If you watched Eric Atkins run Notre Dame’s offense the past two seasons, you wouldn’t consider him a demonstrative, flamboyant basketball player.
Steady, composed, in charge of the show. That’s Atkins.
Yet the junior point guard on the No. 22/23 team in the country has fine-tuned his focus a little further as the Irish anticipate the start of the regular season in a week-and-a-half.
“His demeanor has been different,” said head coach Mike Brey of Atkins. “I asked him one day, ‘Are you having fun playing? Is something bothering you?’ He said, ‘Coach, I’ve got a different demeanor this year. I’m more business-like.’
“Great. That’s just growing up, maturity, and a chip on his shoulder with how the season ended last year.”
When the Irish fizzled out in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Xavier, Atkins and fellow backcourt mate Jerian Grant took the loss personally.
If Atkins’ approach Monday night in Notre Dame’s 111-52 exhibition victory over Quincy University is any indication of how he’ll perform this year, the Irish offense is in good hands once again.
Atkins scored 17 points on 6-of-6 shooting, including 3-of-3 from three-point range, against the Hawks. More importantly, he handed out 13 of Notre Dame’s 30 assists and didn’t turn the ball over while collecting five steals.
“Just the progression of being older,” Brey summarized. “I’ve deferred to him. ‘What do you want to run? What do you think here?’ I talk to him sometimes like I’m talking to Coach (Anthony) Solomon, and I would hope that helps him feel how much he has his hands on the throttle.”
With Atkins out for a couple days of practice recently, Brey could tell something was missing. His return brought the Irish back to the center.
“He came back, had like 11 assists (in practice), didn’t take a shot, and just ran the team,” Brey said. “I said, ‘Eric, all I know is that I can sleep tonight. You’re back. We should put a bubble around you when you leave this building.’
“He’s just really steady and really confident. He’s running our team. It’s his show.”
When it’s Atkins’ show, it means the Irish are moving the basketball like they were Monday night.
“I think that started in the summer,” Atkins said. “The young guys got used to our flow and our movement. (Monday night) showed that we’ve been playing together for a while now and they’re really adjusting to the way we play.”
With most of the focus on 2nd-team all-Big East Jack Cooley, one of the most dynamic backcourts in the country, the return of sixth-year senior Scott Martin, and the arrival of high-scoring guard Cameron Biedscheid, there usually isn’t much conversation left for sophomore Pat Connaughton.
But it was Connaughton’s insertion into the starting lineup that coincided with Notre Dame’s revival in 2011-12. He averaged 7.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game while finishing third on the team in three-pointers made with 41.
Monday night, Connaughton scored 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting and grabbed a co-game-high eight rebounds in 28 minutes of action.
“He’s a man,” said Brey of Connaughton. “Where he’s improved the most is defensively. I told Cameron on the bench three times, ‘Watch Pat on this defensive possession.’ Closing out on guys, keeping a driver in front of him, rebounding, covering for his teammates, making the extra pass…He’s playing like a man.”
Brey believes Connaughton is a very underrated piece to the puzzle in 2012-13.
“He’s a guy you forget to talk about sometimes,” Brey said. “He just does his thing. He’s going to make a couple shots. We love when he rebounds. But I’ve been really impressed with him defensively, and I’ve showed Cameron tape of him defensively.”
Let the shooters shoot
Brey wasn’t surprised to see freshman Cameron Biedscheid lead the team in shots Monday night. Biedscheid took a team-high 13, making four, including 2-of-9 from three-point range.
Brey never has been one to dampen a young player’s enthusiasm for letting it fly.
“He’s got to score it for us,” said Brey of Biedscheid. “I still think his shot selection is a work in progress. But when you have a guy who can put it in the hole - and you know my history with guys like that - I don’t want to yell at him too much for a bad shot. I don’t want him gun-shy. You just kind of suggest a little bit.”
Biedscheid scored 10 points in 10 minutes of action in the first half against Quincy.
“Ten points in 10 minutes? Wow, that’s a heckuva lift,” Brey said. “And you know what he did tonight? He rebounded (four), and he hadn’t done that in practice.
“So he’s making progress, and you know what’s great about him? He wants to be good. He’s giving himself to us. Just coach me. I love that. He’s important because he can put it in the hole.”
Brey credits the veteran players in the program for Biedscheid’s quick adaptation.
“It says a lot for the older guys knowing we need Cameron, even though he gets a lot of shots and takes bad shots,” Brey said. “That’s a process that could be dicey at other programs, but they know we need him.
“That doesn’t mean they don’t want to strangle him sometimes, and it’s better them than me. But they know we need him to win.”
The long-awaited appearance of 6-foot-10 Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman met Brey’s expectations.
“I really love how Garrick worked himself in,” said Brey of Sherman, who scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds in 20 minutes of action. “That’s how he’s worked himself in in practice. He was the No. 1 guy I was concerned with. But he worked himself in like a man and was really steady.”
Why the concern with Sherman?
“Just being comfortable with the lights on,” Brey said, “Even though you’re 22- or 23-years old, he was nervous. I told him at halftime, ‘Man, I am so thrilled you’re eligible. I’m so thrilled to coach you. You add so much to our team.’”
Sherman admitted that anxiety was an issue in the minutes leading up to tip-off.
“Definitely nerves, definitely nerves,” Sherman said. “I have a lot to prove.”
But Sherman adapted quickly, connecting on all three of his shots in the first half - including a pretty reverse lay-up - and six rebounds in 11 minutes. He finished a perfect 5-of-5 from the field.
“The rotation will be ongoing, but I felt good tonight,” Sherman said. “I didn’t feel out of place. I thought we flowed pretty (well). It was exciting.”
Brey inserted Sherman into the lineup with Jack Cooley on occasion as well as senior Tom Knight. It’s a big lineup Brey will continue to explore.
“I think it’s good for us,” said Sherman of the double-low post alignment. “Me and Jack play well together, and so does Tom. I don’t think it’s something that is a deficiency for us. I think we can do it very efficiently.”
Go with the flow
Junior guard Jerian Grant wasn’t surprised by the team’s exceptional passing Monday night, a trait that has earmarked the last handful of Brey’s teams.
“We’ve got everybody back from last year,” said Grant, who averaged 12.3 points per game in 2011-12. “We’re so old that when the young guys come in, they start to feel the flow with us. Being that unselfish is just great.
“It’s just a matter of getting our rhythm. We know what we want to do and how we want to play. It’s just getting into mid-season rhythm and getting the young guys in the flow with us because we’re going to need them.
“We’re unselfish. That’s the one thing about our program. We always make the extra pass. That’s what’s got us to where we are as a program.”
The captain speaks
Brey credits sixth-year senior Scott Martin with freshman Austin Burgett’s pre-season development.
“When (Burgett) left summer school, he came into my office and said, ‘I just want you to know, Scott Martin was so helpful this summer. He was unbelievable,’” Brey said. “That’s part of the culture that we’ve created here that I’m really proud of.”