Notre Dame’s rise to No. 8 in Monday’s Associated Press Poll and No. 9 in the USA Today Coaches Poll marks the fifth season in Mike Brey’s 15 campaigns as head coach that the Irish have ascended to the nation’s top 10.
This marks the ninth straight season a Brey-coached team has been among the AP top 25, including last year’s 15-17, 6-12 team that opened the season ranked No. 21.
All but two of Brey’s 15 squads – the 16-14, 6-10 team in 2005-06 and the 22-11, 10-6 team in 2001-02 that actually made the NCAA tournament -- have been ranked among the nation’s top 25 at some point during the season.
Brey’s highest-ranked teams were the 2010-11 unit that finished 27-7, 14-4 and ascended to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament while ranking as high as No. 4, and the 2002-03 team that finished 24-10, 10-6 and ranked 5th en route to Brey’s only Sweet 16 appearance.
His 2008-09 team (21-15, 8-10) also rose as high as 7th in the AP poll, only to lose seven in a row and drop out of the top 25 for the rest of the season while failing to land an NCAA bid.
For all of his regular-season and Big East accomplishments, Brey’s Achilles Heel has been the NCAA tournament. It’s been 11 seasons since his Irish have gotten past the second game of the NCAA tournament. Today’s coaches are measured more strictly by their advancement in post-season play, and Brey has lost four of his last five and is 6-9 overall in the NCAA tournament with Notre Dame.
Brey’s NCAA tournament struggles have erased the memories of many Irish fans that have forgotten just how bad Notre Dame was prior to his arrival. The Irish went 10 straight seasons without an NCAA tournament bid – the last of 20 campaigns under Richard “Digger” Phelps, all eight seasons of the John MacLeod era, and the one season with Matt Doherty.
Brey has taken the Irish to nine NCAA tournaments in 14 seasons with a 10th looking more and more likely now that the Irish are off to a 17-2, 5-1 start.
And yet Phelps’ legacy should not be diminished by the fact he was 28-33 over his final two seasons with the Irish. During an eight-year span – beginning with his third year in 1973-74 through his 10th season in 1980-81 – Phelps’ teams were a sensational 182-52, including 11 NCAA tournament wins and at least one in seven out of eight trips.
The Irish were a top 10 fixture during that eight-year streak of success:
• In 1973-74, Notre Dame was in the top three from Dec. 20 through the end of the regular season, including No. 1 for a week.
• In 1976-77, Notre Dame rose as high as No. 2 with victories at UCLA and against Indiana at home.
• In 1977-78, the Irish were ranked among the nation’s top 10 the entire season en route to their only Final Four appearance.
• In 1978-79, Notre Dame was ranked no lower than No. 3 before falling to eventual national champion Michigan State in the regional finals.
• In 1979-80, the Irish were in the top five most of the season.
• In 1980-81, Notre Dame was ranked all season and rose as high as No. 4 before losing to Brigham Young and Danny Ainge in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
That’s where the demarcation began. Since Ainge’s game-winning lay-up in the 51-50 defeat on March 19, 1981, Notre Dame’s only top 10 rankings came briefly (No. 10) at the end of Phelps’ 1985-86 season and now during the Brey era.
Notre Dame was not ranked from the 1990-91 season through the 1999-2000 season.
How long the Irish remain among the nation’s top 10 will be determined this week on the road when Notre Dame travels to Blacksburg, Va., to take on Virginia Tech Thursday, and Raleigh, N.C., to play North Carolina State Sunday.