That juniors Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant have combined for over 12 assists per game isn’t a surprise to anyone who follows Notre Dame basketball, which is averaging 76.8 points per outing (third best in the Big East Conference) and sits in a three-way tie with Syracuse and Marquette at the top of the league standings with a 2-0 start.
Junior Eric Atkins has developed into one of the better point guards in the Big East
Atkins, who registered 130 assists last season, is regarded as on the league’s top point guards while continuing to improve, helping guide the Fighting Irish to a 14-1 record in his second year as the team’s starting floor general. Grant picked up 169 assists in his his rookie season in 2011-12 and finished the year ranked 11th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.73).
The Irish lead the league in assists per game (19.5), and sharing the ball has always been one of head coach Mike Brey’s key tenets. But it has been his guards’ defensive effort this year that makes him believe his is the best backcourt in the nation.
“I don’t feel there is any backcourt better than them,” he said Wednesday. “I think they’re as good as any of them out there with the way they’ve been playing. I think they’ve been a little under the radar for a lot of reasons, but their efficiency right now with what they’re doing on the offensive end is flat-out off the charts.
“The reason I say that so confidently about them is the strong defenders they’ve become — because their bodies are stronger. They’ve gotten older and stronger. They were both leaner guys when they got here, and their ability to guard strong guards in our league — and we have a lot of strong ones, and we’ve got two of them coming in here Saturday. A great example is Atkins’ job on [Cincinnati’s] Cashmere Wright the other night (five points, eight assists).”
Wright, a senior, is averaging nearly 15 points per game this season, but wasn’t much of a factor in No. 17 Notre Dame’s 66-60 road victory over the 21st-ranked Bearcats Monday night — a contest that says a lot about the potential the Fighting Irish have this season.
Notre Dame opened the 2011-12 Big East away slate in Cincinnati and lost 71-55. Of course, the Irish shot 17.9 percent (5 of 28) from 3-point land on that visit as opposed to a 9-for-16 effort, including 6-for-8 in the first half Monday.
“We just handled it really young, which we were, and got overwhelmed,” Brey said about last year’s matchup with the Bearcats. “We’re more ready to handle it. It’s funny how it played out. We’re down 20-11 and we call timeout, and it’s very poised and very matter of fact. We talked about taking punches on the road; we took a couple of them. I was really pleased with how we came out of those.
“You saw a little bit of that in the second half against BYU, when we called timeout down seven and didn’t panic. I think our maturity and experience helped us in that department.”
The Irish host Connecticut Saturday at 2 p.m., and as pleased as Brey’s been with the play of his guards on both ends of the floor, he knows the Huskies present quite a challenge with an electric backcourt of their own in the trio of Ryan Boatright (16.2 points per game), Omar Calhoun (10.6) and Shabazz Napier (17.4).
“Our guys really love those challenges,” Brey said. “They know when really good guards are coming at them they’ve risen to that challenge [like] at Louisville last year even as young guys right after we lost to Cincinnati. They accepted that challenge on the road. Eric and Jerian really love the challenges like we’ll have on Saturday.”