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Men’s Basketball: Returning players prepare for opener

By Joseph Monardo | Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Irish were back on the court earlier than normal, but that wasn’t the only thing that was new Tuesday afternoon. 

ACC logos surrounded the practice facility as Notre Dame took advantage of the NCAA legislation advancing the start date for college basketball practices across the country.

“I think practice is going great so far,” Irish senior guard Eric Atkins said. “I think we are clicking really early on. With the NCAA rule, I think it’s great for our young guys to get going, just to work with us, know how we play and get up and down with us and getting the rhythm of college basketball.”

The rule change, approved in May, permits teams to move up the dates of their opening practices by two weeks. Notre Dame took the court for its first official practice Friday, more than a month before the team’s opening exhibition game against Indianapolis on Oct. 28.

“It’s already on my mind every day,” Atkins said of the season opener. “Every day, it’s on the 28th, I know. So that’s definitely the only thing on my mind so far, but getting better every day is what we are trying to do as a team.”

The Irish return nine of 11 players from last year’s squad, which finished 25-10 before losing to Iowa State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Forward Jack Cooley and guard Scott Martin were the only departures over the off-season, although the two players led the team in rebounding. Cooley was 13th in the nation and first on the team with 10.1 rebounds per game, while Martin was second on the Irish with an average of 5.9 boards. 

Senior center Garrick Sherman and graduate student forward Tom Knight will likely lead the Irish frontcourt in their stead. Sherman, a transfer from Michigan State, averaged 3.4 rebounds per game and put up 7.0 points per game in his first season with the Irish, while Knight contributed 3.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per contest. 

The Irish return their top three guards from last season, as Atkins, senior Jerian Grant and junior Pat Connaughton bring considerable experience to the position. Sophomore guard Cameron Biedschied also returns for Notre Dame after a strong freshman campaign. 

To their experienced backcourt the Irish add freshman Demetrius Jackson, rated by ESPN as the 24th best player in the nation. A graduate of Marian High School in Mishawaka, Ind., Jackson has already made an impression, Atkins said.

“Working with him all summer, [Jackson’s] somebody that really just wants to get better every single day,” Atkins said. “You know, he’s a gritty defender, he gets after it on defense, gets after the ball. And offensively, he can really create his own shot. He can get to the hole at will. You know, I think it will be somebody to really help Jerian [Grant] and I, take some of the dribbling the ball responsibilities, the handling responsibilities, away from us a little bit and give us a break there.

“I think the last person I’ve had push me like this every single day was [former Irish guard] Ben [Hansbrough], so that was my freshman year. So it feels good to have a really good defender every single day on me.”

Notre Dame also welcomes freshman guard Steve Vasturia and freshmen forwards V.J. Beacham and Austin Torres to the team. Atkins said the freshmen have benefited from the new rule allowing earlier practices.

“You gain a little more confidence because you have more time to practice with the team before you really get going,” he said. “Now we get like two or three more weeks, and I just think it’s a big confidence booster.”

A transition the entire Irish team is making this year is from the Big East to the ACC. Notre Dame finished 11-7 in conference play last season and now will join a conference led by perennial powerhouses Duke and North Carolina.

“I think my only mindset change is knowing as a team we are probably going to have to score more,” Atkins said. “You know, going to the ACC, just looking at their scores, they are usually in the 70s.”

The Irish are well-equipped to adjust to the competition within the ACC, Atkins said.

“We have a lot of returning guys, a lot of young guys,” he said. “I think it’s one of our deeper teams that I’ve ever been a part of while I’ve been here. So a lot of talent to work with on both sides of the ball.”

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu