s season-ending event carried much the same “let’s get this over with” feel as late in the regular season. The awards/senior speeches portion ran only 47 minutes from start to finish – 12 minutes longer than the heartfelt speech offered by former Irish guard Tory Jackson in his senior season in 2010.

The night moved along so quickly that the year-end highlight film was thrown on at the end almost as an afterthought.

The most intriguing news arrived after most of the 200 or so attendees had headed out into the snowy evening.

Brey confirmed the report that appeared in the Tribune earlier this month that University of California officials would want to speak with him about its vacant head coaching position.

Thanks, Brey said when the school recently contacted his attorney, but no thanks to California athletic director Sandy Barbour. She previously worked at Notre Dame under former Irish athletic director Kevin White, who hired Brey from Delaware in the summer of 2000.

“They checked in with my attorney in New York,” Brey said. “It was a 30-second conversation. But I never talked to Sandy. It never even got to Square One. It was, ‘Would he have an interest?’ My agent texted me. I said, ‘Nope. Staying the course.’

“There’s no juice on that.”

Brey never felt a need to address the situation with Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick or deputy athletic director Jim Fraleigh, who oversees the Irish men’s basketball program.

“They knew the deal,” he said. “If you ever were to get into one of those where you’re interested, I think you’ve got to tell your AD right away. I’ve not had one of those. Not even Maryland (in 2011) was one of those. But yet that one took on a life of its own, too.”

Having replaced the stale year-end banquet format three seasons ago, Monday’s event was held for the first time in Heritage Hall, the second-floor space between the Joyce Center’s two domes. It had previously been held in Purcell Pavilion. While seniors Eric Atkins, Patrick Crowley and Garrick Sherman wasted little time in sailing through their speeches – Atkins’ ran the longest at four minutes and seven seconds – Knight took the night to seemingly dust off a promising standup comedy routine.

“Soak it in guys; it’s done; it’s over,” Knight began. “The five-year reign is complete. So many things have happened over these five years. A lot of them good. Unfortunately, a lot of them bad.”

Knight admitted he called home to his native Maine and told his parents he wanted to leave – after his first day. But it all worked out, for Knight who went on to say he had become the “self-proclaimed mayor of Notre Dame.”

This despite arriving at Notre Dame “fat, unmotivated and always wanting to have a good time.”

And five years later?

“I’m not fat anymore,” Knight said.

Among the individuals he thanked in his speech was strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski.

“He took the canvas off my body,” Knight said, “and turned it into a masterpiece.”

Knight was honored with the team’s community service award. Other award winners were Atkins (most valuable player), Pat Connaughton (defensive player of the year), Crowley (student-athlete) Sherman (best rebounder) and Steve Vasturia (newcomer of the year).

The annual event was moved up two days to accommodate the professional plans of Atkins and Sherman. Both leave later this week to participate in the annual Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational Tournament. Atkins and Sherman likely aren’t going to be drafted into the NBA in late June, but both plan to continue playing.

“Strong European guys; they’re very realistic about who they are,” Brey said. “But crazy things happen at Portsmouth sometimes. I think that they both will be able to play in Europe for a while and make a good living.”

Next season will arrive a little sooner for Notre Dame, which embarks on a 10-day tour of Italy in early August. That will include four exhibition games and 10 additional practices leading into the trip.

“It couldn’t come at a better time for our program as we’re trying to work off the mat,” Brey said.

Irish items

•Having spent the spring semester separated from the university, Grant remains on track to rejoin the program June 15. Nothing with the 2014 preseason first team All-ACC selection has changed, even as his younger brother, Jerami, who is finishing his sophomore year at Syracuse, declared Monday for the NBA draft.

•Notre Dame will sign a third member of its 2015 recruiting class Wednesday when point guard Matt Farrell (Point Pleasant, N.J.) makes it official. Farrell committed March 11 – the day before Notre Dame’s ACC tournament game against Wake Forest – and made his official visit to campus over the weekend. He’ll join current prep seniors Martin Geben (Hagerstown, Md./Lithuania) and Bonzie Colson (New Bedford, Mass.).

•If the Irish offer their final scholarship this recruiting cycle, it would not go to a current prep senior.

“Thoroughly exploring transfers,” Brey said. “We’re open to everything. Everything.”

As of late Monday, the only transfer the Irish are currently involved with is former Michigan forward Jon Horford, who would be immediately eligible to play his final college season in 2014-15.

Cornell swingman Nolan Cressler, who drew interest from Notre Dame and weighed a possible campus visit, committed Monday to Vanderbilt. Another big man transfer eligible to play right away – former Temple forward Anthony Lee – was visited by Brey and Irish assistant Martin Ingelsby last month but eventually committed to Ohio State.

Notre Dame's Eric Atkins (0) drives in during the first round of the ACC men's basketball tournament on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)