SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame forward Tim Abromaitis knew the beginning of the basketball season was going to be difficult.
It wasn't because the Irish's first games were overly challenging, in fact they started 4-0 after Friday night's 93-69 home win over Delaware State.
The difficulty for Abromaitis came from having to be a spectator. The All-Big East preseason first-team selection had to sit out the start of the season because of a misunderstanding of eligibility rules during his sophomore season.
Abromaitis played in two exhibition games in 2008 but didn't play during that season. Even though he didn't play a regular season game as a sophomore, NCAA rules state that he used a year of eligibility.
That led to an agreement that Abromaitis could play this season if he sat out the first four games. With the sentenced served, the 6-foot-8 forward returns at 7:30 p.m. today against No. 25 Missouri (3-0) in a semifinal game of the CBE Classic in Kansas City, Mo.
"It can't get here soon enough," Abromaitis said of tonight's game. "It seems like, especially since the news about the suspension came out, it's been the day I've been looking forward to. I'm really excited for Kansas City to come. I think we are really getting better, and everybody is getting ready for it.
"I guess I was prepared (to sit out). It's still not fun. I'm just trying to be a cheerleader (on the bench) and do whatever I can."
Abromaitis, who averaged 24 points in this season's two exhibition wins, said the victories helped ease his time out of the lineup, because he didn't have to wonder if he could help the team.
But there were some tense moments for him when Notre Dame had to scratch out a 59-53 win over Detroit on Nov. 14.
"I was up and down the whole game," Abromaitis said. "It was definitely an exciting game, and it was great to watch guys really step it up. It's fun to watch guys like (freshman Pat Connaughton) grow and get better in these four games. I feel it will be big for us going forward.
Abromaitis' absence did allow Irish coach Mike Brey to give less experienced players a chance to gain experience as he replaces three starters from last season.
Junior Joey Brooks, who averaged 5.9 minutes the previous two seasons, has played 25.3 minutes per game and averaged 7.3 points in the first three games. Sophomore Jerian Grant, who didn't play last season, is averaging 14 points and 34.5 minutes, and Connaughton is averaging 26 minutes and 11 points and made one start.
"While I don't like playing without your best player, it's thrown some young guys into the mix that have to do things in a couple of tough spots that I hope will pay dividends for us, hopefully as early as Monday night," said Brey, whose team was also without point guard Eric Atkins (flu) for two game and Brooks (flu) for one game last week. "We've been kind of piecing this thing together all week. I'm just hoping by practice in the Sprint Center I have all bodies available. I'll smile if I have all bodies available by Sunday morning."
Abromaitis jokingly remarked that because of the progress the team has made in his absence, he wondered if the Irish would even need him back this season.
"(Coordinator of basketball operations Harold Swanagan) was joking with me, he said, 'The way Pat's playing I might not have my spot any more.' If he keeps it up, they might not ever need me again," said Abromaitis, who earned his finance degree a year ahead of schedule and last year went through Notre Dame's intensified one-year MBA program.
Missouri assistant coach Erin Nestor said the Tigers have a good idea of what to expect from the Irish, even though they haven't seen Notre Dame at full strength yet this season.
"They have really good personnel, and Coach Brey has established a really sound philosophy and he recruits to his philosophy," Nestor said during a teleconference. "You know the way they are going to play. They are going to be tough-minded kids. They are going to have good ball movement. They are going to shoot the ball extremely well from the perimeter."
Conference: Big 12
Coach: Frank Haith
Key players: Marcus Denmon (18 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Kim English (17 ppg, 5 rpg)
Coach: Mark Fox
Key players: Gerald Robinson (13.7 ppg, 4.3 apg), Kentavious Caldwell Pope (13.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
Coach: Mike Montgomery
Key players: Allen Crabbe (16.7 ppg), Jorge Gutierrez (13.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg)