Seniors close out home careers against Pitt
Joseph Monardo | Friday, February 28, 2014
Notre Dame hosts its final regular-season contest of the season Saturday in what will be the last game in Purcell Pavilion for a quartet of Irish players.
Senior guard Eric Atkins, senior center Garrick Sherman, senior guard Patrick Crowley and graduate student forward Tom Knight will lead the Irish (15-14, 6-10 ACC) against a Pittsburgh team that has dropped five of its last eight contests.
After a difficult season that has left the Irish decisively out of consideration for the NCAA tournament, Irish coach Mike Brey said the team is not focusing on postseason opportunities, in the NIT or elsewhere, right now.
“We’ve really not even talked past Saturday,” Brey said. “We’ve talked about this being senior week, not just senior night or senior day on Saturday. And I was really pleased with how our seniors led us [Wednesday night in a 65-62 win over Georgia Tech]. And that’s kind of been our focus. … We’ve got that bye week at the end of the season, so we’ve got plenty of time to talk about, ‘Ok, here’s where we’re at, here’s the things that are on the table as we head to Greensboro [for the ACC tournament].’”Pittsburgh (21-7, 9-6) enters the matchup off a 66-59 win over Boston College on Wednesday, a victory that halted a three-game losing streak. After being ranked as high as No. 18 this season, the Panthers have only notched three wins in February, two of which came in overtime against Miami and Virginia Tech, 12th and 15th in the ACC, respectively.
Two redshirt seniors, guard/forward Lamar Patterson and forward Talib Zanna, lead the Panthers. Patterson averages 17.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while Zanna contributes averages of 12.5 points and 8.0 boards.
With only a road contest against North Carolina on Monday remaining after the home finale, Brey said he hopes to see his seniors set the tone against Pittsburgh.
“I think it’s really in their hands how we finish, and rightfully so,” he said.
The co-captain Atkins has 1,370 career points and has averaged more than 11 points and 2.5 rebounds per game in each of his past three seasons. He has reached at least 110 assists in four straight years and has played an average of at least 37.8 minutes per game each season since sophomore year. After starting six contests as a rookie, Atkins has been in the starting lineup for all 96 of Notre Dame’s games over the past three seasons.
“God, one of the all-time, I’ve got a lot of favorite guys, he’s right up there,” Brey said of Atkins. “I mean, special, steady and did it right away as a freshman. … He kind of reads my mind, I read his. He’s gonna be a heck of a coach when he’s done playing. He’s been an unbelievable kind of representative for us and an ambassador. Just a good guy, he’s a good guy. “Sherm was teasing me back in the fall, he said ‘Oh, you always have a love affair with your point guards.’ And that is true. I mean, I love those guys. I mean, I was one and I’ve been really connected with those guys, starting with [current Irish assistant coach] Martin Inglesby [who played under Brey in 2000-01]. I don’t know if I’ve been more connected to a guy than Eric, and he’s had an amazing career for us.”
Atkins is the only half remaining of what was supposed to be a veteran Irish backcourt after the Dec. 22 departure of senior guard Jerian Grant from the team for an academic matter.
“I have the utmost respect for [Atkins] this season because he really counted on playing with Jerian this year,” Brey said. “And those guys are really close, and they were roommates, and it didn’t work out. And he’s hung on in there and led us and scored for us and tried to do a little bit of everything for us.”
Sherman leads the team in scoring and rebounding with 13.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. In his two years with Notre Dame, the Michigan State transfer has made 52.3 percent of his field-goal attempts.
Knight has primarily come off the bench in his career but has made 25 career starts, including 16 last season.
“There’s probably times in Tom’s career he should have played more, the coach should have played him more, in my hindsight,” Brey said. “But he’s never complained. He’s come in and worked, coming off the bench, starting, whatever you need me to do. As we know, he saved us last year when Scott Martin went down. Flat-out saved us. We don’t get to the NCAA tournament without him. I’m hoping I can ride a little bit of that karma right now because I thought he was great the other night … Very proud of him … Learned to be a worker, learned to love the game and just has bought in to our program, our system, our style.”
Although Irish junior guard/forward Pat Connaughton could forgo his senior season to begin his professional baseball career, Brey said he does not expect this to serve as the de facto senior day for the co-captain.
“I know there’s a chance it could be, but I don’t think of it that way because he and his parents are so adamant about wanting to come back and play basketball and graduating in December,” he said. “And then whenever our season ends next year, he’s gone because there will be no more duties here. I think he looks forward to coming back. He loves basketball, and obviously, he’s got one more year to do it and then he’s full-time throwing that fastball and whatever else.”
Notre Dame will celebrate its seniors and conclude its home season Saturday by welcoming in Pittsburgh at 2 p.m.