NOTRE DAME, Ind. --- There is always an air of excitement in the Joyce Center on men's basketball media day, and today was no exception. Reporters gather in the media room, waiting for the arrival of head coach Mike Brey and discussing the season's prospects.
When he does arrive, Brey is like a kid on Christmas Eve, only his Christmas is basketball season, and it is upon us. His excitement--which manifests itself in joking with the reporters, whom he knows all by name--centers around two facts that he wants to explain before he gets around to answering questions.
"I'm always excited this time of year, but even more fired up for two reasons," he confesses. "One, the group that we have returning. And the excitement of the challenge of trying to figure out who we are in the Atlantic Coast Conference."
That's what it boils down to for this season: Notre Dame returns all of its starters with the notable exception of Jack Cooley, and beginning play in the ACC.
"That's a pretty good place to start: three guys who will now be starting together for the third year. And they've won a lot together. And then you add two fifth-year seniors in Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman, and you add Zach Auguste. It kind of gives you six men who have been through the battles."
Atkins, in particular, has been leading this team since he replaced Ben Hansbrough as point guard as a sophomore. He's been a leader in function and in title (he was one of three co-captains last season) for years now, but perhaps now that is finally sinking in for his senior year.
"Now he feels that it's truly his team," Brey says with a smile. "And it's his voice."
Atkins, too, refers to his voice as the key to his leadership ability on this team.
"I think if you asked these guys who's the leader, who they look to, they would say me, hopefully," he admits. "I just have to keep leading by example every day, and being the voice that they need. Especially since this is my last year here, I definitely want to do well in the ACC regular season and tournament play, which is my number one goal, because we won't get to the tournament if we don't. That's definitely on my mind."
It's not just Atkins. The ACC is on everyone's mind. Brey poses the question: "Can we create a consistent presence in the ACC like we did in the BIG EAST?" It's a question, but he means it like a statement. They can. And they're excited to.
"I don't want to reinvent the wheel here," Brey states. "I want to make people adjust to us."