by Kevin O'Neill
Mike Brey really likes his team. I’ve had that impression since he first addressed the media at the beginning of fall practice. He believes the 2016-17 Fighting Irish are better than pundits have predicted.
As I have noted in past seasons. the story of a team’s season unfolds via Bruce Tuckman’s team development model. Tuckman, a psychology professor, identified four stages that teams traverse. The stages are universal truth that have the benefit of rhyming.
- Forming: Learning about the goals, mission, and the individuals involved
- Storming: Roles determined, often with some conflict
- Norming: Roles clarified and accepted
- Performing: Cohesiveness
Good leaders shorten the process, and the process is observable to anyone willing to pay attention.
“I had a good feel for our group at the end of the summer,” Brey said after the Loyola game. “We were so darned businesslike, very mature.”
Brey opened media day with the following…
“Let me start by saying all summer everyone said, ‘How are we going to be? Are we going to go back to the Elite Eight? How are we going to be? How are we going to be…’
“My comment was, ‘We just lost four NBA players in two years. That’s a major drain on your talent.’
“But… We still have a lot of guys back that have won together and have won at a high level, so I have been very excited starting back in June when we had the freshmen here working with this group. We’ve got a heck of a lot to work with, and we’re still old. Get old and stay old has been a theme around here, so we’ve still got experience.
“There’s no question in that locker room that I don’t have to talk about any goals. This group of guys talks about playing past the Elite Eight. That’s awesome when your culture generates that kind of leadership and tone without me getting involved.”
A Good Start
After the Irish defeated Iowa 92-78 on Tuesday, Brey did more than cite his team’s mature approach. “God, I am excited about our team,” he said. “I love my team. There is a great toughness about them.”
Notre Dame is 7-0 with victories over three good major conference teams. The players we knew had to play well have done so. Bonzie Colson, VJ Beachem, and Steve Vasturia have averaged 51 points and 19 rebounds collectively. In addition, Matt Farrell and his 12 point scoring average, 5.6 assists per game, and 3.3 assist/turnover ratio have been a revelation. Farrell was especially good in the two Legends Classic games in Brooklyn – 38 points, 12 assists, and only one turnover.
7-0 through the ACC-Big Ten Challenge game vs Iowa was a realistic goal, but who expected the way the Irish have won the seven games? Good passing is in the program’s DNA, but a team that attacks the rim, gets to the free throw line, and makes 85% of its freebies is different. Remember, most of these players were struggling at the free throw line so much at this time a year ago that Brey finally had them stop practicing the shot.
Leadership is a key performance indicator for Notre Dame basketball because each team’s cohesiveness determines how well it overcomes the talent gaps it will encounter over the course of the conference schedule and in postseason match-ups. Underclassmen learn from the leaders, and they’re expected to step into the role when their turns come.
Pat Connaughton was a natural leader during the 2014-15 season. He had the combination of personality and intensity that bred his teammates respect and devotion. If Brey had a message for his team, telling Connaughton meant it was as good as done.
Demetrius Jackson was the designated leader for the 2015-16 season. Jackson didn’t slide into the role easily. He had to learn on the job, and it was work for him; but the young man grew in the role over the course of the season, and the team’s performance tracked with his personal development.
I was skeptical about leadership going into this season. Anyone who has spent time around the seniors, Beachem and Vasturia, knows they are good people – smart, hard working, coachable. The question was whether they would, as Brey is prone to saying, find their voices.
Rex Pfleuger spoke to me about their growth. “It’s amazing to see,” he said. “Last year we had Demetrius and Z.A. pushed into the limelight about being the leaders of the team. It’s awesome to see VJ and Steve find their voices, not only since the start of the season. It started in the summer. They’ve really stepped up their leadership role on and off the court. It’s been a privilege to play with them. Right now I’m trying to learn from them and trying to get myself ready to step into that role.”
because they are seniors, I did expect Beachem and Vasturia to be captains; but I was surprised when Brey named a captaincy triumvirate that included Colson.
Colson, a warrior on the boards who was indifferent about his defense at times last season, always was going to be a key part of the team on the court; but was he ready for the added responsibility? A captain needs to be assertive, but he also needs to set the example for day-in, day-out hard work. Was he ready?
So Far, So Good
“I thought it would move quicker than it did with last year’s group,” Brey said. “Last year’s took some time. Given the makeup, especially of the three captains, they were very ready to take over; and Bonzie was ready to be a voice.
“It starts in the summer with the older guys when I’m not around. Here’s how we play. This is what we do. My theme is so reinforced by our upperclassmen.”
The younger guys are paying attention.
After the Chicago State game, freshman guard TJ Gibbs told me, “Our captains – VJ, Steve, Bonz – they all lead by example. They show us the way. They might tell us, but they also show us how to do it. They don’t preach anything they don’t do.”
Junior center Martinas Geben added, “They’re great leaders. They’re stepping into the role. They had great examples of leadership the last two years. They know how to win and what it takes to win tough games. They’re definitely ready, and they’re definitely growing as leaders every day.”
Roll With The Punches
“It’s really a mature group,” Brey said. “No drama, man. They play. They come in and work. It’s the kind of group you feel good about taking through the next five months, a group that can take punches because we will take some punches and be tough enough and together enough to hang in there.”
Indeed, the Irish have taken some punches and responded during the first seven games. Colorado trimmed a 16-point lead to four late in the first game of the Legends Classic. After trailing by as many as ten points in the second half of the championship game, Northwestern rallied to a six point lead. Finally, Iowa rallied to take a second half lead in the ACC – Big Ten Challenge game. Each time, the Irish regained control of the game and won.
“We just had to get back in character,” Beachem said about the team huddles during those runs. “We have a great group of veterans who really understand, who have been through the fire.”
“We had to stay together and pick each other up,” Colson said.
That’s it. Stay calm. Stay composed. Communicate. Anything else?
A Dash of Cayenne
Sometimes a little emotion goes a long way both for oneself and for the teammates. When Beachem was called for a questionable foul with 8:31 left in the Iowa game, his frustration showed as he slapped hands with Pfleuger so hard that that the wincing sophomore checked to see if his hand was still attached. Then Beachem proceeded to score eight points and grab a pair of rebounds over the next two minutes.
“He showed great emotion down the stretch,” said Brey. “He made that (first) one, and he turned to me and said, ‘Get me the ball.’ Point taken. We are going to get you the ball.”
The Irish have averaged 87 points per game so far, 84 vs the three major conference teams they have played. Brey’s teams always have been efficient on offense, but this year’s version is different. It can defend, and it can run.
“When we can keep it to one and done and get out and run, we’re a lot of fun to watch,” Brey said after the exhibition games. “We really know how to play. We have shot makers from different spots… Fun way to play.”
“We’ve never had front line guys be able to move their feet, get out on ball screens, then rotate back, and then bounce up and rebound and outlet,” Brey said later in the season. “The speed defensively is amazing to watch.
“I told them I got home the other night and was watching the Warriors game. A graphic came up that said they had five straight games with 30 assists. Why can’t we get 20? They’ve really hung their hat on that. It’s beautiful to watch because we’re playing a lot of different guys, and they really don’t get out of character.
“It’s a high basketball IQ group. They love to pass it. They understand the game. I said to them, ‘Don’t get bored with it because when it gets going it’s machine-like.’”
Some roles remain TBD, and I will write about that evolution in the coming weeks. In that regard, this team still is storming; and with young players learning the college game, elements of that stage might linger into mid-season. Nevertheless, this team is moving along the continuum quickly, and that bodes well for its victory total and NCAA Tournament seeding.
This is why Mike Brey really likes his team.