Embattled Irish draw daunting ACC opener with No. 7 Duke

Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins notched 30 points in his team's overtime win over Canisius -- after scoring just 34 in the previous five games.

"I’ll always be indebted to Mike (Krzyzewski)," Brey said in a conference call on Thursday. "He hired me when I was a high school assistant coach (at DeMatha) and gave me an opportunity to go down there for eight years and really trained me to be a head coach. I draw on that experience every day since I’ve been a head coach. He’s a good friend."

No. 7 Duke (10-2) has held up its end of the bargain for a big-time matchup, but Notre Dame — through a series of unfortunate events — hasn’t been able to do the same.

The Irish have lost almost every marquee game on their schedule — Iowa and Ohio State on the road, to name a few — and some of the non-marquee variety, like Indiana State and North Dakota State at home.

Notre Dame does have a victory over Indiana, but after losing an eight-point lead at No. 3 Ohio State with 58 seconds to go, it was announced that leading scorer, Jerian Grant, would miss the rest of this season and the start of next season, due to academic issues.

The Irish hadn’t had to use its bench much this season, but with Grant out, all nine guys that Brey said were "active and available" were a part of this project of adapting to changes on the fly.

The only game the Irish have played without Grant was an 87-81 overtime home win over Canisius on Dec. 29. Senior point guard Eric Atkins, long playing the role of distributor, stepped up with 30 points. He had 34 points in the previous five games combined.

"Eric can get 30 any time he wants from now on, but there’s no question he has got to be more aggressive offensively," Brey said. "There’s more shots for him. I think it comes natural for him. He was a scoring point guard in high school and throughout his career here when we’ve needed that, he’s had big scoring nights, but he’s deferred to other weapons and he’s become maybe the third or fourth option. Now, he’s got to hunt his shot right away."

The Duke players see that transition from Grant to Atkins, too. The Blue Devils defense has always specialized in shutting down a team’s best player, or disrupting what a team does best.

"They’re used to just running it through Eric Atkins, their point guard, and we’re going to try to get into him and we’re going to try to make it a fast-paced game," Duke sophomore Rodney Hood said. "Hopefully, that will take them out of the game."

Brey is more concerned about his own team at this point, though he had nothing but praise for Duke star freshman, Jabari Parker. He’s just trying to evaluate his team day by day, figuring out which lineups work best together and which ones fit.

But Brey is nothing if not honest, and he admitted that this game has a different feel. Just not for the reasons you’d think.

"I look at it more this way: Instead of playing my mentor who was obviously so good to me and put me in position to be where I am today, I look at it as when we had success against programs back when I first got the job — like Connecticut, Syracuse, Georgetown — those were program kind of wins for us that gave us an endorsement and we looked to become legitimate players in the Big East," Brey said.

"I think you have the same situation with Duke. If you can have success against a program like that, I think it endorses your program. It certainly would endorse this team, who is still trying to find itself."

But facing a former assistant is likely the last thing on Krzyzewski’s mind right now.

Before Duke played Eastern Michigan last Saturday on Dec. 28, Krzyzewski was visibly emotional during the national anthem. No one was quite sure why, until it was revealed later that his older brother Bill, 71, had passed away on Dec. 26.

Bill was a retired Chicago firefighter. The visitation was on Thursday and the funeral will be on Friday, so Krzyzewski returned to Chicago to attend both. He is expected to rejoin the team in South Bend after the services. Saturday’s game tips off at 4 p.m.

Krzyzewski had already missed a practice earlier this season to check on his ailing older brother.

Graduate student Andre Dawkins said the assistant coaches essentially run practice anyway, with Krzyzewski interjecting when he sees something he wants to point out or discuss. Hood said the team accepted the challenge of making sure they didn’t view assistant coaches Steve Wojciechowski and Jeff Capel as "substitute teachers."

"It’s obviously different because (Krzyzewski’s) presence really has us on our p’s and q’s, but that was our emphasis," Hood said. "Being a mature team, it couldn’t be like we had a substitute teacher in high school. We have a great respect for (Wojciechowski and Capel), and it was a seamless transition because they had us and we worked really hard today. We just put our head down and said we’ve got to get ready for a tough game."

It would be one thing if they were playing yet another out-of-conference team against an overmatched team. Instead, they’re facing a Notre Dame team on the road that almost always has good crowds, and a team that has nothing left to lose, as Brey pointed out.

"I don’t think anybody gives us much of a chance on Saturday, but we have been in these situations before in this building and we’ve played and rallied really well," Brey said. "We certainly have nothing to lose not only in this one, but the rest of the way. That’s one of the themes. We’re going for it. We’ve got nothing to lose."

Sophomore forward Amile Jefferson is well aware of the narrative that Duke struggles in road games, and that’s why they play all their non-conference games either at home or at neutral sites.

To Jefferson, though, there’s no real difference.

"Every team gets up to play us. So really, every game for us is a big game. … No matter who comes in here or no matter who we play on a neutral site, when they play Duke, they bring their best," Jefferson said. "Guys make shots that sometimes they don’t normally make, and they come out firing and they come out and they give us their best.

"So, no matter who we’re playing or who we’re up against, we have to bring our ‘A’ game every time. So I think it’s going to be fine for us."

Whether it was visible or not, the players clearly had their head coach in their minds and hearts since they heard the news.

When Krzyzewski was emotional before the national anthem, the players stood with their arms around each other, and one around Coach K, as well.

"We’re a family, and that’s what family does. When one of our guys are down or when one of our guys are in some struggles, that’s when we’re the closest and that’s when we bond the closest," Jefferson said. "We all have each other’s back at all times, no matter what the issue is. When one of our guys are down, we’ve got to pick him up so that’s what we’ve been doing."

The best way they can pick him up, as Jefferson said, involves being ready to play against Notre Dame.

"Him not being there obviously takes a toll on our team, but you have to shift the young guys and tell them, ‘We’ve go to work even harder.’ We’ve got to make Coach feel comfortable that we’re prepared once we go up there to Indiana," Hood said.