Willingham Should Notice Hoops

Don't be discouraged by the loss to Kentucky on Saturday. What the Wildcats displayed at the Joyce Center is what Mike Brey is building with his Irish program. But there is much work to do with recruiting and the infrastructure. Alan Tieuli provides the commentary, and stay with IrishEyes on Monday for a report on football recruiting and courtside coverage of the ND-Georgetown Big East tilt.

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January 20, 2002


Brey's Rebuilding
Right On Schedule

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

NOTRE DAME, Ind. (IE) – Despite losing a two-time All-American, Notre Dame today has the exact same record it had at this stage last season, 12 wins and five losses. Its 2-2 record in the Big East Conference matches last winter.

But perhaps people are troubled because Kentucky exposed the Irish on Saturday as being not quite on a national level yet. This is also similar to the 2000-01 campaign, when the Irish left Rupp Arena with their tails between their legs.

Notre Dame is not Kentucky. But give Mike Brey time. What he is doing with this program is quite impressive. The growing pains are relatively mild. A two-game losing streak to ranked teams is no reason to bail.

Brey will be the first to admit this. Notre Dame is playing a schedule more suited for a perennial Elite Eight NCAA Tournament team. The Irish aren’t ready for that. They’ve made the NCAA’s once in 11 years, losing in the second round.

Games at Indiana, in SEC country versus Alabama, and at home to Kentucky? Eleven of the first 16 games away from the Joyce Center? Duke couldn’t run the table with such a schedule.

Ogle all you like at the start Bob Knight has gotten off to at Texas Tech, but take a close look at the Red Raiders’ slate. Talk to me about the job he is doing after a complete Big 12 season. His team is very much like Matt Doherty’s squad here – young, impressionable and playing in fear of (and in some cases, in spite of) the boss. They will go on the road in that conference and lay some eggs, like ND that year at Pittsburgh and Villanova.

Brey’s program is a little more advanced. He has better players – starting with the gifted Chris Thomas and the angular Ryan Humphrey – but he doesn’t have enough of them.

Doherty is to be credited for paving the way for Thomas and Jordan Cornette to commit to Notre Dame, but the former coach also has to be held culpable for his 2000 recruiting class – Torrian Jones, Chris Markwood and Tom Timmermans. This is not a Big East Conference trio. Doherty’s gamble with Ivan Kartelo and Jere Macura has not panned out either.

It will take Brey at least two more recruiting classes to make up for Doherty’s mistakes in judgment. Meanwhile, you are going to see more situations like Saturday, when Kentucky’s Cliff Hawkins stripped Markwood on national television for a game-turning basket.

Earlier in the week you may have been wondering where Syracuse’s Kueth Duany came from. He’s been in Central New York for two years, getting eight minutes here, 10 minutes there. His best work was done in practice. When his turn came, he was ready. That’s the beauty of a mature program. Players develop from "good-on-good" in practice. Look at Connecticut. Tony Robertson is on the verge of stardom this year and next year, IrishEyes predicts, it will be Scott Hazleton stepping up.

Notre Dame wants to be Syracuse and Connecticut. Make no mistake, CBS, ABC and ESPN want Notre Dame to be Syracuse and Connecticut. But it took Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun five years apiece to get their programs to elite status. Brey is only in year two.

The infrastructure of the program is also in a similar stage of growth.

The Joyce Center looked great on national television Saturday, a sold-out crowd all decked out in kelly green and gold. But except for some early enthusiasm from the student section, the building had no atmosphere. Part of the reason is the 11,418 saw that their team was overmatched. Part of the reason is the building is no longer a fun place to watch a game.

Dr. Kevin White can’t put his signature on a building renovation plan soon enough. The upstairs bleachers are creaky and dangerous. The padded seats in the lower bowl are ripped and faded. Two words come to mind with the concessions: prison food. And the in-game promotions are preposterous. You want to enjoy the band and cheerleaders during media timeouts? First you have to endure the sponsor announcements and minor-league baseball-esque stunts.

The building is part of Brey’s long-term plan. He’s already refurbished the program in some very important ways, such as getting White to agree to charter flights on many road trips. He also struck gold in following up the Thomas signing with three blue chips in Torin Francis, Rick Cornett and Chris Quinn. The Irish will legitimately go seven deep in 2002-03 with quality Big East/SEC/Big Ten caliber players.

"Where we are right now, that’s just about right," Brey told IrishEyes earlier this week. "Last year we got ranked in the Top 10 one week. That was ridiculous. We’re not a Top 10 program yet. But we’ll get there, the plan is in place."

There’s no doubting that. Every step Brey has made since coming up from the Delaware shore has been a positive one. The Irish go into every game with a chance to win and, with a point guard like Thomas, they can beat any team that remains on the schedule. But the overall depth of talent also makes this team vulnerable each team out.  If the Irish beat deep and athletic Georgetown Monday, it will be a victory to cherish.

Be patient. This program is making strides and one can only hope that Tyrone Willingham makes the same type of tangible progress as Mike Brey.

(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at aatandsonspr@aol.com)

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