Bye & Bye, Brey Delivers ND From Mediocrity

With Syracuse losing on Sunday, Notre Dame is the only team in the Big East to win 10 conference games two years in a row. Thanks to the patient, even-handed leadership of Mike Brey, the Irish are quickly becoming a member of the conference elite. IrishEyes Managing Editor Alan Tieuli takes a look at a satisfying regular season, and shares his thoughts on Big East All-Stars and award winners.

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March 3, 2002

 "Bye, Bye" Means
Farewell to Mediocrity

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

NOTRE DAME, IN (IE) – The last day of the regular season served as both a reward for Notre Dame’s fine Big East campaign and a reminder of what an outstanding job Mike Brey has done with the program over two years.

Boston College’s victory over free-falling Syracuse Sunday lifted the Irish into second-place in the West Division of the Big East Conference. With that lofty standing comes a first-round bye in the conference tournament. Seven other games will be contested at Madison Square Garden before the Irish take the floor in a quarterfinal game at 9 p.m. Thursday versus the winner of Wednesday’s St. John’s-Seton Hall match-up.

"You love having that day off to get into the quarterfinal," said senior forward David Graves. "I’ve been home quick too much (from New York). I got one last try and I want to stay there at least four or five days."

The Irish arrive in Gotham late Tuesday afternoon and the bye guarantees that Graves and his mates will have at least three nights at the brand-new, chic Times Square digs that they have chosen for their home-away-from-home in New York. The Thursday match-up against either the No. 3 East Johnnies or No. 6 West Pirates is certainly winnable. A victory there would place Notre Dame in its first-ever Big East Tournament semifinal.

And Notre Dame, under Brey, is ready for the bright lights. The Irish have captured 21 Big East regular season victories the past two seasons. No conference team has won more, though Connecticut and Boston College have equaled that number. Notre Dame is the only conference squad to win 10 games or more in each of the last two seasons and also earn consecutive first-round tournament byes.

"When I talked to our team, I focused on the 10 wins in the league," said Brey, who met with his excited squad at 5 p.m. Sunday in the midst of a persistent Lake Effect snowstorm. "That is the thing to be most proud of. It shows consistency."

Boston College went 13-3 last year, returned the Big East co-Player of the Year, and won five fewer league games this season. Syracuse was 5-0 in the conference, 16-2 overall, after it beat Notre Dame on January 14. It has gone 4-8 since. Georgetown was picked to win the West Division and was under .500 in league play on February 19. Providence won 11 games last season but had miserable chemistry this year and finished sixth in its division.

But Notre Dame – after losing its co-Player of the Year to the NBA and plugging a freshman into the starting point guard role – thrived. It shook off a three-game losing streak in January (a product, perhaps more than anything, of an unfavorable schedule) to win eight of final 11 games and get to 20-9 overall. Brey is the only coach in Notre Dame history to win 20 in each of his first two seasons at the helm.

John MacLeod planted the seed for this success with outstanding recruiting. Matt Doherty lit the spark by bringing fire back to the Joyce Center stands and floorboards. And Brey has been the understated winner, a coach who earns his team’s trust through clinical game plans, even-handed treatment and trust.

Notre Dame earned its 20 wins and number two seed. The prime time awaits on Thursday.


IRISHEYES AWARD PREDICTIONS: Big East Tournament week begins Monday when the conference’s All-Stars are chosen. The conference will choose one Player of the Year (to be announced Tuesday night in the traditional pre-tournament Awards ceremony at the Grand Hyatt) and five All-Big East first-team selections. Here’s how IrishEyes would vote:

All-Big East First Team: Troy Bell (Boston College), Caron Butler (Connecticut), Marcus Hatten (St. John’s), Ryan Humphrey (Notre Dame), Mike Sweetney (Georgetown).

Toughest omissions: Chris Thomas (Notre Dame), Darius Rice (Miami).

Bell had the same type of moody junior season that we all endured with Troy Murphy last year. But he is the league’s second leading scorer and a gifted scorer with a 94-foot game. Butler has had a sensational season and Digger Phelps feels he might be Connecticut’s best player ever. (Hello? Ray Allen?) Hatten is the conference’s leading scorer who also has the talent and inclination to control a game defensively with his long arms and instincts. Sweetney was our pre-season Player of the Year selection and "drops" to the first-team primarily because senior point guard Kevin Braswell too often dominated the looks in big spots, costing the Hoyas at least one victory (the four overtime game against ND) and possibly two. If Humphrey does not make the first-team it’s a real shame. Humphrey and Sweetney are the only two conference players to average a double-double and Humphrey includes senior leadership and superior passing ability to his portfolio.

Player of the Year: Pittsburgh’s Brandin Knight. This may be a difficult one for Notre Dame fans to understand since Thomas did an outstanding job on Knight twice. How did the Panthers win 13 league games with Donatas Zavackas, Jaron Brown, Julius Page, Toree Morris and Ontario Lett getting serious minutes? Knight made them all better with outstanding ball distribution, tenacious defense and clutch offense. Brey was the only Big East coach prescient enough to realize how talented Knight was in pre-season. He was the only conference coach to pick the Panthers to finish ahead of Notre Dame. (The Panthers were chosen sixth.) Without Butler, Connecticut probably wins seven or eight Big East games. Without Knight, Pittsburgh is Virginia Tech.

Other major awards:

Coach of the Year: It should be unanimous. Pittsburgh’s Ben Howland. Brey would be runner-up in our eyes.

Defensive Player of the Year: Providence’s John Linehan. The NCAA’s all-time steal leader. Enough said. There’ll be time for Emeka Okafor.

Most Improved Player: Syracuse’s Kueth Duany. Smooth as silk on the perimeter and destined for stardom next year.

Rookie of the Year: No secret here. IrishEyes has boosted Thomas over UConn’s Okafor all season. His skills are unmatched. A Player of the Year candidate next year after a spring and summer of weight training and film study with invaluable assistant coach Anthony Solomon.

(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at Top Stories