By the time the Notre Dame team arrived in South Bend in the wee hours of the morning Sunday, Mike Brey’s phone was filled with emotional messages and effusive texts.
Among those reaching out to the Irish head coach in the wake of Notre Dame’s thrilling run through the ACC bluebloods to claim the school’s first-ever conference tournament championship in Greensboro, N.C., were the program’s all-time leading scorer, Austin Carr, Notre Dame’s top rebounder during that era, Collis Jones, and former stars John Paxson and Monty Williams.
“The old guard of guys are proud of the program,” said Brey, part of a Notre Dame contingent running on fumes while getting the news of a NCAA tournament trip to Pittsburgh as a No. 3 seed to take on No. 14 seed Northeastern Thursday.
“That means a lot to me. You want those former guys to feel good about their program.”
While it takes winning to bring much of that pride to the surface, Notre Dame followers from all walks of life can now look at the 2014-15 squad, the players who comprise that roster, and feel confident that the present and future of the program is in good hands with the current makeup of the squad and the type of player Brey is choosing to represent them.
Brey sometimes is criticized for his unwillingness to chase the four- and five-star prospects and McDonald’s All-Americans that gallop up and down the basketball courts at some of the premier programs in the country. His recruiting approach is done with a purpose.
First of all, a large majority of the four- and five-star players ultimately will choose one of the more tradition-rich basketball programs over Notre Dame. Secondly, prep basketball superstars become temperamental college basketball prima donnas with one foot out the door and both eyes on the riches awaiting them on the next level.
Brey thrives on team-first, chemistry-driven, glue guys that allow the beauty and artistry of five guys playing together as one to offer the cohesion that Notre Dame flashed during its historic 24-2 run against North Carolina in its 90-82 ACC championship victory.
While Notre Dame played like five fingers on a hand, working and functioning together as one during the ACC tournament, North Carolina’s much more physically-talented athletes succumbed.
When the Irish refused to lose to the Tar Heels – who blitzed Notre Dame, 24-10, to start the second half – North Carolina and head coach Roy Williams had no response, other than a mistake-prone, turnover-filled stretch run.
If you don’t fit the Brey system, 1) you won’t choose Notre Dame and 2) you won’t fit in if you do.
And yet Brey has recruited to toughness, mental and physical, not to mention players who have to fight a bit harder to carve out a niche on a high level in the game they love. Case in point: the key players who are leading this uprising in South Bend.
“I don’t know if we flat-out said, ‘Let’s recruit tough guys,’ but the group toughness is so good,” Brey said. “I’ve had individual tough guys, but (our) collective toughness is really special. You never know how it’s going to come together, but it’s been interesting to watch.”
Few were tougher for Brey and the Irish than transfer Ryan Humphrey, Luke Harangody, the school’s No. 2 all-time leading scorer, and 2010-11 Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough, also a transfer. But a team of tough guys from top to bottom? Not like this.
“Certainly Pat and Jerian are Pat and Jerian,” said Brey, referring to captain Connaughton and first-team All-American Grant. “Demetrius (Jackson) has an edge about him. As I said (Saturday) night, I know there are commercials about Seth Curry, the baby-faced assassin, but Steve Vasturia is ours. What a killer that dude is.
“Zach Auguste has gotten more of an edge, and he’s controlled it better. I thought he was fabulous (in Greensboro) and went to another level, defending the post against (Duke’s Jahlil) Okafor, fighting off all those big guys (for North Carolina), and then the toughness of Bonzie (Colson). There’s a toughness, confidence and swagger about Bonzie.”
In many instances, whether consciously aware of it or not, Brey has gravitated to the guys who have to fight a little bit harder to gain the respect within the collective college basketball consciousness.
“I’ve been attracted to guys like that,” Brey said. “Harangody was 6-6 and undersized, but when I watched him in Houston, everyone in the gym was scared of him. Hell, I was scared of him at times. But I wanted to coach that guy. Ben Hansbrough could get whacky as heck. There was an edge about him, but I wanted that guy on my side.
“I probably do identify with that. Connaughton couldn’t dribble left-handed the summer before his senior year, so people backed off. All I knew was that when I watched him in Orlando, he made every play. Parents in the stands were yelling at him. He made two free throws and he kind of gestured at ‘em, and I was like, ‘I want that guy. I want to take that guy to Chapel Hill and Greensboro.’ And Jerian has developed a toughness, but it took all of five years to get him to that point.”
Brey acknowledges that most players that accept a Division I basketball scholarship have a strong core belief that they are a superior basketball player to begin with, so they arrive with a chip on their shoulder of varying degrees.
“You’ve got to have a special DNA to do that,” said Brey, citing Vasturia’s gutsy three-pointer before halftime of the North Carolina game after throwing a pass away moments earlier that led to a dunk.
By putting that savvy and grit on display en route to a surprising No. 3 finish in the ACC regular season, followed by the coveted ACC tournament title, the pride of Brey’s former players was bursting at the seams as it became apparent that the mighty Tar Heels were going to fall.
Five Notre Dame/Brey alums – Troy Murphy and Matt Carroll, radio color commentator Torrian Jones, and current assistants Martin Ingelsby and Harold Swanagan – were in Greensboro Coliseum with the Irish last week. Texts from Humphrey, Harangody, Hansbrough and three-time captain Eric Atkins – among many others -- awaited Brey after the championship game.
“That was really special to turn around and see those guys,” said Brey, “and the best texts were from our guys.
“I feel so good that they’re proud of the program, and that wherever they are today, they’ve got their ND stuff on.”