PITTSBURGH – If there’s one thing Mike Brey has proven during his decade-and-a-half at Notre Dame, it’s that he really doesn’t care.
It’s not that he doesn’t care about how well his Fighting Irish play, and it’s not that he isn’t conscious of Notre Dame’s NCAA failures under his leadership. He certainly cares about those things, especially after Notre Dame’s 69-65 victory Thursday in the CONSOL Energy Center over Northeastern to advance to the round of 32 versus Butler.
What he doesn’t care about is what you think about what he says. He’s going to say it anyway because it’s the truth as he knows it, and he believes what he does and says has a positive impact on his team.
Case in point Thursday: “We weren’t going to beat (Northeastern) by 15, so don’t anybody walk out of here feeling that we should have won by 15,” was Brey’s message to the team as it departed the locker room. “It was going to be a dogfight, but we’ve been in a lot of close games.”
Deep down, Brey probably understands that he rankles people with his words. It’s counter to what followers of a particular sport or team want to hear. They think it’s planting a negative seed in the minds of the players.
But few coaches make their players feel good about themselves and believe in the cause better than Brey. By being up front about the reality of the situation or match-up, it creates no false illusions among his players. They deal in real terms. If the opponent is good, he’ll tell them how good they are, and then provide the antidote to offset their strengths.
Does it make one-sided games closer than they should be? Shouldn’t Notre Dame force the opposition to react to them instead of them always reacting to the opposition? Perhaps there is some truth in that line of thinking.
And yet with the exception of one too many flameouts in the NCAA tournament, Brey’s track record shows that he has a pretty good handle on things.
In the last nine seasons – spanning the Big East tenure and now the second year in ACC play – the Irish have won double-digit games in conference play seven times. Exclude those two outlier seasons and the Irish have been 87-37 in conference play throughout the majority of the last decade.
They usually don’t have the athletes to win with such consistency – they certainly do this year – but Brey has his team in the “we can conquer the world” frame of mind despite (because of?) his brutal honesty about the opposition. The Irish were 7-2 on the road in ACC play this season.
Brey’s game plans usually are right on the money. He’s reinvented Notre Dame so many times over the years that you’re never quite sure what game plan he’ll compose to defeat the opposition. They’ll slow it down, speed it up, go with a lineup that seems counter to what should be productive, shoot threes, bypass threes, give up layups instead of threes…
How many would have thought the best way to defeat Duke in the ACC tournament would be to take it right at Jahlil Okafor? Well, that’s what the Irish did, steering away from a heavy reliance on three-point shots and pounding the ball inside to freshman Bonzie Colson.
The next night, the long and athletic North Carolina Tar Heels got caught in Notre Dame’s offensive and defensive centrifuge, and moments later, the Irish were cutting down the nets.
Another case in point: Brey was bound and determined not to allow Northeastern to defeat the Irish from beyond the arc. The Huskies converted 55 percent of their three-point attempts in the CAA tournament, and Brey always has been a metrics guy when it comes to exchanging two-pointers for three-pointers.
But as the Huskies carved the Irish up in the paint, conventional wisdom said get out of man-to-man and play zone.
A closer look reveals why Brey was so adamant about not turning to a zone defense as bruisers like Northeastern’s Scott Eatherton and Zach Stahl riddled Notre Dame’s interior to the tune of 42 points in the paint. (Note: The Irish matched those 42 points in the paint, which was another reason to stick with the defensive game plan.)
Notre Dame limited the Huskies to 3-of-11 shooting from three-point range. That was their ninth worst three-point shooting game of the season. Northeastern’s record in those nine games? An unsightly 1-8.
The strategy proved effective, but it would require patience and sticking to a game plan devised by Brey and assistants Anthony Solomon, Rod Balanis and Martin Ingelsby.
Notre Dame’s problem against Northeastern was that the two leaders of the team – Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant – played in a fog for long stretches.
Grant had three early turnovers and was out of sorts. He eventually straightened things out, converting 7-of-12 shots for 17 points with five assists while coming up with two key steals in the last 1:20 to help seal the victory.
Connaughton, the rebounding rock upon which the Irish are built, wandered around the basketball court for most of the 40 minutes he played, scoring six of his nine points in the second half, attempting just seven shots while snagging one rebound, including none in the first half.
To put that in perspective, Connaughton – who averages 7.4 rebounds per game – hadn’t been so unproductive on the glass in since the 10th game of his sophomore season, or 79 games ago. Meanwhile, the Huskies were cleaning up the glass, winning the rebounding battle, 33-to-17, including a 13-to-2 advantage on the offensive boards. Northeastern had an 18-to-2 scoring advantage on second-chance points.
While the Irish were winning the points-off-turnovers category (17-0) and the fast-break category (14-0) decisively, the Huskies were doing what they do best.
A little known stat heading into the game: Northeastern is 15th in the country in percentage of rebounds off missed shots at 76.9; Notre Dame is 185th at 70.6. In other words, the Huskies remained true to form, and without Connaughton’s usual rebounding output, it became a significant deficit.
Meanwhile, the passing of the torch – from Grant and Connaughton to Auguste, Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia et al – continued in Notre Dame’s victory over Northeastern.
Despite being saddled with foul trouble and playing just nine minutes in the first half, Auguste finished with 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting, plus two clutch free throws with 1.9 seconds remaining to secure the victory. (Note: Auguste, a 63.9 percent free-throw shooter this season, has converted 13-of-16 in his last two games.)
Jackson has taken his game to another level since the start of the ACC tournament. He finished with a career-high eight assists against the Huskies as playmaking duties gradually have been dispersed between him and Grant.
Whereas the basketball was in Grant’s hands most of the season, more and more it’s Jackson who is doing the playmaking, including a scintillating behind-the-back-dribble/360-degree spin fast break that ended in an Auguste slam-dunk. It was Jackson who set up Auguste for most of his easy flushes.
Vasturia is the type of player who hides in the weeds and picks his spots, and when he emerges, it usually has a game-changing impact. Once again, he limited the opposing team’s top scorer – three-point shooting specialist David Walker. He had a relatively quiet 37 minutes of action offensively, scoring just three points and taking three shots, but he also had four of Notre Dame’s nine steals.
Moving forward to Saturday night’s game against Butler (23-10), all that needs to be said to get Notre Dame’s attention is that like the Irish, the Bulldogs defeated North Carolina this year. Notre Dame did it twice, including the ACC championship game; Butler did it in late-November in the Bahamas.
The Bulldogs aren’t the prettiest-looking team. For the most part, they’re stout and thick and want to beat you in the half-court game.
They have a couple of shooters in guards Kellen Dunham and former walk-on Alex Barlow. Willowy Kameron Woods is a rebounding machine. Roosevelt Jones, who is listed at 6-foot-4, 227 pounds, looks more like a 260-pounder. His challenge will be bouncing back from a left knee injury that clearly hampered him in the second half of Thursday’s 56-48 victory over Texas.
It’s a classic Hoosier Hysteria moment between the 30-victory Irish from northern Indiana versus the pride of Indianapolis from central Indiana, which made back-to-back runs to the national championship game a couple of years ago.
Today, Friday, when Brey meets the media at CONSOL Energy Center, he’ll likely say some brutally honest things about Notre Dame’s matchup against the Bulldogs. He’ll paint a similar picture for his players, making them aware of all the things Butler can do to send the Irish home for the summer instead of making a Sweet 16 trip to Cleveland next weekend.
Brey likely will devise a game plan that seems counterintuitive to what the Notre Dame fan base would put on the chalkboard. Ultimately, in a game that the Irish should win, chances are it will be another nail-biter that goes down to the wire.
Chances also are good that game No. 36 will result in victory No. 31. That’s what Brey does, although not usually in post-season play, which is the main reason Notre Dame’s traveling fan base remains so sparse.
Asked a day earlier if Notre Dame’s previous failures in March are a “monkey on his back,” Brey responded: “I don’t lose a lot of sleep on it, maybe because I’m an older coach now and I have a great contract.”
Like fingernails across a chalkboard, Brey says what’s on his mind, reaction be damned. It may not please the Irish masses, but it’s an effective tool of communication for his team and part of an approach that has served him well a vast majority of the time.