Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 8, 2012 Issue

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 45 of 55

Motivated For Final Run Point guard Eric Atkins leads ND’s Big East farewell tour By Wes Morgan There have been many nights this offseason when Eric Atkins beat on his pillow and kicked at blankets while reliving Notre Dame’s 67-63 loss to Xavier in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite an exhilarating season full of seemingly endless highs, the way it came to an end occasionally interrupted the junior point guard’s slumber. “The [NCAA] Tournament exit has definitely kept me up at night,” said Atkins, who got back to work recently with the rest of his teammates in preparation for the 2012-13 season. “Being up by 10 points … I just watched the game the other night. It was my drive this summer. A couple plays stick out to me. I know I had a big turnover; I threw the ball away, then they scored after that to go up.” The disappointing loss — another in a long string of tourney letdowns for the Fighting Irish — provided ample motivation to spring from his mattress early every morning in the spring and summer months. “Every time I think about not getting up and working out, I can think about that and always think back to that game and I’ll be up in a jiffy.” Despite bowing out of the NCAA Tournament early after losing to Louisville by 14 points in the Big East Championship semifinals, Notre Dame, which finished with a 22-12 overall record and a 13-5 mark in conference play (third place), enters this winter with top-floor expectations and likely one last shot in which to accomplish such goals. Head coach Mike Brey, now in his 13th year in South Bend, wants a Big East regular-season crown and to experience a Saturday night in Madison Square Garden. The Irish have never claimed a regular-season title since joining the league in 1995 and have yet to battle for a tournament title in New York City after reaching the semifinals five times. After the university announced in September that it would move all sports (excluding hockey and football) to the Atlantic Coast Conference, athletics director Jack Swarbrick made it clear he’d like to expedite the process instead of waiting the penalty-free 27 months that would push the move to 2015. “That’s what I’ve been told, that they’re working as hard as they can to get it done for next year,” Atkins said. “Whatever happens, happens. We’ve got to play in whatever league they put us in. I can only hope that they make the switch next year, but it is what it is. “I’m really excited about this year. I haven’t even had much thought about the ACC because this year is so big for us. I think we’re going to have a huge year.” Atkins played 37.9 minutes per game last season, which ranked fourth in the Big East Conference, and he combines with classmate Jerian Grant for one of the most formidable backcourts in the country. Both averaged more than 12 points per game, with Grant finishing seventh in the league with five assists per game and a 2.7:1 assist-to-turnover ratio (second in the Big East). Atkins averaged 4.1 assists per contest and had a 1.8:1 ratio (11th in the league). Their ability to effectively distribute the ball, as well as take over offensively when needed, helped push Notre Dame to its sixth consecutive 20-win season. Along with those two, senior forward Jack Cooley, last year’s Big East Most Improved Player, sophomore guard Pat Connaughton and sixth-year swingman Scott Martin fill out a starting lineup that returns in whole. Notre Dame adds sophomore forward Eric Katenda, who enrolled last winter after an eye injury required attention, freshmen forwards Cam Biedscheid (6-7, 174 pounds), Zach Auguste (6-10, 220) and Austin Burgett (6-9, 220), and senior center Garrick Sherman (6-10, 240), who sat out last season after transferring from Michigan State and has two years of eligibility remaining. Coaches were afforded limited time to interact with players this summer after a long-awaited NCAA rule change. For up to two hours a day and no more than eight hours a week, coaches could work with players enrolled in summer school for up to eight weeks. Atkins said the increased exposure to Brey was invaluable. “We really took advantage of that this summer,” he said. “I think it helps a lot. We have a veteran group coming back, so it definitely helped us to play together again, but it really helped the young guys to see how we play, to get used to our movement and to see how we play defense here. "It would have helped me a lot [my freshman year]. It kind of took me a little while during the season to figure it out.” College basketball experts apparently still don’t know what to make of the Irish, a program that has wowed during the regular season as of late, but hasn’t been able to translate it into postseason success. In the variety of far-too-early top-25 rankings that appeared throughout the offseason, Notre Dame was consistently omitted. “Honestly, it doesn’t matter where you start the year; it matters where you finish the year,” Atkins said. “I know what this team is capable of. Where we’re ranked right now doesn’t really matter to me. We’ve been ranked in the back half of the league every year since I’ve been here. My freshman year, I think we were No. 9 or No. 10. We’ve always finished in the top four my two years here. “The only difference is people aren’t going to underestimate us this year. We’re going to have to chase something down this year. The last two years, I feel like we snuck up on people. This year, people know we’re pretty good. “I think it’s fun to have a little bit of pressure. I feel like it can bring out the best in everyone’s game.” Recruits Visit For Michigan Game As already reported in the previous issue of Blue & Gold Illustrated, 247Sports four-star point guard Demetrius Jackson (Mishawaka, Ind.) was scheduled for an official visit to Notre Dame on Sept. 22. Rated as the No. 56 player nationally, the 10th-best player at his position and the No. 3 overall prospect in Indiana, Jackson has long been Irish head coach Mike Brey’s primary target in the class of 2013. Notre Dame has verbal commitments from forward V.J. Beachem (Fort Wayne, Ind.), ranked No. 98 nationally by 247Sports and tabbed as the No. 20 overall small forward and fifth-best recruit in Indiana, and shooting guard Steve Vasturia, who ranks 99th in the country, the No. 24 player at his position and the No. 4 prospect in Pennsylvania, according to 247Sports. Both will be in South Bend to watch the Irish take on the Wolverines. Notre Dame has two scholarships to give in 2013, and it hopes Jackson, whose only other official visit was to Illinois in late August, will occupy one of those spots. On Sept. 19, class of 2014 small forward Malek Harris — a 6-7, 170-pounder from Orland Park, Ill., and the No. 8 overall prospect in the state, per 247Sports — made an unofficial visit to Notre Dame. He currently has offers from DePaul, Iowa and Miami (Ohio). Class of 2015 point guard Jalen Coleman was also expected to be in South Bend the weekend of the Wolverines’ football visit. He already has scholarship offers from the Irish, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois and Providence. Notre Dame was represented at an open gym at Indianapolis Cathedral High on Sept. 20. Irish Alumni Get NBA Shots Former Notre Dame point guard and 2011 Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough signed a free agent contract with the Indiana Pacers on Sept. 17 to take part in preseason camp. Hansbrough spent last season overseas playing for teams in Germany and Slovenia. He was invited to suit up for the Pacers’ summer league team in July. Forward Carleton Scott, who left Notre Dame after the 2010-11 season with a year of eligibility remaining but went undrafted, recently signed a free agent deal similar to Hansbrough’s, but with the Brooklyn Nets. Scott played in Austria last winter and averaged 13.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Since graduating from Notre Dame in 2008, forward Rob Kurz’s nomadic professional career has taken him from a stint with the Golden State Warriors (2008-09), to a year with the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Mad Ants and several seasons overseas. Most recently he was invited to attend preseason camp with the Boston Celtics.

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