BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Mike Brey patiently fielded questions in the cavernous halls of the Barclays Center early Sunday evening, long after Rex Pflueger’s spectacular stretch-of-the-arm tip of a Zach Auguste put-back miss gave Notre Dame a 76-75 victory over Stephen F. Austin, sending the Irish to Philadelphia to take on Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.
He could afford to take his time. Notre Dame’s flight from New York back to South Bend was not scheduled for another three or four hours. There was no rush. He could bask in it. He did.
“This is what March Madness is all about,” said Brey against the NCAA tournament backdrop. “It’s thrilling to be part of it. I never want to take if for granted. I’m excited that I get to go to practice tomorrow and still coach my guys.”
Brey is all about experiencing the moment. He has been since arriving some 16 years ago as a relative unknown from Delaware, ballyhooed as a Mike Krzyzewski discipline more than his accomplishments with the Blue Hens, which were ample and on the rise.
But moments like Sunday night in Brooklyn have been few and far between. Rather, they were few – one Sweet 16 trip in 14 years – followed by back-to-back statement-screaming trips to the Sweet 16, with a chance to make it consecutive visits to the Elite Eight with a victory Friday night in Philly’s Wells Fargo Center against the Badgers.
“In the history of the program, we haven’t gone (to the NCAA tournament) and won two games many times,” Brey said. “It’s powerful for our program, the momentum we have since we’ve joined the ACC.
“I love where we’re at as a program. I love the winning culture, the believing we can find a way to advance in this tournament. That was something that we had to develop, and I love that we have that trait right now.”
Brey has been a lightning rod among Notre Dame followers because a) the basketball program doesn’t generate the buzz the football program does, b) the ignorance of how difficult it is to recruit/win consistently in today’s major college basketball environment is ample, and c) Brey’s frequent passive voice suggests a lack of toughness and a low standard for success.
He is a quintessential nurturer, not a screamer, although the crescendo that built during halftime of the Michigan game Friday night when his players took on that passive role suggests a calculated, when-he-gets-mad-he-means-it persona that is very effective when unleashed.
The culture that Brey creates is to never panic, stick with the plan, believe in me, follow my lead, and everything will be okay. It’s an atypical approach in the red-faced world of basketball coaches grinding out every possession and over-coaching every step the players take on a basketball court that was meant to have a free-flowing feel to it.
But when it comes together and the confidence builds and success breeds success, as it has last year and now this, it leads to special moments like the ones experienced in Greensboro, N.C., Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Washington, D.C. and now Brooklyn.
“(The players) were talking, ‘We’ve been in it before,’” said Brey, as always, like a beaming papa who is perpetually “proud of his group.”
“They were great. They were really poised, talking about what they needed to do. There wasn’t a whole lot for me to say. This time of the year, the group has ownership of itself.”
Notre Dame couldn’t get into its offensive flow against Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks don’t allow it. They trap just past the half-court line and force teams to use the majority of the 30-second clock before they can run any semblance of an offensive set.
SFA took West Virginia out of its game 48 hours earlier, forcing the Mountaineers into 22 turnovers, which gave the Irish a road map for success Sunday afternoon.
Brad Underwood, the architect of the Stephen F. Austin blueprint, won 89 games in his first three years in Nacogdoches, Texas, tying the mark for career-opening success on the collegiate level established by Brad Stevens at Butler.
Underwood is not long for Nacogdoches, Texas. His creation in the sub-standard Southland Conference would work just fine on a much grander stage. In fact, Oklahoma State – which is looking for a head coach to compete at a level commensurate to its tradition in the Big 12 – would be wise to consider a guy like Underwood from their general neck of the woods.
But the Irish were ready, and while 13 turnovers gives the Irish 61 in the last four games, which is a shocking turn of events for a program averaging less than 10 all season, it was a workable number against the SFA program that forces 18 per game.
The key guys that brought the Irish to this point were key again. Demetrius Jackson scored four of his team-leading 18 points in the final minute-and-a-half, just when a five-point deficit seemed an improbable one to overcome.
Zach Auguste scored 16 points on 8-of-9 from the field – his only miss the put-back that Pflueger tipped in – and grabbed 15 rebounds. The blossoming of V.J. Beachem right before our very eyes continued.
Steve Vasturia remained in struggle mode with his shot and his overall game, but he continues to be part of the glue that has led to much of Notre Dame’s success the last two seasons. Bonzie Colson, too, has been a bit of an up-and-down performer with Auguste taking the starring role in the paint. But the Irish junkyard dog is always on the verge of a significant contribution.
There was and would have been a ton of second-guessing as it pertained to Brey’s bench usage, which perennially is employed sporadically. His rotations in Brooklyn were, at times, out of whack.
If starting Matt Farrell was important to Notre Dame’s post-season success, why wasn’t it important in a 17-game stretch when he logged just 45 minutes total and never left the bench in six of those games?
Farrell’s first career start came Friday against Michigan. Really? Had Brey prepared him properly for such a big moment? Brey’s critics said no. Brey’s critics didn’t know.
“We put him in there against N.C. State,” said Brey of Farrell. “We dusted him off after losing to Florida State and Miami badly. We wanted to play faster and we needed another handler on the floor. We felt it would help Demetrius. (Jackson) wouldn’t have to bring it up into the teeth of people all the time. It really played out well against N.C. State.
“We didn’t play him as much against Duke. We were down, and Steve and D were the guys setting the tone. Against North Carolina, I put him in a lot in the second half on purpose because I figured moving forward, he was going to play again. I think he had eight assists here.”
Pflueger’s presence on the court for the game-winning play would have been criticized, too, had the Irish lost. Brey still had two timeouts. He chose not to use one of them, and Pflueger had been on the court for defensive purposes when Notre Dame got the stop that set up the game-winning sequence.
While half of Irish America likely was screaming for a timeout, Brey was thinking the same thing – if Jackson had difficulty getting the basketball in his hands. But once Jackson gained possession, that was the determining factor in playing on. Pflueger’s heroics justified Brey’s decision, just as Farrell’s heady 31 minutes of action against Stephen F. Austin did.
Next time, it could be another freshman – sharpshooting Matt Ryan, who played just four minutes against the Lumberjacks – that plays the key role.
“This group believed they could do it,” Brey said. “You’ve got to remember that the guys in that room were a part of an ACC championship.
“More importantly, they advanced in this tournament and found a way to win hard games. These two games were harder than Northeastern and Butler (last year). They’ve been in it before. This group believes they can stay alive in the tournament.”
They also believe in their head coach. They’re about to take on a Wisconsin team that believes in its new head coach, Greg Gard, in a program that is coming off back-to-back trips to the Final Four.
They, too, have the winning experiences with which to connect.
“We had trouble in my early years getting confident enough to win and advance,” Brey said. “It’s a culture right now.”
A winning culture. All the way to Philadelphia.