9:00 am, April 23, 2012
He walked into Purcell Pavilion that first morning of December after a lopsided loss and a cross-country flight home wondering if his senior season was slipping away.
He walked out of Purcell Pavilion on April 11 honored as the most valuable player following a most improbable season for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.
Senior tri-captain Scott Martin, who still holds strong hope that the NCAA will allow him to return for a sixth season in 2012-13, seldom led the Irish in any major statistical category during a year that Notre Dame finished 22-12, 13-5 in the Big East. He averaged 9.5 points and 5.7 rebounds a game. But in the big picture, no one was more important to what the Irish accomplished this winter than No. 14.
“He kind of made us go on both ends of the court,” said coach Mike Brey. “Great guy. Great attitude.”
Martin was the glue that held it all together when it seemingly was ready to split apart.
“The voice is where it started,” Martin said. “I just tried to keep pushing everybody and keep fighting and the guys responded.
“We just kept fighting together and we were a true sense of a team this year.”
Nobody figured that could be the case when Notre Dame headed home from Spokane, Wash., early in the season. Four days after seeing his best buddy and roommate and fellow senior captain Tim Abromaitis crumple with a season-ending knee injury, Martin drifted through the game at Gonzaga. He scored one point and was a non-factor in 29 minutes of a 20-point loss.
Something would have to change he told himself soon afterward, or a senior season he wanted so dearly to remember would be one to forget. Not long afterward, everything about the Irish was different. Much of that was thanks to Martin, who played with the poise and the purpose expected out of a senior. Brey would come to refer to him as “the straw that stirred the drink.”
“You kind of saw your life flash before your eyes,” Martin said. “It was, your back is against the wall and what we’re doing is not working so we’ve got to figure something else out.
“From then on, it changed everybody’s attitude and we took a new path.”
That path included a school-record nine consecutive Big East wins, five league wins on the road, a charge into the national rankings and another top-four Big East finish in the Big East. Other teams won more games and earned higher NCAA tournament seeds but for a 39-day winter stretch, there was no better story in college basketball than Notre Dame.
The run ended far earlier than anyone wanted with the first-game NCAA tournament loss to Xavier on March 16, but few will forget the ride. The highs far overshadowed the lows, something no one thought possible after that night in the Inland Northwest.
“There’s no team in Division I college basketball that I’d rather have represent the University of Notre Dame than this team,” said school president, Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C. “This has been a remarkable season for this team.”
Martin, who missed an entire season with a knee injury after transferring from Purdue, hopes to hear soon from the NCAA on whether he can return to Notre Dame next year.
“Just sit back, relax and wait, I guess,” Martin said. “That’s all I can do. We’re hopeful. Hopefully it will lead to good things.”
Like Martin, Abromaitis seeks a sixth season of eligibility. His full paperwork was expected to be submitted to the NCAA in mid April. If the banquet was it for him, Abromaitis had the chance to say good-bye with the annual senior speech. After all, some player had to say something.
“I guess I drew the short straw,” Abromaitis deadpanned earlier in the evening before his 20-minute speech that was some 25 minutes shorter than former teammate Tory Jackson’s oratory offering two seasons ago.
Prior to leaving with his framed No. 21 jersey, Abromaitis thanked 26 different people by name, including former Irish associate head coach Sean Kearney. He helped recruit Abromaitis, then a relatively unknown prospect from Unionville, Conn., who arrived in South Bend a17-year-old kid.
“He’s really the reason why I’m here,” Abromaitis said.
As Abromaitis approached the podium, someone yelled “One more year!” from the stands. Abromaitis was quick to second that emotion.
“If not,” he said later, “the Notre Dame experience has definitely been a dream come true for me.”
What has long been known as the annual year-end basketball banquet evolved this spring into “An Evening With Notre Dame Basketball,” a three-plus hour tour that offered some 320 fans an up-close and personal look at the program.
Instead of another stuffy and stale dinner of rubber chicken and long stretches of boredom, fans were allowed into parts of Purcell Pavilion they seldom see — the Irish locker room, the team lounge, the basement practice facility and the coaches’ offices. Irish coaches and players were stationed along the way to sign autographs. The first player to greet fans as they entered the second level at Gate 9 was Martin.
Following the 90-minute tour, a 93-minute awards program followed. Martin earned two major awards — team MVP and defensive player of the year. Other winners were Abromaitis (captains’ award, scholar-athlete), sophomore guard Eric Atkins (outstanding playmaker), sophomore guard Jerian Grant (newcomer of the year) and junior power forward Jack Cooley (most improved).
The evening ended with a video recap of the season, which ran for 3:48 and featured some of the more memorable clips from a year worth remembering — Grant’s steal and pass to Cooley for a dunk late in the win at Connecticut; Martin’s 3 late in the win at West Virginia and the final shot of fans rushing the Purcell Pavilion floor on Jan. 21 when Notre Dame beat then-undefeated and No. 1 Syracuse.
“I’ve never been more proud of a group,” Brey said of his team’s rise from nowhere to somewhere. “It’s really one of the great stories in our history.”