After the first meeting and practice following a brief holiday break devoid of jolliness, Eric Atkins returned to his off-campus apartment and settled on his couch. Notre Dame’s senior point guard turned on his television. And then Atkins waited for the familiar click-clack of the door unlatching and his best friend and backcourt mate following him in about 30 or 45 minutes later.
It happened every day, in every way, for going on four years: See Atkins or Jerian Grant, and the other was close behind. How one went, the other went, and so went the Irish. This night, Atkins glanced over his shoulder again and again. That door stayed closed.
“I come in there, sit down and nothing happens,” Atkins said in a phone interview. “I kept looking at the door for a while, just thinking that somebody was going to come through, but realizing that’s not going to happen.”
As a new life in the ACC descends upon Notre Dame on Saturday – mercilessly bringing with it Jabari Parker and No. 7 Duke -- Atkins and the rest of a preseason top 25 unit have been thrust into a transition game by sudden, gale-force changes that not even a northwest Indiana lake-effect snowstorm could match.
First came the soul-blanching collapse against Ohio State at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 21, an eight-point lead with 58 seconds left dissolving into defeat. Then what only Notre Dame knew was coming detonated publicly: Grant, the leading scorer and best shot-creator on the roster, was bounced from school for the spring semester due to an academic issue. The final blade twist was former top 30 recruit Cam Biedscheid, purportedly preserving a year of eligibility to develop his body and his game, pulling the plug and electing to transfer.
Even before Biedscheid left, even before Grant’s departure was announced, there was Irish coach Mike Brey preparing to address his team after the Ohio State game. Every now and then, when he needs a moment, Brey just sits in front of his players before speaking. He entered this gutted locker room and, after a beat, turned to coordinator of basketball operations Harold Swanagan. Swan, Brey said, I need a chair.
“Before we lost Jerian, we were pretty much a finished product,” Brey said. “I don’t know how much better we were going to get. We kind of were who we were. The neat thing about us – we can get better. Because we don’t know. I don’t know. There are going to be new answers for me by Friday before we play Duke. Let’s just see if we can get some clear answers by Feb. 1 and have a better feel of, OK, this is kind of who we’ve become.”
There is no telling because every day is now an experiment. Brey typically keeps his bench excruciatingly short, almost to a fault. He played nine guys in an overtime win against Canisius on Sunday after practices featured players rotating between the top unit and backups every two or three possessions.
It is fair to wonder why the departure of one player (Grant) now means Notre Dame trusts its depth, and whether such an open mind may have helped sate Biedscheid (though he may not have settled for less than a starting role). But the effect is clear. Everyone who wants some can get some. “I’m after two things – that starting spot and the chance to help the team," sophomore Zach Auguste told reporters after scoring 12 points in 16 minutes against Canisius. "It gets me going.”
Still, the crisis management continues. After his team reconvened Dec. 26, Brey wrote what he called four building blocks of a new season on a board and posted them in each player’s locker. Toughness. Together. Resilience. Nothing to Lose. To nurture the first part, Brey established a “Compete Drill” to end practices, in which bigs go one-on-one before the entire team, which cheers on the defender. Then it’s the guards’ turn. After a couple minutes of that, Brey puts his roster into two lines, rolls out a ball, and has everyone jump on it.
The rest is the circle-the-wagons stuff. “No one gives us any shot at being part of the NCAA tournament discussion,” Brey said. “We are so far off the radar. Let’s just let it rip.”
At the center of that, and of everything, is Atkins. He knew before the Ohio State game that it would be his last with Grant. The two posed with commemorative 1,000-point balls after the preceding Friday practice because Brey knew it was the last time he’d get a chance to take that picture. And in the aftermath of the Buckeyes loss, Atkins welled up as his coach spoke, then looked over to his friend.
Grant, too, was shaken. Atkins walked over. I love you, he said. I’ll see you over the holidays. That was all Atkins could manage.
“It was like, I want to give you a hug, and I just want to get back home right now,” Atkins said.
Before he did, Brey pulled him aside for a private chat. They would be the tone-setters, the coach told his floor leader and captain. And silver lining? You get to shoot that ball.
“Remember how you played in high school?” Brey asked that night.
“Oh, yes I do,” Atkins replied.
He responded with a career-high 30 points on 10-of-14 shooting – including 6-of-8 efficiency from three-point range – against Canisius. No one mistook that for a barometer of what will transpire during ACC play, but Notre Dame had to start somewhere. It started with Atkins, who averaged 11.6 points per game over the previous two seasons, and then it will figure out what comes next.
“It’s another opportunity for me to show my ability,” Atkins said. “A lot of people don’t think I can do that. Another chance to prove people wrong.
“Right away, it’s like who’s going to take the last shot? We always had that answer. When someone takes me away from handling the ball, we always had that answer. We have to figure that out in the games, because that’s what Canisius did to us. Those are things we have to pick up on the go.”
As a high school junior, Atkins lost a teammate who was supposed to run the team with him, but that was due to injury, and it was before the season even began. This is like nothing he’s been through. The apartment is cleaner with Grant gone, no clothes strewn about as if sorted by tornado to irk his neat-freak roommate. That’s about the only improvement. Otherwise, Atkins said, “It’s very lonely in there.”
Still, he’ll have to bring everyone along with him for Notre Dame to survive. On the Friday before the Canisius game, with a new reality thrust upon the team and a couple practices complete, Brey sidled over to Atkins, who sat on a bench. No voice on the roster has more resonance to the Irish coach. So a simple question carried a multitude of implications.
“So what do you think?” Brey asked.
Atkins grinned and didn’t hesitate. “We’re going to be OK,” he said. Brey more or less immediately ended the conversation. That was enough for him. Whether that’s truly enough to help navigate Duke, a new league and a cold new reality, no one can say with a smile just yet.