In the fall of 2006, Mount St. Joseph coach Pat Clatchey gave Eric Atkins the ball and asked the ninth-grader to lead his team.
Mike Brey didn't go quite that far with Atkins last season. But the Notre Dame coach had no problem giving Atkins more responsibility than your average freshman point guard in the Big East.
"I was extremely pleased with what he was able to do coming off the bench … and actually starting a little bit," Brey said. "He believes he's supposed to be good. He knew it was his destiny to be a really high-level Big East guard. He prepared for it mentally. Even though his body was young last year, he was able to be a very efficient player in the Big East because of his discipline."
Atkins may have had a modest season statistically for the Fighting Irish last year (5.8 points, 3.2 assists, 1.8 rebounds), but the two-time Baltimore Sun first-team All-Metro player proved to Brey and other Big East observers that his best was yet to come.
"I think I had a really good experience as a freshman last year," Atkins said. "Coach Brey told me before the season that pretty much everything was going to be done just the way it happened. He told me how my playing time was going to be. I knew how it was going to play out."For those who watched Atkins' decorated four-year career at Mount St. Joseph unfold, seeing him appear in all 34 games – and starting six – for the Irish was no surprise. The Columbia native proved to Brey early on in his freshman season that he was up to the challenge. Notre Dame (27-7) reached the championship game of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando last November. In the Irish's 58-51 title-game win over Wisconsin, Brey said Atkins -- who scored 12 points against the Badgers -- was arguably "the most consistent player" on the floor.
"The first couple of weeks [of practice], there were times that he was the best guard on the floor," said Brey, whose team also featured senior guard Ben Hansbrough, the Big East Player of the Year. "[Atkins'] ability to find guys at the right time, understanding tempo and controlling the tempo as a point guard, those were things [that immediately stood out]. In the Wisconsin game, and really the whole Old Spice tournament … [he was] making big plays for us and really helped us win there. When Carleton Scott got hurt, we beat St. John's and Connecticut with him starting for us. That's why this season I'm so excited to just give him the ball and say, 'It's your team.'"
Beating UConn in Storrs was a definite highlight for Atkins, although watching the Huskies win the national title brought on somewhat of a bittersweet feeling.
"It kind of made me mad to see them win the national championship knowing we beat them twice last year," Atkins said. "It's just kind of frustrating, but our team knew what we were capable of doing. I wouldn't say we reached our potential last year, losing in the second round [of the NCAA tournament]. But we're ready to build up and [our time] is coming."
Looking back on the 2010-11 season, Atkins said he was pleased with how he performed, but acknowledged there was plenty of room for improvement. He spent the summer focused on two key areas: improving his jumper and adding strength. The 6-foot-2, 183-pound sophomore added 10 pounds of muscle to his frame, which Brey expects to make a big difference in Atkins' ability to handle the physicality of Big East competition.
Atkins credits Clatchey for teaching him how to be a leader. It didn't come naturally to Atkins as a freshman at Notre Dame, but this season he's definitely up to the task.
"I'm looking forward to becoming one of the leaders of this team," Atkins said. "Leading my team to wins, whatever I have to do to make that happen, if it's scoring, assists, locking down the other team's best offensive player, whatever they need, I want to do it. … Getting back to the tournament, that's my first goal. Winning the Big East is another goal, and just probably finishing in the top three again, just like we did before, would be another team goal of mine."
Brey, who welcomes back two senior captains in Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin, has already noticed Atkins becoming more vocal in the locker room. Atkins may have "learned by survival" as a freshman, but with an improved jump shot and much-needed strength, the former Gaels star seems primed for an expanded role this season.
"I'm just looking for him to make a big jump so that by the end of the season, Eric Atkins will be referred to as one of the better guards in the Big East," Brey said. "I feel strongly about his career here. It makes me sleep well at night, knowing he's the guy running the team for three more years."
The Sweet 16 is an occasional series profiling the 16 best Division I college basketball players from the Baltimore area. Players were selected based on prior accomplishments and projections for the upcoming season.
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U.S. Presswire photo of Eric Atkins by Mark L. Baer / Feb. 23, 2011