The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

February 18, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Freshman gives Irish an edge

MORGANTOWN — The answer that came from Bob Huggins when the question was broached to him on Thursday’s Big East coaches conference call was somewhat surprising.

He’d been asked about the similarity between Notre Dame and West Virginia University entering this season, each having lost key players — Notre Dame losing forward Luke Harangody and guard Tory Jackson while West Virginia was without forwards Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith — making each something of a mystery for the new season.

West Virginia has floundered while Notre Dame has soared and now Huggins was being asked why that had occurred.

“In all honesty what affected us was losing our entire freshman class,” Huggins said, noting that gone were two guards that were being counted on along with some size. “We can’t do the things we anticipated doing.”

The dismantling through illness, injury, academics and a suspension to Noah Cottrill, the prize of the class, leading to his exit from school, left Huggins in a difficult spot, especially after Danny Jennings walked out on the team at halftime of a game and Casey Mitchell had to sit out after a mid-Big East season suspension.

“It’s been one thing after another,” Huggins admitted.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, flourished, and it did so because a freshman came on and became if not a star, at least one of the best freshmen in the Big East’s freshman class.

That would be point guard Eric Atkins, of whom Brey says:

“There will be a day when his voice will be the voice (of the Notre Dame program).”

Brey doesn’t just like this kid.

He loves him.

It is rare to see a team that has a veteran point guard like Ben Hansbrough, who may be the Player of the Year in the Big East, making room for a freshman to run the show, but that is what is happening at Notre Dame. Hansbrough often plays the 2-guard to take advantage of his shooting ability while Atkins does his thing at the point.

He has rewarded the Irish by averaging 6.1 points a game leading the Big East in assists.

“A month in, I realized he is really mature beyond his years,” Brey said. “He had a good feel for our system from watching us play last year. He watched us play a lot last year because he had committed. Then I’d talk to him in the pre-season, and he’d say things like ‘You ran that against West Virginia’ or someone else.”

He knew — and more importantly, understood — the system, doing most of it on his own.

Brey believes Atkins was born to play basketball.

“Genetics,” Brey said, trying to explain why he is different. “I don’t think he sleeps much. It’s who he is physiologically, if that’s the word. He’s got juice all the time. He’s in the gym. A lot goes back to who he is physically and mentally.”

But Atkins was a still just a freshman, being tossed in with a group of seniors, and he had to earn their respect.

He did that almost too easily.

“It started in June,” Brey said. “The older guys knew they needed him. Ben (Hansbrough) texted me, said he’s got a little Rondo in him. That was neat, it was important that the leader of the team accepted him.”

If he was good enough for Hansbrough, he was good enough for the rest of the team, no questions asked.

“He’s been the little brother of these guys,” Brey said.

The little brother who keeps them out of trouble.

“He’s probably a little more of a manager of the game,” Brey continued. “That was in his DNA. I had lunch with him the other day. We talked a little about this season and being a leader next year. It was good for him to hear that. It was good for him to see how Ben and I communicate, and we’ll need that next year.

“He’s more of a quiet guy (than Hansbrough). That’s why I’m reaching to him a little. I want him to be comfortable, to come into the office. His voice is going to be real important down the road.”

It is the kind of voice Huggins would like to have stashed in this year’s freshman class, but instead is a voice that has been silenced.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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