Mike Brey knew he had something brewing in the backcourt last season.
Now he knows what it is, and he loves what he sees.
"I feel we have one of the best backcourts, not only in the Big East, but one of the better backcourts in the country," said Brey of the junior tandem of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant.
Atkins arrived in 2010-11 and immediately played a key role in the Irish backcourt for a team that would win a school-record 27 games. Playing 25.4 minutes per game in a backcourt starring Ben Hansbrough, Atkins averaged 5.8 points while fashioning a sparkling 2.56-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Meanwhile Grant, the 6-foot-5 shooting guard with point guard passing skills, preserved a year of eligibility in 2010-11. After a shaky start during the exhibition portion of the 2011-12 campaign, Grant settled into his role of athlete/scorer/distributor/defensive disruptor.
Grant scored at a 12.3-point clip last season while averaging 36.2 minutes per game. He tied Scott Martin for the most starting assignments on the team (33) while averaging a team-high 5.0 assists with a team-leading 44 steals.
Combined with Atkins' 12.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game, the Irish developed one of the top up-and-coming backcourts in the country.
"I feel great about them," said Brey of Atkins and Grant. "Last year, they played older than they were to get us into the (NCAA) tournament, and then I thought in the post-season, they showed their age a little bit. They played young.
"But they're only going to get better. I think they have a chip on their shoulders because their post-season performances weren't what they wanted."
Last season, Brey knew it was only a matter of time before it became the backcourt duo's team. But with veterans Tim Abromaitis and Martin serving as captains, the time to turn over the reins to the young guards wasn't right.
Then Abromaitis went down with a season-ending injury in late-November, which came right after a 29-point loss to Missouri and a four-point loss to Georgia. Shortly after Abromaitis went down, the Irish lost by 20 at Gonzaga, by seven to Maryland and by 11 to Indiana.
Heading into conference play in late-December, the Irish began to follow the lead of Atkins and Grant.
"As soon as we gave them the green light to take over things, they didn't shy away from it," Brey said. "When we made that changeover after Abro went down is when we really found ourselves. Their attitude was almost, 'It's about time!'"
As Brey has said several times over the last year, Atkins and Grant began showing signs of becoming the leaders of the team during their freshman seasons.
"When we played against them as true freshman and Jerian was red-shirting, there were days that they beat the starters in game situations," Brey said. "So there was a foreshadowing of what was coming. I didn't know we were going to need it so early, but with Abro going down, we needed it right away, and they delivered."
So, too, did Scott Martin, whose coordination of the defense on the back end, mixed in with the rapid develop of 6-foot-9 Jack Cooley, helped lead the Irish to a third-place finish in the Big East with a critical nine-game winning streak mixed in.
As Brey looks ahead to the 2012-13 season, he sees a backcourt of Atkins and Grant with sophomore Pat Connaughton occasionally sprinkled in (when he's not playing small forward), in addition to exciting freshman Cameron Biedscheid.
"Connaughton's role changes a little bit," Brey said. "He's not the best of ball handlers, not that we want him dribbling. But he's a guy that has to help us there.
"The guy that will rotate through there the most is Biedscheid. We've got to get him on the court. He's a really talented kid. At 6-foot-7, he can handle the ball. He has guard skills.
"Biedscheid has to play with (Atkins and Grant). Those guys are going to be on the floor heavy minutes. They run our team. They're key guys for us. But Biedscheid is your best candidate to stir in there with them."
Meanwhile, Atkins and Grant will lead the way.
"It's truly becoming their team," said Brey, "and I'm thrilled we're going to have them together for more than just this season."