Mike Brey is an open-minded man. In good times and bad, he’s willing to consider all the possibilities.
A change in the starting lineup? Perhaps the time has come after trotting out the same five 15 games in a row.
A break from the physical and mental fatigue? He’ll address that accordingly on the practice floor following two games in a 48-hour window.
An acceptance of reality? Brey might be the most realistic coach in America when it comes to assessing his team.
“We haven’t lost two in a row,” said Brey, latching on to the silver lining with all his might Saturday following Notre Dame’s 86-82 home loss to red-hot Pittsburgh, which dropped the Irish to 10-5 overall and 1-2 in ACC play.
“We’ve lost and we’ve come back and won a game, and that’s kind of where we’re at. That could be who we are a lot.”
One-sixth of the way through conference play, it’s a far, far cry from where the Irish were when the 2014-15 season concluded in the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, one basket, one defensive stop from knocking off undefeated and No. 1-ranked Kentucky for a trip to the Final Four.
It’s more than just the physical loss of Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant to the NBA. Their talents were unmistakable. But when they walked out the door, they took with them a good deal of the team’s chemistry, confidence and leadership.
“We fought hard, but it goes back to how we started the game,” said Irish guard Demetrius Jackson, who scored 26 points on 5-of-10 three-point shooting with six assists and just one turnover in 40 minutes of action against the Panthers.
“We’ve got to take more of a stand on the defensive end. We gave ourselves a chance to win, but we’ve got to be tougher, grow up and be men.”
Therein lies the issue with the 2015-16 Fighting Irish, who all of a sudden face a crossroads scenario when Georgia Tech comes to town Wednesday. Yes, it’s a marathon, and few coaches are as emotionally equipped to handle the travails of conference play better than Brey.
But a loss to Georgia Tech Wednesday with a setback at Duke this weekend would leave the Irish in a hole from which they might very well be unequipped to escape.
Brey has reinvented Notre Dame many times through his 10 NCAA tournament appearances in 15 years. He could have a patent on coming up with ways to stem the tide, find the direction necessary for success, and then deftly steering Notre Dame to a level of tranquility that can be so elusive when the conference games start coming fast and furious twice a week.
But this fix is going to have to be quicker than normal, and all the bandages the Irish can bind may not be prevent this team from a trip to the NIT. This could be a tipping point from which the fragile Irish cannot recover.
Brey teams are frequently a bit fragile. He deals in real terms. He’s never afraid to suggest all the bad that could happen if his team doesn’t pull it together, which usually works in a desperate mode sort of way.
This team, however, just may not have the maturity to withstand what lies ahead and notch Brey’s sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
It’s not as if the Irish don’t have good players. The starting lineup of Jackson, Zach Auguste, Steve Vasturia, Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beachem is an individually talented crew. But frequently absent are the grit, cohesion and a consistent sense of urgency that is necessary to overcome the steady flow of hurdles in conference play.
It starts with 6-foot-10 senior Zach Auguste, whose numbers – on the surface – look impressive with a 13.3 scoring average, a 9.5 rebounding mark and already nine double-doubles to his name.
But it’s the inconsistency and the immaturity to be the leader in the absence of Connaughton/Grant that manifests itself in tough times, particularly on the road and particularly when opposing teams drop a second defender down on Auguste.
He gets flustered, he gets frustrated, and all of a sudden, Notre Dame’s frontline has to be buoyed by a 6-foot-5 sophomore, Colson, who has shown great heart early in his career, but isn’t physically gifted enough to do it night-in and night-out without a consistent Auguste presence.
Jackson has tried to put the team on his shoulders with his 17.3 points per game and his drive to assume the leadership role. His post-Pittsburgh comments sounded a bit more pointed than usual. But it’s often Jackson against the world in critical situations, and even Jackson feels the frustration when a game is turning south.
Brey named Vasturia a captain last week to try to add a spark. To be sure, Vasturia has leadership qualities within his performances, like his 6-of-9 shooting, four rebounds and four assists in the loss to Pittsburgh. He was stellar as a sophomore during Notre Dame’s ACC championship and NCAA tournament runs.
But Vasturia remains a lead-by-example player, with or without the captain’s designation. Beachem, himself an electric player when he gets rolling from beyond the arc, is a similar player to Vasturia in terms of emotional impact on his teammates. Their personalities are not the type to inspire those around them.
So when the inevitable crunch time arrives in a game, the Irish hit on some cylinders, but not all, and that isn’t enough as the Irish head deep into the heart of ACC play.
There are other issues. Defense has never been a staple of Brey’s teams, and this one even less than normal, as evidenced by Pittsburgh’s 10-of-12 shooting right out of the chute Saturday.
Another consistent aspect missing from most Brey teams is a bench. Matt Ryan and his three-point shooting have been a pleasant and fairly consistent addition. But beyond him, there is nothing resembling consistency from the Irish subs, unless you heavily weigh six or eight minutes of energy from Austin Torres, which generally isn’t enough to turn a game around.
Now, if the Irish don’t hold serve against Georgia Tech Wednesday night, Notre Dame will be traveling to Durham, N.C. this weekend with a 1-3 record and a team looking more like the 6-12 first-year entry in the ACC in 2013-14 than last year’s 32-6, 14-4 squad.
Somewhere in between lies reality, but unless that in between is 11-7 or maybe 10-8 in ACC play, it won’t be enough for the NCAA tournament. At the present time, both records look like a stretch.
“It’s good we don’t play until Wednesday at nine o’clock,” said Brey, clinging to every minute between Saturday’s loss and the home tilt against the Yellow Jackets, who lost by just eight at North Carolina, a mere five at Pittsburgh, and then knocked off Virginia at home about the same time the Irish were allowing Pittsburgh to shoot the lights out at Purcell Pavilion.
“We’ve got to stay on ‘em and after ‘em, and if we can’t get enough to start the game, then maybe we have to start differently,” said Brey of his static starting lineup. “When you’re 1-2 in the league, everything’s up for debate because Wednesday becomes very important to us.”
Ah, but this is where Notre Dame fans usually are fooled. Just when you think the Irish are down and out, Brey gets the message across on the practice floor, tightens the screws, inspires those on the fence of productivity to rise to the occasion, and gets his team to play a cohesive brand of winning basketball.
Even if the Irish can’t go to Duke and handle the Cameron Crazies – a much more mature Notre Dame squad lost by 30 in Durham last year – a win against Georgia Tech Wednesday night, coupled with home wins against upstart Virginia Tech and Boston College next week would bring the Irish to 4-3 in conference play, which certainly would keep them in the running with 11 conference games remaining.
And yet a team that may have to resign itself to winning one or two in a row throughout league play can’t afford to fall to 1-4 after Saturday’s trip to Duke.
It took two overtimes at home to defeat Georgia Tech and a come-from-behind performance – Notre Dame was down eight at halftime – to win at Georgia Tech last season.
“I love our group,” Brey said. “They want to be coached, they want to be better. As coaches, we’ve got to put them in better position.
“It’s still early in this thing. We’re growing. We’ve got a lot of growing to do. Bouncing back after losses will be something this group will have to be good at. They’ve already had to do it and they have to do it again.
“We’ve got time to do it. We’re fully aware of how long this thing is.”
Not as long as Brey would like to think if the Irish don’t claim Wednesday night’s crossroads clash with Georgia Tech.