SOUTH BEND - Anxious moments of what the night might be like will accompany Notre Dame sophomore guard Jerian Grant around campus Tuesday heading into the Irish exhibition opener.
What often collapses into a controlled pickup basketball game means a little more to the 6-foot-5, 195-pound Grant. For the first time since he played in high school - some 18 months ago, which at times have felt like 18 years - Grant gets a chance to offer more than just a cameo appearance.
As a freshman, Grant was dropped on the depth chart behind eventual Big East player of the year Ben Hansbrough. Even before a stress reaction in his left leg limited his availability, Grant listened last fall as coach Mike Brey outlined his possible role as a rookie.
A best-case scenario would be that Grant might - emphasis on might - squeeze an occasional four minutes of mop-up duty. There would be many nights when he’d take the dreaded DNP-CD (did not play-coach’s decision). The best-case scenario, Brey offered Grant, would be to sit out the season to let the leg heal, let his body mature (Grant turned 18 years old just last month) and be primed to make a strong push for Hansbrough’s old starting role heading into the 2011-12 season.
Grant’s now healthy and better understands the game. His pursuit of Hansbrough’s spot takes another step Tuesday when he starts at shooting guard as Notre Dame hosts St. Xavier, an NAIA school from Chicago. Grant and the Irish opponent carry something in common - nobody knows much about the Cougars, and nobody knows much about Grant.
He is Notre Dame’s man of mystery.
“People may have forgotten who I was altogether,” Grant said. “They’re going to find out that I’m a very talented player. I’m versatile. I can do what I need for my team to win.
“I’m ready to go.”
He will give it a go alongside sophomore Eric Atkins, his closest friend on the team and roommate. From the minute Grant committed to Notre Dame as a prep senior - months after Atkins - the two have shared dreams of starting in the same backcourt. Tuesday is their first chance without worries whether their dorm room stays messy (Grant’s way) or neat (Atkins’ preference).
“It would be real easy to be out there (together),” Grant said. “The chemistry would be there right away.”
Like many freshmen who were high school hotshots, Grant figured the transition to college would be easy. Just pick up where he left off and go, right? Wrong. Scrimmaging a handful of times against the ultra-competitive and hyper-emotional Hansbrough clued Grant in that he needed to learn a little more about the daily aspects of the game, about being really good one night, then really, really good the next.
“Ben was a real tough guy and he taught me how to be tough,” Grant said. “These guys, they’re not going to cut you any slack.”
Grant also used his year in the shadows to sharpen his shooting eye. Back in high school at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., Grant averaged 10.5 points a game his senior year and was team captain for a Stags team that finished 32-4 against a powerhouse national schedule. But he’s the first to admit that he really didn’t need a jumper to be good. He often used his athleticism to excel.
Able to see how excursions into the lane are kept to a minimum at this level and perimeter play a premium, Grant spent many a late night getting up shot after shot from different spots, be it mid-range or behind the 3-point line.
“I knew I was going to need that to be on the court,” he said.
Grant believes he can offer a little of everything - athleticism in the open floor, outside shooting and perimeter defense. On Saturday, Grant put his skills up against former Irish guard Matt Carroll, now with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, during practice.
“He’s got a great instinct, great feel for the game,” Carroll said. “He’s got a chance to be special.”
Grant has picked up the system quickly and has played well in preseason, but the question remains - how exactly does he fit? Is it as a scorer? A defender? A combo guy? The ultimate glue guy like he was in high school? Even Brey doesn’t know for sure, but that’s not necessarily cause for concern.
“That trends more toward exciting than worried,” Brey said. “I’m excited where he could go.
“Jerian’s got a lot to work with and he’s come a long way in just a year.”
As the final week of preseason practice commenced, Brey was confident that senior co-captain Scott Martin could shake a lingering sprain in his right ankle to play Tuesday.
As the final week of preseason practice ended, Brey wasn’t so sure, and classified Martin as “doubtful.”
“He’s going to have to do an awful lot of selling to me,” Brey said. “I just don’t want to mess around with this (injury) and then have him down for the next week or 10 days and then have to hit the reset button.”
Martin has done very little live work in practice the last week. With Martin not expected to play, his starting spot will be filled by sophomore Alex Dragicevich or junior Joey Brooks.
Staff writer Tom Noie: