by Kevin O'Neill
One might argue that there have been coaches who fit Notre Dame as well as Mike Brey has, but it would be hard to make a case that anyone has been a better fit. He embraces what Notre Dame is, quirky as that might be at times; and he wastes zero energy telling his bosses how and why they need to change the place to make him more successful.
If good strategy is taking advantage of organizational strengths while minimizing the impact of weaknesses, Brey is a strategy savant. Can’t get as many four star recruits through ND’s rigorous admissions process? No problem. Brey fills his teams with guys who can handle the ball and shoot, and he runs an offense that moves the ball, finds the open shooters, and finishes among the leaders in offensive efficiency season after season.
The result? A 370-179 (.674) record at Notre Dame; a 170-107 (.614) record in conference games, first in the Big East and later in the ACC when each conference was considered the best in college basketball more often than not; and 11 NCAA Tournament bids including runs to the regional finals in 2015 and 2016. All the while, Brey has been one of the most liked and respected coaches in college basketball.
Notre Dame fans have Bryce Drew to thank.
When it was time to choose his college, Drew had a difficult decision to make. Drew’s father, Homer, was the head coach at Valparaiso University. Would Bryce choose to play for Notre Dame which was about to join the Big East, or would he stay home and play for his dad?
Blood proved thicker than holy water, and it’s hard to say that Bryce made a bad decision. He became 1994’s Indiana Mr. Basketball, excelled at Valparaiso, was taken in the first round of the 1998 NBA draft (#16 to Houston), and now is the Head Coach at Vanderbilt.
If Drew had chosen Notre Dame, he would have spent four years playing with his classmate Pat Garrity. Garrity was an outstanding college basketball player and one of the toughest men to wear the uniform. He had to be tough because he played with so few teammates that could be considered as good as average college basketball players. With both Drew and Garrity, the Irish would have been a much better team. In what would have been the duo’s junior senior seasons, Notre Dame was 16-14/8-10 and 13-14/7-11.
Imagine those two seasons with four or five more wins, maybe more, and at least two more conference victories. Imagine the recruiting improvement ND could have experienced while that duo was playing together. As it was, the freshman class that followed the Garrity era included Troy Murphy, David Graves, and Harold Swanagan; and Matt Carroll was signed to follow them in the fall of 1999. Alas, the Irish were 14-16/8-10 during the 1998-99 season; and a blowout loss in the first round of the Big East Tournament squashed the last bits of optimism that the program was was moving in the right direction.
John MacLeod was fired; and after one year of the Matt Doherty coaching experience, Notre Dame hired Mike Brey. I have no doubt that the success of a Garrity-Drew team would have meant several more years with MacLeod at the helm. By the time MacLeod would have been gone, Brey would have moved up to a major program. He no longer would have been available to Notre Dame.
So thank you, Bryce Drew. Your decision worked out well for you; and after some short term pain, it has worked out well for Notre Dame as well.
Basketball is like war in that offensive weapons are developed first, and it always takes a while for the defense to catch up.
– Red Auerbach
Okay, Auerbach probably didn’t mean that it would take 15 years to catch up, and one might argue that “catch up” is an exaggeration to this day. Ken Pomeroy’s tempo adjusted statistics date back to 2002, so they cover most of Brey’s time at Notre Dame. Here is where the Irish have been ranked among the 300 to 350 teams that have played Division 1 basketball over that time period:
Additional notes on the Pomeroy stats:
Notre Dame has been a Pomeroy top 10 offensive team 7 of the 15 seasons the stats have been available. It has been in the top 25 11 times.
Notre Dame was the #185 defense four seasons ago when Jerian Grant was suspended and three freshmen were in the playing rotation. The next worst ranking was 133.
During a 2008 press conference, Brey expounded on the design of his program. He explained that he would love to have a team full of long, athletic players like Louisville, Syracuse, and UConn had. Then he could play pressure defense and run a lot of fast breaks. However, he wasn’t able to get a lot of those players through Notre Dame’s admissions process.
What he was (and still is) able to recruit in quantity is young men who can handle the ball and shoot; so his team runs an efficient halfcourt offense that relies on ball movement, finding open shooters, and making shots. His teams seldom crashed the offensive boards because they knew a running game almost always favored the opponent.
Brey went on to say that the guys he can recruit consistently usually don’t arrive as good defenders. It’s up to the coaches to make them into average defenders at least.
Recruiting has improved since Notre Dame’s arena was upgraded from the “embarrassing” category, even more since the move to the ACC. Theoretically that should have meant better defense, but Pomeroy’s rankings say that isn’t the case.
The Irish have been smaller, often playing four guards and wings around one big man, resulting in more opponents’ offensive rebounds and second chances to score. However, they have shown a propensity to get stops when they need them with an emphasis on what Brey calls a kill – three stops in a row. In addition, The Irish often pressure the ball in the backcourt to wear down the opponent’s point guard; and while the overall defense might not excel, stoppers like Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, Rex Pfleuger, and TJ Gibbs have been able to stifle hot players.
The most notable example of specialized defensive improvement is the 2015 ACC semi-final game vs Duke. Jahlil Okafor had his way with the Irish scoring 28 points, and the Blue Devils outrebounded Notre Dame 34-27; but Grant and Jackson harassed Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones into a combined 6 of 25 shots shooting night, 2 of 13 from three point range. Duke won at one position. Notre Dame broke even or won at the other positions.
Time will tell, but this season’s Fighting Irish are showing signs of being a more consistent defensive team from the start of a game to the end.
“The thing I’m so impressed with,” Brey said after the Louisville game, “is we’ve played two (conference) games now, and our field goal percentage defense is under 40. That’s kind of new territory for us on that end of the floor. We had to out-rebound them to win the game, and we did do that.”
He expounded after the Clemson game. “Our belief and mental toughness right now is as good as anybody’s in the league. There is a great will to win. We can dig in and get key stops against good teams. That’s stuff I don’t think we’ve been able to do enough annually here in our program. I’m very excited about that.”
In college basketball, “old” means means having upperclassmen in key roles. Brey has built his program to be old year after year. This season’s starting lineup includes two seniors and three juniors – Steve Vasturia, VJ Beachem, Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, and Martin Geben. Another senior, Austin Torres, is in the playing rotation along with sophomores Rex Pfleuger and Matt Ryan and freshman TJ Gibbs.
This season’s team is old. Next season’s team will be old, too. That’s something Brey loves about his team.
“I always felt we had a nucleus coming back that was part of some really good stuff,” Brey said when the team reconvened after Christmas. “Their stability, maturity, and ability to concentrate, even in our summer practices, was really impressive.”
A young team’s confidence might have been shaken after losing leads to Villanova and Purdue; but this group has overcome deficits vs Pitt and Clemson, and it beat Louisville in a see-saw game.
“Every time they made it a one possession game, we had a great offensive possession coupled with a defensive stop at the other end to give us a little bit of breathing room,” Brey said after the Louisville game. “But that’s the personalities of the guys we have. We’ve been a steady group to be around. That’s benefited us well in two league wins.
“We’ve got a tough group, man. They’re fun to be around.”
One and done players know about their program. Old players are the program. They learn the system. They know their time will come.
“You have the play of a Matt Farrell and a Martin Geben,” said Brey. “We needed them to be good, and they have delivered even more than we thought.”
After a close victory over Clemson highlighted his team’s toughness in tight situations, Brey said, “There gets to be an understanding of this is what we do by way of osmosis. Even when you’re not playing, like Matt Farrell, you see what the program does.”
More importantly, young players learn to lead.
Rex Pfleuger talked about the seniors “It’s awesome to see VJ and Steve find their voices, not only at the beginning of the season. It started in the summer. They really started to step up their leadership role on and off the court. Right now, I’m trying to learn from them, trying to get myself ready to step into that role. It’s a privilege to play with them.”
TJ Gibbs added “Our captains – VJ, Steve, and Bonzie – they all lead by example. They show us the way. They tell us, but they show us how to do it. They don’t preach anything that they don’t do.”
A 3-0 start in the conference is a luxury. While it’s true that the Irish could return from the upcoming road trip 3-3 and feeling in desperate need of a win over Syracuse at home, the fast start allows for a little more big picture thinking. I asked Brey what he wanted to develop between now and March.
“What other guys off the bench are we developing? We’ve had pretty good finishers with Rex as the sixth man, and TJ’s been in there a little bit; but does Torres rotate into that some?
“I still feel I’ve got to find a way to get Matt Ryan on the floor more. If he could have been better defensively, I think he’s ready to hit about four (three point shots) in a half. I’m trying to find a way to get him on the floor because we’re going to need him down the stretch.
“I love our toughness, our will, and our ability to defend. I think the biggest thing for me is to keep us fresh mentally and physically. This league is grueling. We just experienced it.
“You also have Farrell and Bonzie in new territory with game minutes. They have played 30+ minutes three times in a week. Vasturia and Beachem can do that all night long because they have been trained to do that for a while. I really have to be very plugged into Bonzie and Matty Farrell’s bodies , their legs, what do we do with our chiropractor and massage therapist, ice tubs, how long we’re practicing, what we’re doing in the weight room flexibility-wise. Rex, too. The way Rex plays, he is drained. He only knows one way, so that’s another guy. We still have 15 league games.”
One way to keep the team fresh is to manage practice time.
“We didn’t do much on Thursday,” Brey said after the Clemson game. “Yesterday we maybe went 5 on 5 for 10 minutes, and I didn’t have Matt Farrell in there that much because his body was really feeling it. We’ve got to keep them fresh mentally and physically.”
Flowers Aren’t Necessary
Clearly, Mike Brey’s program is a well considered process that fits Notre Dame well; and we have Bryce Drew to thank for him. Irish fans might consider sending him a thank-you card.
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