Karl and Kathy Knight love their son, take great pride in his accomplishments and do their best to follow his college career at Notre Dame. The reality is, however, senior forward Tom Knight is the third of five children, two of which still live at home in Dixfield, Maine, and compete in prep sports.
Senior forward Tom Knight was up for the challenge of a starting role in place of injured Scott Martin
With Knight’s duties consisting mostly of the custodial variety for the Fighting Irish up until recently, as well as the 1,060 miles between South Bend, Ind., and his hometown in the northeast corner of the country, it was understood his folks wouldn’t get to too many games. And their younger kids’ activities might even prevent them from catching Notre Dame in action on television.
So when Knight found out he was to start last Saturday on the road at South Florida — his first start of the year and fourth of his career — he made sure to let his father know, albeit somewhat cryptically, the noon tipoff in Tampa was worth tuning in to.
“I wasn’t even sure if my parents were [going to watch] the game,” said the 6-foot-10, 258-pounder, who was Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey’s choice to replace injured sixth-year senior swingman Scott Martin (knee) in the lineup. “We got on the bus at 10 a.m., I texted my parents: “By the way, our game’s at noon.” My dad’s like, ‘What channel?’ I said, ‘It’s on ESPN3; you should watch it.’ That’s all I told him. I turned my phone on after the game and he texted me, ‘Wow.’”
That was likely everyone’s reaction other than those in the Irish locker room after Knight posted a career-high 17 points and seven rebounds in a much-needed 73-65 victory over the Bulls. After losing three of their last four prior to their flight to Florida, the Irish upgraded to stable status with a 16-4 overall record and 4-3 mark in a Big East Conference that was suddenly up for grabs.
Knight redshirted in 2009-10 and averaged 1.4 points and 1.1 rebounds in 3.8 minutes per game as a sophomore in 2010-11. Last season he contributed 2.9 points and 1.5 rebounds in 8.9 minutes per contest, which included three starts (Maryland, Maine and Dartmouth). Last weekend was his first start in a league game and he connected on 8 of 10 attempts from the floor.
“You know what happens sometimes with a nucleus that plays a lot together, they can get stale,” Brey said of his other four starters that were used to playing alongside a veteran Martin, who is sidelined indefinitely. “Tom Knight gave us energy, and he lifted us and he gave everybody he played with more energy.”
The program’s resident goofball, Knight soaked up all 32 minutes against South Florida, not hesitating to let his inner satisfaction manifest itself in the form of ear-to-ear grins. What could have been three years of frustration, Knight said, were spent focusing on team needs. But he’s enjoying the overdue payoff.
“There’s definitely been times I was down,” Knight said. “I just talked to my high school coaches, my AAU coach, my parents and they just said to make the best of the opportunity you have. Even though I wasn’t playing much in basketball, I was still at a great university at Notre Dame. Things could have been worse I guess you could say.”
Opportunity knocked in last year’s NCAA tournament second-round game versus Xavier, when Knight went 2-for-2 in the first half of the eventual ouster. A year where minutes slowly began to mount transitioned into another stage of uncertainty this year when Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman, a senior center with junior eligibility, entered the picture.
“I knew he was a force inside the paint,” Knight said of Sherman. “I was just going to continue to work and hopefully I could pass him. But I knew coming in he was going to [play] ahead of me.”
By Dec. 20, Sherman had climbed to fifth in the Big East in shooting percentage (.654) after connecting on 45 of 69 attempts. He had five double-digit outpourings and looked as if he’d be a critical role player off the bench. The bottom dropped out in terms of production since then, and Brey turned to Knight for reserve minutes in the paint.
“He should be more of a pain in the butt with me about playing time but he’s not,” Brey said. “He’s probably too good of a guy, because if anybody had an argument early in the year to get more of a bite of the apple …
“I didn’t have to talk to him about ‘you’re going to get your opportunity.’ I think he almost knew ‘they’ll need me someday.’ He’s very mature about it.”
His game has also ripened since Knight first stepped foot on campus.
“I’m definitely tougher now,” he said. “There were times when I was younger earlier that I would shy away, stay up on the high post and avoid contact in the middle. Whenever I screened I would always pop; I would never roll to the basket just because I didn’t want to get physical with anyone. I’ve been attacking the backboard more and rebounding. That’s also something I was tentative about.”
Senior forward Jack Cooley, a starting lineup staple and now part of the biggest outfit in Brey’s 13-year tenure playing alongside Knight, recalled Knight’s go-to move in past years.
“His favorite shot [was] a two-foot jump shot,” Cooley said of Knight’s lacking physicality. “Tom’s a really nice jump shooter, too. He can move really well around the ball and outside on the perimeter, whereas I can stay on the block now. Just to have both of us in there is great to see. To have another 6-10 guy on the court who can play defense as well as he can is just huge.”
So is getting a mid-season jolt of joy for a group grinding away, still trying to find its identity and hoping to meet high preseason expectations.
“It’s just great to see Tom doing well,” Cooley added. “Just to see how well he plays in practice and then to go out there and see Tom doing well just gets everyone really fired up. I love playing with him; I love playing with him almost more than anyone else on this team. It’s great to have us both out there.
“When you see one guy just loving it out there, it reminds everyone why we’re out there, why we’re playing. It’s to have fun. I think it’s one of the reasons why we clicked so well in the second half [at South Florida], just seeing how much fun we were having together as a team and playing so well.”