by Mike Coffey
In the wake of the NCAA loss to Iowa State last year, I said both Jack Swarbrick and Mike Brey needed to gear up for changes. The downslide since the #2-seed performance the previous season needed to be reversed, and it seemed both men had the ability and opportunity to get their part of that job done.
As we sit here 12 months later looking back on the progress that has been made, I’m forced to conclude I see very little on either side. We’ve backslid on a number of fronts, and unless both men take their (dwindling) opportunities to shake things up a little bit, the situation will become untenable.
What’s Jack Been Up To?
The mention of basketball in the Campus Crossroads Project certainly was positive. To have the athletic director actually talking about a practice facility in concrete terms certainly is an improvement over vague assurances of “priorities”, and Mike certainly welcomed the news.
The progress, however, remains inadequate. While talking about specifics is an improvement, when those specifics involve a five-year wait for a football-related project to be completed before they come to fruition, they’re not nearly enough. It’s five more years for something to go wrong, plans to be changed, and the program to wear the “ND doesn’t care” albatross around its neck. Like many ND alums, I have no problem with the philosophy that football comes first — it pays the bills, after all — but when it’s exhibited in such a clumsy and blatant manner, to the detriment of another sport that should be able to pay some bills itself if it’s managed correctly, I want to start throwing things.
Notre Dame should be an attractive program to recruits and coaches, and Jack’s position on the food chain makes a lot of that his responsibility, especially when it comes to the latter. Five years is too long for a group already 15 years behind schedule. It’s time for some out-of-the-box thinking to show the college basketball world Notre Dame isn’t screwing around anymore. Maybe move the current amenities of the Rolfs building into the 84k square feet of the JACC’s North Dome until the new student space is ready, and allow the basketball teams quicker access to their new digs? That’ll certainly get people’s attention.
What’s Mike Been Up To?
For the first time in Mike Brey’s tenure at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish finished below .500 for the season and did not participate in any postseason play. The team suffered more losses than in any of Brey’s previous years, and while six conference wins manages to match the previous nadir set in the forgettable 2005-06 season, that team had two fewer games to get those wins. So I’m confident calling this the worst of Brey’s 14 Notre Dame teams, and the fact it comes at the start of what I was expecting to be an uptick in Irish basketball fortunes makes it even more disappointing.
The difficulty analyzing the 2013-14 Fighting Irish, however, is the same one we had this past football season — the unexpected absence of a key piece. Jerian Grant’s academic suspension robbed the team of its leading scorer and best overall athlete right at the start of the conference season. One might argue some of the low points hit this season might have been avoided if 20 percent of the starting lineup had been available.
While I understand and appreciate the difficulty, unfortunately, I’m not one of those people.
Yes, Brey and his assistants had a lot less time to adjust to Grant’s departure than Brian Kelly’s team did Everett Golson’s, so I can understand having to adjust on the fly. But let’s not pretend the team was playing lights-out basketball prior to Grant’s departure. Excellent efforts against Indiana and Ohio State were offset by terrible outings against Indiana State and North Dakota State, both at home.
The issue this season wasn’t the presence or absence of Jerian Grant, but rather the poor (if not occasionally horrific) play by the Irish defense in general and big men in particular. Garrick Sherman, while turning in some good performances on offense, was an absolute liability for Notre Dame on the other end of the floor. Zach Auguste, while showing flashes of the quickness and leaping ability that could make him a key piece for ND in the future, couldn’t perform at a consistent level. When not injured, Tom Knight pretty much was a non-factor.
With the poor performance of the frontcourt players, Notre Dame’s defense suffered even more than it usually has under Brey. The team finished the season(or at least are ranked as of this writing) a brutal 203rd in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive rankings, and many of the season’s losses can be blamed on a dismal defensive effort.
The play of both the big men and the defense must improve next season if the current downward trend is to be reversed. Barring the sudden appearance of a 5th-year senior transfer, Notre Dame must depend on Auguste and newcomers Bonzie Colson and Martin Geben to carry the load in the paint successfully, and that achievement is not outside the realm of possibility.
The defensive issues, though, remain pervasive, and may require a more draconian solution. Brey lamented the staff had wracked their brains to find a solution to the poor defense all season. If such a solution couldn’t be found with the current staff, perhaps some changes in that area are required to get some new and better ideas flowing.
I’ve long maintained Mike Brey has been successful at Notre Dame in spite of the lack of support commensurate with that his adversaries on the court receive from their institutions, and God knows he’s shown loyalty to the school by not making it a point of contention. But he remains most directly responsible for the program’s success, and it doesn’t seem he’s been delivering the last two seasons. If he lets that loyalty get in the way of success, no one will win, least of all him.
He very well may conclude Grant’s absence was the primary driver behind the lack of success this year. It’s a conclusion I don’t agree with, but he’s within his rights to reach it and take (or not) action accordingly. But if that conclusion turns out to be wrong, the responsibility for the consequences are his and his alone. If he chooses not to make more of an issue about school support and nothing changes, it’s on him. If he chooses not to make any changes to his coaching staff and things don’t improve, it’s on him. If the program continues to stagnate, student and fan interest continues to wane, and Jack Swarbrick decides he has to make a change — poorly equipped as Notre Dame may be to do so — he will have no one but himself to blame.
I said it last year, I’ll say it again now — “Steady as she goes” is not the right path here, for either Jack or Mike. If both don’t shake things up, we’ll find ourselves where no one wants to be — right back where we were when Brey was hired.
Get shaking, boys.