"It was a lot more crowded," Brey said. "To have 16 teams and all the coaches in one room and some of their key players, to me for the first time it showed the power and the depth of our league for everybody to see. There's excitement to be a part of that but there's also anxiety as a coach looking around and saying, ‘How are we going to negotiate this new behemoth of a league?'"
The Irish are coming off a disappointing end to last season, losing their last two games of the year to miss out on the NCAA Tournament and then being defeated at home by Holy Cross in the NIT. To start this year, Notre Dame was picked to finish eighth in the conference by the league's coaches. Villanova, despite the loss of Curtis Sumpter to another knee injury, barely edged out Connecticut as the pre-season pick to win the Big East.
The early season predictions usually don't hold a lot of weight by year's end. Brey, in his fifth year as head coach of Notre Dame, wasn't surprised by the middle of the pack status but wants to send his graduating class out in style.
"I think for our seniors, they are motivated to go out with a special year," Brey said. "And I hope that they do. This was my first recruiting class these three guys. You want to see that for them. I told them all along that I expect us to be somewhere between 7 to 11. I said that nobody is really talking about our team. There is really no one talking about our individual guys. I don't think they came out of that with ‘Oh my God, no respect' but it's almost what we thought. Let's get back and get to work. We feel we're still going to be in position to do some things. But as I told them, the only tournament you should worry about is the Big East Tournament because not everybody goes."
Irish senior Torin Francis knows that you have to take these predictions with a grain of salt.
"It's just a ranking," Francis said. "It's a preseason ranking at that. It doesn't really have any effect on any team's performance on the court when the actual Big East season starts. We didn't make it to the tournament last year. I don't think we're one of those teams that are favored to be one of the top teams. We're right in the middle. That's what we got."
This year's team has a mix of old and young. Four seniors and four freshmen are part of the 12-man roster that has been forming into a team since the summer. Also, a new NCAA rule allowed Brey to spend some valuable time with the squad before the first day of official practice. The freshmen class is sure to see some playing time this season and Brey has seen them blending in with the other players.
"It's meshed pretty good because our freshman…The one thing about our freshmen is that they come from four pretty good high school programs," Brey said. "Their basketball IQ is ahead of most typical freshmen. We've been able to do some things with them fast and they're not left behind. What has helped is that they were here last summer and we were able to, under a new NCAA rule, do some things in September as well. That's been a benefit to guys who already have a good feel for the game.
"The one thing I thought, and we were able to do some things in the pre-season so you had a feel before October 15th, we do know how to play. There's a basketball IQ. We're fundamentally sound. We understand how to pass and move the ball. That has been there. We're concerned about a defensive identity and a rebounding identity for us. And then bringing the young guys along, getting them confident and who is going to help us out."
The one slogan heard a lot from Notre Dame coaches and players at their own Media Day a few weeks back was that this season it was all going to be about the "team." The squad marveled at the unselfishness present within this group and how it was going to benefit them during the season. Francis, one of the captains of Notre Dame along with Chris Quinn, has still seen this attitude after two weeks of official practice.
"One thing about our team is that ever since I've been here, we've got along great as a team," Francis said. "We've always had strong relationships on the court and off the court. In the game, that's on the court and that's really where you have to come together. That's the only way you are going to win in the long run. That's the difference between a win and a loss. That's one of the points of emphasis from the summer is to form a team identity."
The Irish will open up their exhibition season next Thursday when they take on Lewis at the Joyce Center. Tip off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. (EST). This opportunity gives the players a chance to get into a rhythm of the season before it opens for real on November 20th vs. Lafayette. Francis said it'll be good to go up against some competition other than themselves and apply what they've learned in practice to game situations. For Brey, it's about finding the right rotation and seeing how the group responds to playing time.
"You always want to see in a dress rehearsal when guys are sitting on the bench how we'll react and what our rotation will be like," Brey said. "The one thing about practice before a game, everybody is playing. But when you play the first game and you sit on the bench, then the reality of where I stand in the pecking order comes out and how guys handle that.
"But I think that's something that can be very flexible, too, in November and December. With this team, there are a lot of moving parts still. Still trying to get a feel for who is best in what rotation to who plays well in this rotation. The exhibitions will be that for us."