July 28, 2010

Irish eyes smiling as Martin makes comeback

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Over the past decade, Notre Dame's Mike Brey has coached three of the Big East's top 35 career scorers as well as the guy who has made the most 3-pointers in conference history.

So when Brey says 6-foot-8 junior swingman Scott Martin is as naturally gifted an offensive player as anyone he's coached, those words carry plenty of weight.

"We've had some really talented offensive guys here in my 10 years, guys who were really beautiful basketball players and who had a feel for the game and a high skill level," Brey said. "I don't think we've had one more naturally gifted [than Martin] in my 10 years.

"I've had Troy Murphy, Matt Carroll, Chris Thomas. They were very gifted. Chris Quinn was gifted. Luke Harangody, certainly. None of them were more gifted than Scott Martin."

So why haven't more people heard of this guy? Well, it's hard to generate much buzz when you're spending all your time in the training room.

Martin's performances on the Notre Dame practice court have produced the level of praise generally reserved for star performers, but he hasn't played a second of competitive basketball in either of the past two seasons.

NCAA regulations forced Martin to miss the 2008-09 season after he transferred from Purdue, where he was part of the same recruiting class as Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore. Sitting out was no problem. Martin -- who was a teammate of Hummel's at Valparaiso (Ind.) High -- understood that was part of the deal and eagerly awaited the chance to make an impact with his new teammates.

Martin won raves from his teammates last fall and seemed likely to emerge as one of Notre Dame's top players last season. But in early October, the Irish had just started five-on-five drills when Martin attempted a jump-stop move and crumbled to the floor. As his teammates saw him go down, they knew the injury was serious, no matter how much Martin himself wanted to disagree.

"The moment it happened, I heard it pop and I knew -- but I kind of refused to believe it," Martin said. "I actually got up and walked to the training room."

Martin then had the tests that confirmed what he'd suspected: He had a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

He already had sat out one season; now he was going to have to miss another. That's when the questions started to enter his mind.

Why was this happening to him? How would he make it back?

"It was rough," Martin said. "It took me a while. It definitely wasn't a one-night or one-week thing. It still kind of bothers me when I think about it, that I had to miss the entire season. But it is what it is. There's nothing I could have done about it. You make the best of a bad situation and kind of move on."

Martin worked his way back into shape and feels close to 100 percent. Assuming he has no setbacks, Martin should be ready for the start of the season. Notre Dame must replace Harangody and four-year starting point guard Tory Jackson, so the Irish need a big season from Martin in their drive for a second consecutive NCAA tournament bid.

Not that Martin's thinking in those terms. He already has discovered the danger of focusing too much on the future.

"I'm taking a little different approach," he said. "I'm not trying to look too far ahead. I'm trying to go day by day. I just look to the next day and be happy I can play that day.

"The year before, I looked forward to the season, and when I got hurt, it crushed me."

Martin may not be looking beyond the next day, but Brey can't help but think about what he could contribute to the upcoming season. Notre Dame already has Tim Abromaitis, who averaged 16.1 points and 4.7 rebounds as one of the nation's most improved players last season. Now the Irish have Martin, a player with strikingly similar skills.

Both are 6-8 wing players with perimeter skills. Both are good passers. Both can score in multiple ways. The biggest difference: Martin is left-handed and Abromaitis is right-handed.

"All summer, in my mind, I smile when I think of Martin and Tim Abromaitis coming down the floor," Brey said. "That's something I'm looking forward to getting to see.

"I was kidding the other day about how there's a right-handed and left-handed version of them. You've got a righty and a lefty coming at you. They're similar players -- they really are -- and their body types are similar."

Of course, Martin still must prove he can produce a season as good as one that Abromaitis just delivered.

Martin averaged 8.5 points and 3.8 rebounds in his freshman season at Purdue, but he hasn't played a minute since. Martin admits he had to shake off plenty of rust after being cleared to play pickup games a couple of months ago. He struggled so much that he felt as if he were playing in slow motion. He now feels much more comfortable.

"It's night and day from when I first stepped on the floor to now," Martin said. "I feel looser, much more comfortable. I have a lot more confidence in the knee. I'm wearing a brace, and that helps a bit. But just having some time and experience to play with the knee the way it is right now helps."

Martin will get a chance to try out the knee in a competitive situation before the start of the season. He is joining the East Coast All-Stars, a traveling team that will play five games Aug. 5-15 in Switzerland and France. The team also includes former Purdue teammate Lewis Jackson, Kansas State forward Jamar Samuels and Duquesne forward Damian Saunders, among others.

"It's important for him to get a jersey on and play," Brey said. "I'd say he's 98 percent right now. He's wearing the brace. With this thing, the last hurdle is the mental hurdle. It's going to be really good for him to go play, play with referees, practice with other guys."

It certainly has been a long time coming. Martin struggled to hide his frustration last year, though Notre Dame's proximity to his hometown made the wait more bearable. Martin grew up about an hour away from Notre Dame's campus and visited his parents regularly throughout his recovery.

When he wasn't attending Notre Dame games, Martin often was going to his brother Andrew's games at Valparaiso High. He learned plenty from all those nights watching basketball from the bench or the stands.

"He's had aspirations of being a coach down the line after his career's over," said Martin's father, Scott Sr. "I think it really gave him a different perspective, sitting on the bench and watching Coach Brey and spending time with the coaches. It's something he'd never been able to do because he'd always been on the court. That was a plus, as much as there could be a plus in this situation."

After spending the past two years watching countless basketball games, Martin's eager to start playing the game again. Brey certainly expects big things from Martin.

Harangody ranks third, Thomas 22nd and Murphy 35th on the Big East's career scoring list, which only takes into account points scored in Big East games. Brey also coached Colin Falls, whose 189 career 3-pointers in Big East competition remain a conference record. But Brey can't stop raving about Marin's offensive prowess.

"He has a knack for finding the basketball and scoring the ball," Brey said. "He can shoot the 3-point shot. He's got a mid-range game. When he was healthy, he had the highest vertical jump on our team. People are shocked when I tell them that. He's athletic, and people don't think that. He can post. He can rebound. He's crafty around the basket with both hands.

"The game comes easy to him on the offensive end, and there aren't a lot of guys like that. With some guys, it's like poetry to watch them on the offensive end. When he's healthy, he moves. He cuts. He shoots. He finishes. He steps out. He can drive on you and get fouled. He's got the [whole] package."

After two agonizing years of waiting, Martin is savoring the opportunity to show the Big East what his coaches and teammates already have seen.

As much as he tells himself to avoid looking ahead, Martin sometimes can't help but imagine the possibilities.

"I do a little bit. I'm not going to lie," Martin said. "But I try not to get too lost in it. I remember it can all be taken away really quickly. I've got to be happy with what I have right now."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.


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