In his four years at Notre Dame, point guard Eric Atkins has gone from being a steady freshman who came off the bench for a veteran team to the unquestioned senior leader — and now unlikely leading scorer — on a young team searching to find itself in its first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The 6-foot-2, 182-pound Atkins, who grew up in Columbia and played at Mount St. Joseph, recently saw his role change from facilitator to first option after Notre Dame's leading scorer, fellow senior guard Jerian Grant, was suspended by the university last month for an academic issue.
"One of the things [Eric and I] talked about in the locker room after the Ohio State game when we knew it was Jerian's last game was,'You've got to be more aggressive and let's have fun with it,'" Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey said last week.
Going into Wednesday's game against Maryland (10-7, 2-2 ACC) in College Park, Atkins is putting up the most impressive offensive numbers of his career. Starting with a career-high 30-point performance against Canisius, Atkins has averaged 21 points in the four games since Grant left school.
Notre Dame (10-6, 1-2) won the first two but has now lost two straight.
"I guess the main difference is that to start the game, I used to think about getting others involved right away and I think now my first mindset is ' How can I get myself going earlier?'" Atkins said in a telephone interview last week. "Within that, assists will happen. But [getting assists] is now the secondary thought."
That approach has presented opportunities for Atkins to find the spotlight, as he did against Canisius, when he made 10 of 14 shots (including 6 of 8 3-point attempts), and Jan. 4 when he finished with 19 points and 11 assists in an upset of then-No. 7 Duke.
But Atkins has also forced things at times, as happened when he missed 10 of 15 shots and committed a career-high seven turnovers in a loss to North Carolina State last week.
Despite scoring 20 in last Saturday's loss at Georgia Tech, Atkins unsuccessfully tried to draw a foul on an ill-advised long 3-point heave in the waning moments.
"I still think there's a balance point as to when to drive and dish to other guys and when to go hunt stuff for himself, and I think we'll always be analyzing that through the game and throughout the season," Brey said before the Georgia Tech game.
While some players might enjoy the added responsibility, the loss of Grant, who was leading the team in both scoring and assists, struck Atkins harder than the rest of the Irish.
For Atkins, Grant's departure was personal.
"He calls Jerian his brother," Dominique Atkins said about her son. "They came in together and they had dreams of conquering the ACC together and graduating together. They were housemates. Eric had never had another roommate in all the four years."
But Dominique Atkins believes the younger of her two sons will face the loss of Grant like he has other, more tragic losses in his life. If anything, the challenges Atkins has overcome make his current situation seem almost trivial.
When Atkins was a freshman at Mount St. Joseph, his father William died at age 45, less than a year after being diagnosed with colon cancer. Ted Cook, the father of current Duke guard Quinn Cook, became Atkins' "surrogate father," but he died after suffering cardiac arrest when Atkins was a sophomore
And finally, as Atkins was contemplating whether he would play at Notre Dame or another school, his 39-year-old uncle, Eddie Methier, died after suffering a heart attack. Methier was a huge fan of the Irish and had already started to buy Notre Dame gear to wear at his nephew's games.
"It kind of made me think about my time, that the time I had is valuable and had to take advantage of every second of it," Atkins said. "It kind of made me want to work harder in school, on the basketball. I think it probably made me grow up a lot faster."
Said his mother: "The losses just made him understand how basketball ties into his whole life. His dad and his uncle were both very much into basketball, and it gave him an extra reason to play."
Despite a maturity that dates back to his childhood — "He was focused when he was 6," his mother said — many college coaches questioned whether Atkins could be a starting point guard in an elite conference. He was largely overlooked by recruiters who were more enamored by scoring point guards.
"In this day and age, people seem to give a lot more hype for flash rather than substance," longtime Mount St. Joseph coach Pat Clatchey said. "I like to use the term with a lot of players that their games have a lot more icing than cake. He does what is required to help his team win."
Though Maryland was among the schools that didn't recruit him — the Terps had Terrell Stoglin and Pe'Shon Howard — it didn't bother Atkins that he didn't wind up a Terp.
Atkins, who moved to the state from Connecticut when he was in grade school, admits that he grew up a Duke fan, starting when he was attending Bryant Woods Elementary School among classes filled with Maryland fans.
"Everyone at my school really liked Maryland, and I was kind of like a rebel so I always cheered for Duke," Atkins said. "I never really liked the teams everyone else rooted for. ... I never really think about [the possibility of playing at Maryland]. I really like the position I'm in now."
Brey, who also grew up in the area, said it has been a good fit from the start.
As a freshman, Atkins led the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio.
"He's always been steady, knows how to play, thinking the game. He's going to be a great coach someday when he's done playing," Brey said. ""Even as a freshman, he was the same guy in practice every day. He never tried to experiment with his game. Now all of a sudden we need him to do more and he's doing it and he's delivering."
Along with the points, and the assists, Atkins has to be more of a leader than he has ever been before.
"There is no doubt who is setting the tone with this group — that was true with Jerian, now it is even more so a lot on him," Brey said. "I told him, 'Everyone can lead when it's all nice and you're rolling along. Leading now in a time of crisis and we're trhying to figure it out, that's the test of a true leader.'"
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