Could this be Brey’s best?

A series of early exits in the NCAA tournament have been a smudge on his coaching career. But few have done more through teamwork and offensive chemistry than Mike Brey, who won three Big East Coach of the Year Awards and was named the nation’s top coach in 2011

The NCAA tournament issues have been well documented. Mike Brey hasn’t taken Notre Dame – now in his 15th year in South Bend – to the Sweet 16 since 2002-03. He’s lost his last three NCAA tournament games and has just two NCAA tournament victories in the last 11 seasons.

There’s no place to hide from such numbers.

Yet there’s also no denying that post-season play is the anomaly to an otherwise successful stint with the Fighting Irish, ascending to the upper one-third of the once-powerful Big East conference, competing and defeating national-title contenders Syracuse, Louisville and Connecticut, and now rising to the forefront of the Atlantic Coast Conference in Notre Dame’s second year in the league.

Heading into this weekend’s play, the Irish are ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press poll with an 18-2 overall record and a 6-1 mark in ACC play, which places the Irish just a half game behind first-place Virginia.

Some, including Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams, believe Brey may have the best of his teams at Notre Dame after the Irish manhandled the Hokies Thursday night in Blacksburg, 85-60.

“I told Coach (Brey) that they’re as good a team as he has had,” Williams said.

With 11 ACC games remaining, including four of the next six on the road – and two of those six against Duke – where the 2014-15 Irish squad ranks among Brey’s best at Notre Dame is to be determined.

Here are Irish Illustrated’s top eight Brey teams through his first 14 seasons with the Irish, focusing mainly on conference play.

2002-03 (24-10)

Big East record: 10-6 (6-2 home; 4-4 away)

Longest conference win streak: 4

Longest conference loss streak: 3

Average margin of victory: 8.3

Average margin of defeat: 6.6

Vs. ranked teams: 1-4

Big East tournament: L-St. John’s

NCAA tournament: W-Wisconsin-Milwaukee, W-Illinois, L-Arizona

Captain(s): Matt Carroll, Jere Macura, Dan Miller

Leading scorers: Matt Carroll (19.5), Chris Thomas (18.7), Dan Miller (13.9), Torin Francis (11.1)

Leading rebounders: Torin Francis (8.4)

Summary: Although this is the Brey squad most often compared to the current one because Notre Dame’s victory at Virginia Tech Thursday night gave the Irish a 6-1 ACC record -- tying the program’s best start since joining the Big East in 1995-96 – this team also struggled down the stretch before advancing to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

After winning six of the first seven, the Irish lost five of their last eight. This team also lost four of five versus ranked opponents with its only victory coming at home over No. 4 Pittsburgh. Notre Dame was a bit fortunate to get past Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the first round of the NCAA tournament on a missed put-back at the buzzer, although the Irish took it to Illinois and then-Illini head coach Bill Self.

Still, this team put Notre Dame basketball back on the map, led by first-team all-Big East selection Matt Carroll and sophomore Chris Thomas, who sit eighth and fourth respectively on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list.

2001-02 (22-11)

Big East record: 10-6 (5-3 home; 5-3 away)

Longest conference win streak: 4

Longest conference loss streak: 2

Average margin of victory: 8.6

Average margin of defeat: 4.3

Vs. ranked teams: 3-2

Big East tournament: W-St. John’s, L-Connecticut

NCAA tournament: W-Charlotte, L-Duke

Captain(s): David Graves, Ryan Humphrey, Harold Swanagan

Leading scorer: Ryan Humphrey (18.9), Chris Thomas (15.6), David Graves (14.4), Matt Carroll (14.1)

Leading rebounder: Ryan Humphrey (10.9), Harold Swanagan (6.7)

Summary: Big East rookie of the Year Chris Thomas tied things together for this well-balanced scoring attack whose average margin of defeat in its six Big East setbacks was a mere 4.3 points, five of which were by five points or less.

Brey’s second Irish squad, as it would the following year, struggled down the stretch of Big East play, losing three of the last six after Thomas carried Notre Dame to a thrilling 116-111 four-overtime victory on the road against Georgetown. This team threatened to make a Sweet 16 appearance after knocking off Charlotte, but No. 1-rated Duke and Brey’s mentor, Mike Krzyzewski, hung on for a seven-point victory, delaying Brey’s only Sweet 16 trip by a year.

2012-13 (25-10)

Big East record: 11-7 (7-2 home; 4-5 away)

Longest conference win streak: 3

Longest conference loss streak: 2

Average margin of victory: 10.0

Average margin of defeat: 12.0

Vs. ranked teams: 3-3

Big East tournament: W-Rutgers, W-Marquette, L-Louisville

NCAA tournament: L-Iowa State

Captain(s): Eric Atkins, Jack Cooley, Scott Martin

Leading scorer: Jerian Grant (13.3), Jack Cooley (13.1), Eric Atkins (11.2)

Leading rebounder: Jack Cooley (10.1), Scott Martin (5.9)

Summary: The Irish didn’t win more than three in a row in Big East play, but they also didn’t lose more than two in a row, which allowed them to ease their way into the NCAA tournament after a semi-final run in the Big East tournament. Impressive regular-season victories over No. 8 Louisville (in five overtimes), No. 9 Syracuse and No. 22 Marquette bolstered Notre Dame’s resume along the way.

Jack Cooley earned first-team all-Big East honors and Jerian Grant landed on the second unit. The Irish fizzled badly, however, in the first game of the NCAA tournament against buzz saw Iowa State.

2000-01 (20-10)

Big East record: 11-5 (6-2 home; 5-3 away)

Longest conference win streak: 8

Longest conference loss streak: 2 (twice)

Average margin of victory: 11.7

Average margin of defeat: 8.8

Vs. ranked teams: 2-2

Big East tournament: L-Pittsburgh

NCAA tournament: W-Xavier, L-Mississippi

Captain(s): Martin Ingelsby, Troy Murphy

Leading scorer: Troy Murphy (21.8), Ryan Humphrey (14.1), David Graves (13.8), Matt Carroll (12.4)

Leading rebounder: Troy Murphy (9.2), Ryan Humphrey (9.0)

Summary: This marked Brey’s only “conference championship,” which came in his first season at Notre Dame when the Irish claimed the West Division of the Big East (a format that was eliminated three years later).

Led by Big East Player of the Year and first-team consensus All-American Troy Murphy and the relentless Ryan Humphrey, the Irish had a solid inside-outside presence as they put together an eight-game winning streak that included victories over No. 10 Georgetown and No. 11 Syracuse.

The season came to a disappointing conclusion when they lost their last two regular-season games, their first game in the Big East tournament to Pittsburgh, and the second game of the NCAA tournament to Mississippi.

2006-07 (24-8)

Big East record: 11-5 (8-0 home; 3-5 away)

Longest conference win streak: 5

Longest conference loss streak: 2

Average margin of victory: 11.4

Average margin of defeat: 8.6

Vs. ranked teams: 1-0

Big East tournament: W-Syracuse, L-Georgetown

NCAA tournament: L-Winthrop

Captain(s): Russell Carter, Colin Falls, Rob Kurz

Leading scorer: Russell Carter (17.1), Colin Falls (15.3), Rob Kurz (12.5), Luke Harangody (11.2), Kyle McAlarney (10.3)

Leading rebounder: Rob Kurz (8.0), Luke Harangody (6.2)

Summary: On the heels of three straight NIT appearances and a quick fizzle upon their return to NCAA tournament play against Winthrop, Notre Dame’s turnaround earned Brey Big East Coach of the Year honors while sharpshooters Russell Carter and Colin Falls led five players in double-digit scoring. Rob Kurz provided steady scoring, rebounding and leadership, and freshman Luke Harangody burst onto the scene as a surprise standout.

The Irish benefitted from playing just one ranked team in Big East play (a home victory over No. 21 West Virginia), although they began what would become a significant home-court advantage with a perfect 8-0 mark that would expand to 39-5 over five seasons. But alas, it turned sour in the first-round of the NCAA tournament against Winthrop.

2011-12 (22-12)

Big East record: 13-5 (8-1 home; 5-4 away)

Longest conference win streak: 9

Longest conference loss streak: 2 (twice)

Average margin of victory: 10.3

Average margin of defeat: 11.6

Vs. ranked teams: 5-2

Big East tournament: W-South Florida, L-Louisville

NCAA tournament: L-Xavier

Captain(s): Tim Abromaitis, Eric Atkins, Scott Martin

Leading scorer: Jack Cooley (12.5), Jerian Grant (12.3), Eric Atkins (12.1)

Leading rebounder: Jack Cooley (8.9), Scott Martin (5.7)

Summary: The season started on a sour note when standout Tim Abromaitis was suspended to open the campaign for participating in exhibition games during his sophomore red-shirt season, and then suffering a season-ending knee injury. The Irish managed to recover, however, putting together a nine-game Big East winning streak that began with a home victory over No. 1 Syracuse and included wins over No. 15 Marquette and No. 19 Connecticut.

Junior Jack Cooley emerged as an all-second team Big East performer, and the Irish fashioned a 5-2 mark against ranked opponents. Once again, however, the season ended in disappointing fashion when the Irish frittered away a late lead to Xavier in the opening game of the NCAA tournament.

2007-08 (25-8)

Big East record: 14-4 (9-0 home; 5-4 away)

Longest conference win streak: 5

Longest conference loss streak: 1

Average margin of victory: 10.0

Average margin of defeat: 14.0

Vs. ranked teams: 2-4

Big East tournament: L-Marquette

NCAA tournament: W-George Mason, L-Washington State

Captain(s): Rob Kurz

Leading scorer: Luke Harangody (20.4), Kyle McAlarney (15.1), Rob Kurz (12.5)

Leading rebounder: Luke Harangody (10.6), Rob Kurz (7.1)

Summary: Luke Harangody blossomed into a star his sophomore season, averaging 20.4 points and 10.6 rebounds to earn the Big East Player of the Year Award while Brey landed his second-straight Big East Coach of the Year Award and Kyle McAlarney took dead aim from the outside. McAlarney converted 44.1 percent of his three-point attempts (108-of-245).

How consistent were the Irish? This is the only one of 14 seasons under Brey that the Irish did not lose two conference games in a row. Notre Dame also went unscathed in conference play at home for the second year in a row, although they managed just a 2-4 mark against ranked opponents.

The NCAA tournament opened in promising fashion in Denver against Jim Larranaga’s George Mason squad, but Tony Bennett’s Washington State team punctuated a decisive end to the campaign with a 20-point pasting.

010-11 (27-7)

Big East record: 14-4 (9-0 home; 5-4 away)

Longest conference win streak: 7, 4

Longest conference loss streak: 2

Average margin of victory: 10.1

Average margin of defeat: 16.5

Vs. ranked teams: 7-1

Big East tournament: W-Cincinnati, L-Louisville

NCAA tournament: W-Akron, L-Florida State

Captain(s): Tim Abromaitis, Ben Hansbrough, Tyrone Nash, Carleton Scott

Leading scorer: Ben Hansbrough (18.4), Tim Abromaitis (14.7), Carleton Scott (10.2)

Leading rebounder: Tim Abromaitis (6.1), Tyrone Nash (5.9)

Summary: This Ben Hansbrough-driven squad was as relentless in victory as it was disastrous in defeat with its mere four Big East losses coming in convincing fashion (16.5 points per game). But this was a thrashing machine of a team as well, putting together seven- and four-game winning streaks along the way while knocking off an astonishing seven ranked opponents in eight Big East clashes.

In his second and final season with the Irish after transferring from Mississippi State, Hansbrough was scintillating, converting an outstanding 43.5 percent (87-of-200) from three-point range while serving as the driving force on a team that was a perfect 5-0 in conference games decided by five points or less.

Another undefeated home slate in Big East play and a No. 2 finish in the conference – the highest of the Brey era – led to a No. 2 NCAA tournament seed, but a second-round exit to Florida State.

Brey was named National Coach of the Year by the AP and the United States Basketball Writers Association while picking up his third Big East Coach of the Year Award.


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