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Captain Comeback

Eric Prister | Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Irish started the season short on leadership with just two senior returning starters. But when fifth-year forward Tim Abromaitis went down with an ACL tear, senior guard Scott Martin had to start taking charge — and taking charges.

“I think I had to be even more vocal when [Abromaitis] went down because you lose that voice on the floor,” Martin said. “He was so big for us in every aspect of the game that there’s a lot of open air out there, and I felt like I had to pick up the slack a little bit.”

Abromaitis entered the season as the de facto leader of this year’s Notre Dame squad after averaging 15 points and six rebounds per game in 2010-11. But he missed the first four games of the regular season because of an eligibility violation during his redshirted second season with the Irish. After returning for two games, Abromaitis tore his ACL in practice, ending his season.

Martin was forced to pick up the slack and became the lone Irish captain before sophomore guard Eric Atkins was given the honor midway through the season. And while Martin ranks just fourth on the team in points per game and third on the team in rebounds per game, Irish coach Mike Brey said he cringes every time he has to take the captain off the floor.

“He has a really amazing basketball IQ,” Brey said. “He really knows the game. If there’s a smarter basketball player in the country, I want to see it. I really value that. He has great input here in practice, in scouting reports, bring up questions. He’s really helped our younger guys’ basketball IQ. [Junior forward and All-Big East second-team selection forward] Jack Cooley’s [success] this year has a lot to do with Scott Martin being his partner on the back line and talking to him and getting him confident and helping him. He’s a big, big factor.”

But Martin is not just a vocal leader. He regularly guards the opponent’s best big man and unofficially leads the nation in charges taken.

“I don’t really think about it too much,” Martin said of taking charges. “You just try to make the right play at the right time, and if I feel like I can get one, I try and get one. I just try to not move and hope for the call.

“We work on it in practice. Coach is always talking about trying to get charges and being in the right place, so it’s definitely something we work on. But you have to have a feel for it, and I think that just comes with me being old.”

Martin’s career at Notre Dame was rocky from the outset. The 6-foot-8 guard from Valparaiso, Ind., transferred from Purdue after his freshman season and so had to sit out his entire sophomore season. Then during preseason practices heading into his junior year, Martin tore his ACL and missed the entirety of his second season with the Irish.

Martin was finally eligible and healthy last season and became the fifth starter on a senior laden team. He averaged just under 10 points per game and played more than 30 minutes per contest, winning the teams Most Improved Player award. But this season Martin said he had to change his on-the-court demeanor because now he was the most experienced player on the court.

“I think I’m more vocal than I’ve ever been, and I just try to lead through example,” Martin said. “If something needs to be said, it’s my responsibility to step up and say it. I need to speak a little bit more than I have in the past.”

The leadership role could not have come at a more difficult time, Brey said. Notre Dame started slowly and dropped its first four road games by an average of 15 points per game. Martin struggled with the rest of his team on the court, but Brey said he kept his focus and attitude strong.

“I think he was in a fog a little bit [when Abromaitis went down],” Brey said. “He was down for a couple days. But one of the things I respect about Scott is when [Abromaitis] is gone, he’s out there leading a bunch of puppies around that are running into each other, and he’s not playing very well. And yet his demeanor at practice on a daily basis was pretty consistent, as far as helping, leading and being upbeat. I don’t know if I’ve had a captain who’s had to lead in a tougher situation than Scott Martin, and he absolutely delivered.”

Martin played an important role in Notre Dame’s turnaround. He recorded back-to-back double-doubles in wins over Louisville and South Florida, games which Brey said really started Notre Dame’s winning mentality.

The senior captain also scored 13 against Syracuse, handing the Orange their only loss of the regular season and beginning Notre Dame’s school-record nine-game Big East winning streak. It was his 3-pointer as the shot clock expired in the second half that put a dagger into the No. 1 team in the country.

Martin was surrounded by inexperience — Notre Dame’s four other starters averaged just 36 minutes per game among them. But for new starters like freshman guard Pat Connaughton, Martin was just the type of leader they needed.

“The energy he brings and his desire to win has sparked me because I’m the same way: I want to win, whatever it takes, and that’s what he wants to do,” Connaughton said. “I know he’s been that guy, the one who’s really helped us get over the hump, especially in the tough times. Even if he was having hard times, he was helping us help the team. Him and [Abromaitis] both, just being the fifth-year seniors, even though [Abromaitis] can’t play, have really helped us skyrocket into the team we are now. He took on the role better than he would have if [Abromaitis] was playing.”

Martin said that for the younger players, he had to be a more vocal leader and give more instruction to his teammates.

“It’s an overall mentality that I try to have,” he said. “You try to keep everybody in the right spots and the right places, but I think a lot of it is vocally just yelling at guys, telling them, ‘Get here and get there,’ and then calming them down when things need to be calmed down.”

Martin and the Irish turned their season around, but now have more to prove in the Big East tournament. Last season, Martin excelled in Madison Square Garden, scoring 11 points in Notre Dame’s quarterfinals win over Cincinnati and then exploding with 23 points and eight rebounds in its semifinals loss to Louisville. As this year’s tournament approaches, Martin said he just hopes he can channel some of that success.

“You try to ride any positive momentum you can get, so hopefully I can use it for momentum and replicate it,” he said.


Contact Eric Prister at [email protected]