Time was running out for Tom Knight.
After preserving a year of eligibility and playing just 53 minutes as a sophomore, the 6-foot-10, 258-pounder seemingly made a move in 2011-12, playing in 30 games, starting three and making a significant contribution down the stretch.
But then Garrick Sherman, a Michigan State transfer, became eligible, and along came long and athletic Zach Auguste, a highly touted freshman, to join the line forming behind established big man Jack Cooley.
When the 2012-13 Big East season began, Knight didn’t play in two of the first three games and logged just three minutes in a one-sided victory over Seton Hall. It looked as if his fourth year in the program would be even less productive than his third.
“There were times when I believed that I should have been in there,” said Knight, who has emerged as a productive starter in the absence of injured sixth-year senior Scott Martin. “But the guys ahead of me were doing so well and we were winning. You can’t complain. There were always guys ahead of me that I felt deserved to play.”
No one is ahead of Knight now.
It looked as if his time might come earlier in the season when he had four points, seven rebounds and a blocked shot in 16 minutes of action against Brown, only to sit the bench the entire 40 minutes in a victory over Purdue the next time out.
After scoring six points, grabbing three rebounds and blocking four shots in a road loss to St. John’s, Knight’s time began to increase. When it was decided that Martin would rest his ailing left knee following Notre Dame’s third loss in four games, Knight stepped into the starting lineup and scored 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting with seven rebounds and two blocked shots in Notre Dame’s 73-65 victory at South Florida last Saturday.
Knight tossed in another 10 points with four rebounds and an impressive block on 6-foot-10 Mouphtaou Yarou in Wednesday’s 65-60 victory over Villanova.
“We are extremely confident in him and I have no reason to be downshifting him,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “We’re in a mode where we can get better, and he’s a big part of that.
“Very rarely in February are you seeing improvement, and we’ve got an improvement vibe around our team. He is a major part of things the rest of the season, no matter who’s healthy or not healthy. He’s got to be out there.”
Knight provides a good complement to Cooley, who does most of his work within a five-to-seven foot radius of the rim. Knight has a pretty left-handed, mid-range jump shot that forces opposing team’s big men to respect his shooting ability from 18 feet.
“Tom is a very dangerous offensive player,” said Cooley, sitting within earshot of Knight following Notre Dame’s victory over Villanova. “With his size and his rebounding ability, and then the ability to go out and knock down the shot, we’re able to put two bigs out there to our advantage.
“He sat for seven minutes (against Villanova), and then he came in and hit a shot like he had made 10 of them in a row. That’s how he is.”
To put a finer point of Knight’s importance to the Irish as they try to “reinvent themselves” for the second half of the Big East slate, the Dixfield, Maine product has logged 65 minutes in the last two games, scoring 27 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Knight played just 84 minutes in the previous 19 games with a total of 24 points and 18 rebounds.
“The thing about Tom Knight is that he was doing all kinds of extra cardio when he wasn’t playing,” Brey said. “I’d go to get my workout on game day, and he’d be in there getting extra work. That tells you something about the guy.”
While admitting to the normal frustration that goes with not getting opportunities to prove himself or get into a rhythm, Knight wasn’t the kind to make waves.
“I’ve never had that attitude because even though I wasn’t playing, I knew by me working hard in practice, it would benefit the team,” Knight said. “I would be helping them get better and preparing them for the game.
“There were times when I knew I wasn’t going to play. But I didn’t let myself get down. I just kept working hard.”
That hard work not only is paying off for this year but next year as well. While Brey says his intention all along was to bring Knight back for a fifth year in 2013-14, there’s no doubt about it now.
“I always felt we were going to need him next year,” said Brey, who lost 6-foot-9 Mike Broghammer prematurely with chronic knee problems. “Now, it’s a moot point. I’m not even going to talk to him about it. You’re just coming back.”
Knight will gladly return for a fifth year as a main cog next season. Cooley and Martin will be gone. But Zach Auguste is starting to emerge, and perhaps Sherman can tap into the talent that’s been blanketed in recent weeks by his ebbed confidence. Austin Burgett is another young, promising big man, and there’s still a ray of hope for Eric Katenda, who lost the sight in his left eye after freak on-court injury.
Bottom line: the Irish need Knight to head up Notre Dame’s corps of big men in 2013-14.
“It’s definitely gratifying after all the hard work I’ve put in the last four years,” Knight said. “Finally getting a chance to help the team out in a positive way definitely feels great.”