Two games into the conference season, sixth-year senior Scott Martin was playing at a first-team all-Big East level.
Against Seton Hall and Cincinnati, Martin averaged 18 points per game while connecting on 10-of-14 three-point attempts.
In the four games and two weeks since then, the 6-foot-8, 218-pounder from Valparaiso, Ind., has been a shadow of his productive self, scoring just seven points while converting 2-of-11 field goal attempts, including 0-of-6 from three-point range.
Martin will be out of the lineup for the foreseeable future after his twice-surgically repaired left knee became too much of a burden to continue without an extended stay on the disabled list.
“We started the Big East season and we had him close to 100 percent those first two games,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey late Wednesday morning. “The last four, we’ve been kind of piecing it together with duct tape and Ibuprofen and not practicing, and it’s just not very productive for him and it’s not productive for us.
“Scott and I talked (Tuesday) and I thought we needed to shut him down to see if he can get back and have one more run for us. I hope he does, but I don’t know if we can count on that quite frankly.”
Martin rarely has been at the top of Notre Dame’s stat sheet. But what he provides the Irish in terms of leadership, defensive knowledge/execution, rebounding and, early on, three-point shooting, made him a valuable component to Notre Dame’s veteran unit.
It quickly became obvious following Notre Dame’s 66-60 victory over Cincinnati that Martin was a shell of the player who had snagged at least seven rebounds in six of the first 10 games and was shooting better than 50 percent from three-point range through the first 15 games.
Brey said Martin suffered a relapse when he tweaked the left knee standing up following a TV timeout against Cincinnati.
“Disappointed and maybe a little relieved,” said Brey of Martin, who was not expected to be made available to the media Wednesday afternoon before practice. “He didn’t want to tell me he couldn’t go. He won the game for us (against Rutgers) the other night on one-and-a-half legs.
“But I think there’s a little bit of a relief of, ‘I can’t do it and I’m not helping us. Let me step away and see if I can get well for one more run.’”
For Brey, it’s all hands on deck to replace Martin as the Irish prepare for a trip to Tampa to take on South Florida Saturday. The Bulls are coming off a home victory over Georgetown on Jan. 19.
Garrick Sherman, the 6-foot-10 transfer from Michigan State who was benched for ineffective play the last two games, is back in the mix. So is 6-foot-10 freshman Zach Auguste, who has played just 60 minutes this season, including none in the last four Big East games. Austin Burgett, a 6-foot-9 freshman, has played even less (27 minutes) than Auguste.
Tom Knight, who replaced Sherman in the rotation the last two games, has given the Irish an offensive lift, but nothing in the rebounding department.
“Everybody is back on the board,” Brey said. “We can play small, which we have at times with Pat (Connaughton) and Cam (Biedscheid) in there with our guards (Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant) and Jack (Cooley). Or we can go large with two big guys.
“All of those things are things we have to evaluate, and not just this week. That’s kind of who we’re going to be moving forward. We’re probably reinventing a little bit right now with rotation and front line. All options are open with the guys that are at our disposal.”
This is the third time in four seasons that the Irish have had to deal with the loss of a key figure in the rotation. Luke Harangody tweaked a knee late in the 2009-10 season and the Irish closed with four straight regular-season victories.
Last year, sharp-shooting fifth-year senior Tim Abromaitis suffered a season-ending knee injury the third week of November. Yet the Irish responded by going 13-5 in Big East play, including nine straight victories.
“If they have to play their way into it a little bit, we can do that,” said Brey of the mix of young candidates to replace Martin’s lost minutes. “There are a lot of games left, and if we have to learn on the fly for a while to have what we need to have in February, then that’s what we have to do.”
But there’s no denying that the Irish lose a lot without Martin, if not statistically, mentally and emotionally.
“We have lost a voice and maybe our most consistent voice in Scott, at least out there on the floor,” Brey said. “He’ll continue to be a voice in the locker room and around practice, and we’ll need that.
“Scott was the great endorser of the message a lot of times. Not one guy can replace that. There’s too much experience there with Scott. We need that more by committee. That needs to be developed over the next couple of weeks.”
Brey said the earliest Martin would return to action would be “two-to-three weeks.” As for the odds of Martin’s return before the season ends, Brey said it was 50-50.
“For us as a coaching staff and a team,” said Brey, “we need to move forward like that’s not going to happen.”