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Atkins, Grant complement each other in Irish backcourt

Andrew Gastelum | Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Opposites somehow attract. Welcome to the Notre Dame backcourt, where confident meets bashful and intense fuses with reserved. But sophomore guards Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins are united by the game, a game once started on D.C.-area playgrounds, which now magically finds itself heading north to Madison Square Garden.

“Before the game, it’s mostly like, ‘Wow, you’re playing in the Garden,’ but once the game starts it’s just another basketball game in an arena against another team,” Grant said. “The big hype about the Garden is before the game, but during the game it is just basketball.”

Madison Square Garden is basketball’s Acropolis — the almighty center of the basketball world —which, according to Atkins, provides the ultimate challenge.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling playing at the Garden under those lights,” Atkins said. “It’s a little bit more pressure because of the mystique of the whole place. We just have to be focused out there and focus on basketball.”

These two guards have shown nothing but focus on the court all year, culminating in Irish coach Mike Brey naming the soft-spoken Atkins captain midway through the season and Grant being named to the All-Big East Rookie Team on Monday.

“I’m really proud of [Grant],” Atkins said. “He really deserves to be on the All-Rookie Team. He played well all year for us and took really big shots at big times. Also, he had a really good assist-to-turnover ratio [11th in the NCAA].”

Meanwhile, Grant couldn’t accept all of the credit for his team-leading 12.5 points and 4.9 assists per game. Being thrown into the starting lineup and playing 35 minutes per game — without missing a single one — would make a sizeable dent in most players’ rookie seasons, but Grant had a mentor in Atkins who went through the trials of Big East action last season.

“[Eric] has meant a lot [to me],” Grant said. “He has shown me a lot and taken the pressure off of me and is able to help me out. He is a huge part of my game.

“[Eric has helped] just learning how to play both ends because almost every night you are playing against a guy in the Big East that can score. Being able to play the game defensively and offensively and put the game together [is key].”

While Atkins builds his own legacy, Grant is trying to separate himself from a path seemingly already paved for him. Grant’s father, Harvey, was the 12th pick in the 1988 NBA draft, while his uncle Horace won four NBA championships — three as a part of Michael Jordan’s Bulls. Although not known for their assists, twin-brothers Harvey and Horace may have passed their desire to win and competitive edge to the 6’5″ Jerian.

“Even on the playground, when the last basket came up I want[ed] the ball. When it comes down to your team needing a basket and your team needing a win, I want the ball in my hands,” Grant said. “[It comes from] just watching basketball so much and knowing the best players have the basketball in their hands. I just want to be that guy at the end who helps the team.”

Even when Grant took the year off last year due to a guard-heavy lineup, he would still take the clutch, last-second shots in practice, much to the jovial chagrin of other Irish players.

“Last year [Brey] would run game situations and he’d have [Grant] take the shot and we’d be like, ‘J’s not even playing this year, coach. Did you know that? He can’t do that in a game,'” junior forward Jack Cooley said jokingly. “And he’d hit it, and if he didn’t he’d be really mad at himself. From that point on I knew when next year came around and when he was allowed to play, coach knew something.”

While Grant wants the ball in his hands for the final shot, Atkins will assuredly make the stellar pass to his roommate (see the final minutes against Villanova). Atkins has seen an enormous jump in his production this season, which includes averaging 12.4 points and 39.4 minutes per game in Big East play — which means he is on the bench for only 36 seconds per game.

Against DePaul on Feb. 11, the duo combined for 27 points in a 50-point second half. On Feb. 18 against Villanova, Atkins led the charge with 17 points. Not to be outdone, Grant answered back the next game with 20 points against West Virginia on Feb. 22. While remaining unselfish, forthcoming teammates, the roommates have developed an uncanny on-the-court rivalry of sorts.

“We talk about how many assists we get and how many rebounds we get. He has more rebounds than me, which is not supposed to happen,” Grant said while cracking a smile. “It’s a little rivalry for sure.”

Familiar rivalry or friendly competition, the two are instrumental cogs in Brey’s plan for success.

“The B-W Parkway guards are going to be a key,” Brey said. “There is no question they give us a confidence and they make plays for us. Really, they were the ones when we won at Louisville, which was kind of a big light bulb going on. Those were the guys that kind of made us believe down the stretch and into overtime.”

Dubbed the B-W Parkway guards for the famous Washington D.C. highway, a mere 21 miles separate Columbia and Bowie, Md., the hometowns of Atkins and Grant. The duo even faced off in an AAU championship with their Washington D.C. club teams in high school. At Notre Dame the guards are joined under one jersey but they never forget their roots.

“Coming from the same place makes our relationship easier,” Atkins said. “We knew each other before coming into here, but it transitioned here. And coach [Brey] giving us the confidence and being from the same area as well helps us while we are on the court. It’s really nice to have.”


Contact Andrew Gastelum at [email protected]