Once having dreamed of playing college basketball for Connecticut, Notre Dame freshman point guard Eric Atkins instead makes his first Big East start against the program he fell hard for in his younger days.
Stepping into the lineup Tuesday for senior captain Carleton Scott (hamstring) when the No. 14 Irish host the No 8 Huskies, Atkins had long followed the fortunes of the two-time national champion program. Born in Greenwich, Conn., Atkins called the Nutmeg state home for seven years before moving to suburban Baltimore. He remembers well when Khalid El-Amin and Richard Hamilton were the stars in Storrs.
"That was really when I started liking them and it kept going with all the guards they had," Atkins recalled Sunday afternoon. "They were always my favorite team.
"That was my childhood dream school."
Atkins continued to like the Huskies when he moved to Maryland, particularly when former Baltimore schoolboy standout Rudy Gay enrolled at UConn.
"That," Atkins said, "made me like them even more."
Atkins' love for everything Husky started to dissolve when he started high school, long before he became a standout prep player in the Baltimore area who received lukewarm recruiting interest from Connecticut.
"I just didn't think about them any more," said Atkins, who committed late in his junior year to Notre Dame. "That wasn't a problem."
Atkins admitted he would have myriad emotions Tuesday when facing the Huskies for the first time as a collegiate. He'll think about those past great teams. He'll think about living those seven years back in Connecticut. But after a few trips up and down the court, he figures it will be just another basketball game, and another night of learning about life in the Big East.
Atkins received a rude welcome to the league in his debut last week against Georgetown. He was called for a foul before even playing a second - off a deadball inbounds situation - trying to guard veteran Chris Wright. Atkins finished with four fouls and zero points in 19 minutes. During Saturday's loss at No. 4 Syracuse, he connected on 1-of-5 shots for three points with two assists, two steals and two turnovers in 16 minutes.
Welcome to big-boy basketball, kid.
"It's harder than I imagined, a lot more physical than our non-league schedule," said Atkins. "I'm just trying to figure it out right now."
An MRI performed Monday downgraded the health of Carleton Scott, who Irish coach Mike Brey considered Sunday "very doubtful" then ruled him out less than 24 hours.
Scott suffered a partial tear of his left hamstring late in the second half of Saturday's game against Syracuse. He was hurt with just under seven minutes to play after slipping while looking to drive the baseline and the Irish down 14.
Needing crutches to navigate the Carrier Dome afterward, Scott was able to walk on his own and do light shooting Sunday, but now might miss a week or maybe longer. Nobody really knows.
"The hamstring is kind of day-to-day," Brey said. "For us, we're trying to prepare like, 'How do we play?'"
Scott is averaging 11.0 points and 6.4 rebounds in 28.6 minutes. He also leads the Irish with 25 blocked shots. He had 12 points, a career-high 14 rebounds and three blocks in 38 minutes during last season's 58-50 home victory over the Huskies.
Despite Connecticut's size, Brey preferred Atkins, whom he considers his sixth starter, instead of sophomore power forward Jack Cooley. Regardless of how the opening lineup looks, Brey will lean a little more on his bench for the foreseeable future.
"Jack Cooley becomes important; Joey Brooks becomes important and certainly a Mike Broghammer becomes important, the next big body who seems to be healthy," Brey said.