Notre Dame fifth-year senior Tim Abromaitis had three years to prepare for a penalty handed down by the NCAA — a four game suspension for the Notre Dame forward as a result of a rules misinterpretation by head coach Mike Brey during the 2008-09 season.
“It’s something that’s been kind of so dragged out for me,” Abromaitis said Tuesday, just hours after Notre Dame made the news public. “Like coach said, we became aware of it three years ago. I’ve kind of just been waiting for it to come. Obviously it’s something unfortunate, but I’m glad to be back here for the fifth year and I’ll be ready to go once those four games are over.”
Because an NCAA waiver that took into consideration that the Notre Dame coaching staff misunderstood the rule, Abromaitis’ fifth year was preserved. However, as partial punishment, the NCAA mandated that he sit out the first four regular-season games.
As a sophomore during the 2008-09 campaign, Abromaitis played in Notre Dame’s first two exhibition games against Briar Cliff (Oct. 31) and Stonehill (Nov. 9) and didn’t play the remainder of the season in order to preserve an extra year of eligibility.
Under NCAA rules, freshman student-athletes are allowed to participate in preseason exhibition contests and still preserve the entire year of eligibility. The bylaw, however, does not provide the same exception for returning student-athletes in their sophomore, junior and senior seasons. Therefore, Abromaitis technically used a season of eligibility when he participated in those two preseason exhibition contests during that year.
Brey said Tuesday that he realized midway through that season that there was a problem and immediately reached out to the NCAA via Notre Dame’s compliance department.
“It’s a two-for-one [penalty] pretty much, which is a common penalty with the NCAA,” Brey said. “... I said let me sit out two of the games; I made the decision. But they’re pretty much cut and dried in these situations.”
Because Abromaitis wasn’t ready to be a regular contributor as a sophomore, Brey said it was never up for debate whether or not to go ahead and activate the Connecticut product that year.
“He still was too young,” Brey explained. “Now, in February, he was pushing [Luke] Zeller and [Zach] Hillisland, but it wasn’t time to use his year. We figured first of all, let’s see if he comes back for a fifth year, and if he does, we’ll put the paperwork in and swallow it and take our medicine.”
His first game back will be against Missouri when the Irish face the Tigers at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., in the semifinals of the CBE Classic on Monday, Nov. 21.
Brey was savvy enough to begin scheduling several years out in a way to minimize the suspension.
“Yes,” he said. “We only had so much control of that schedule because the event in Kansas City. But we knew this for a while, so we scheduled as best we can accordingly. We’re thrilled he’ll be eligible for the Missouri game, which is obviously a big game for us. But Detroit’s real good, too. That’s a Big East [type] game. People don’t understand, they’re really good, and we’ll have to play without Tim in that game.”
The only returning starter in those first four games from last year’s squad will be fifth-year senior swingman Scott Martin. The two other likely starters will be sophomore point guard Eric Atkins and junior post player Jack Cooley.
Among the other two spots, 6-5 sophomore Jerian Grant, who red-shirted last year, is projected to have an impact, but 6-6 junior Joey Brooks, 6-7 sophomore Alex Dragicevich, and 6-5 freshman Pat Connaughton all could fill the hybrid swingman role.
Up front, the tandem of 6-9 juniors Tom Knight and Mike Broghammer will back up Cooley.
“For us, it puts us in a position to experiment even more so with some young guys,” Brey said. “Some of those new guys have to really have a big role for us if we’re going to be a good team. They’re really going to be thrown in there early and we’ll have to use that as a way to evaluate our younger guys by the time he gets back.”
In the end, Brey and Abromaitis agreed the ruling was far better than the alternative — the loss of a year of eligibility.
“We got it back,” Brey said. “It was a misinterpretation totally on my part. We knew if he came back for a fifth year we were going to deal with this. Tim knew this; family knew this. I’ve apologized to them. We first had to find out if he was coming back for a fifth year before we knew we were going to have to pay the piper.”
Abromaitis said he’s not going to make Brey run sprints because of the mistake.
“He’s been great about it and very clear in communicating what the whole situation is, so I don’t blame anybody for anything. It’s just something that happened I guess. To be able to enjoy as much as the season as I can is definitely something I’m looking forward to. I think once those four games are up, I think definitely it’s an opportunity for our team to get stronger and hopefully have a real good year after that.”