In 1916, renowned American poet Robert Frost wrote about two paths which diverged into a yellow wood. After evaluating both options, Frost takes “the one less traveled by” and chooses not to look back. “The Road Not Taken” is often used to illustrate the bravery of being an iconoclast and the courage it can require to go where others tend not even if you “doubt [you] will ever come back” to sample the other choice.
But it was another interpretation that has come to mind for me when thinking about Notre Dame’s men’s basketball program right now — the necessity of making a choice in order to move forward and not being paralyzed by indecision. Nearing the end of what is looking like a third straight season without an NCAA bid, I see two paths stretching before head coach Mike Brey into the yellow wood that is the program’s future. Neither will be easy, but one of them must be chosen
What paths, you ask? Let us start by paraphrasing a question written by a much less well known American writer, David Byrne:
How Did We Get Here?
If anyone had said to me on Thanksgiving Day in 2017 we would be where we are, in the words of Sally Brown, I’d have said they were crazy. The Irish were coming off two straight Elite Eight appearances and seven NCAA tournament wins in three years, had reached the ACC tournament championship game for the second time, had signed a top-20 recruiting class earlier in the month, were two months away from beginning renovations for the long-awaited state-of-the-art practice facility, and had just defeated #6 Wichita State to win the Maui Classic. Everything was coming up shamrocks.
Then fans watched as things seemed to collapse. Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell lost critical time to injuries during the ACC slate, and Notre Dame was the 69th team in a 68-team field when NCAA bids came out four months after that Maui win. The top-20 class was followed up by an empty class the next year, as the Fighting Irish seemed to overreach for blue-chip talent without seeming to have a backup plan. The Fab Frosh got off to a rocky start, and senior leader Rex Pflueger and frosh Rob Carmody were lost for most of that next season, where Notre Dame cratered to a 3-15 record in the ACC. While touted guard Cormac Ryan transferred in from Stanford and big men Elijah Taylor and Matt Zona signed LOI’s in the fall to re-prime the recruiting pump, the sought-for improvement on the court has been inconsistent at best this season, and an NCAA bid seems highly unlikely.
Not the greatest 24-months to be an Irish hoops fan.
The factors driving the decline depend on who you ask, with people citing both bad luck and bad decisions.
- Certainly the presence of Colson and/or Farrell in some of the games that were lost in the 2018 ACC season would have made a difference, and even one more win would have put Notre Dame back in the tournament. But even without Colson, the Irish should have been able to defeat Miami at home and win on the road against an NC State team they’d throttled by 30 earlier in the season, and either of those wins could have been enough.
- With a top-20 class successfully in the fold and unable to promise playing time to HS players, recruiting the next season would be a difficult prospect regardless of who was pursued. That was all the more reason, though, to go after lower-ranked players who wouldn’t be clamoring for instant gratification to provide depth. And when the blue-chip philosophy failed, a much harder hit on the grad transfer market would seem to have been in order.
- Following the departure of long-time assistant coaches Martin Inglesby to Delaware and Anthony Solomon to Georgetown, Mike Brey decided to elevate two former players into the A/C slots, Ryan Humphrey and Ryan Ayers. Given the expected quality of the roster the next couple seasons, it’s reasonable to think Brey believed the two Ryans would have the opportunity to get some experience under their belts without feeling the pressure. But that didn’t happen, and at a place like Notre Dame, having an experienced quality recruiter on staff is an absolute must, which may or may not have contributed to the empty class in November of 2018.
- Notre Dame has seen more than its share of injuries the last two years, hurting the ability to build up depth by putting players in positions before they are ready. Brey’s philosophy of staying under the scholarship limit, however, exacerbates the depth issues and makes it a lot harder to overcome injury-related setbacks.
So which is it? Is Notre Dame trying to tough its way through a snakebite pit, or have bad coaching decisions left the Fighting Irish spinning their wheels? Medium vertutis, as my mom always liked to say, or a little from column A and a little from column B.
Regardless, here we stand looking into that yellow wood. And as noted English writer Alan Parsons once asked, Notre Dame’s $64k question is…
Where Do We Go From Here?
Double-double machine John Mooney is graduating. TJ Gibbs will follow Mooney across that stage, which will increase the pressure on enigmatic sophomore Prentiss Hubb. Carmody has only made 16 appearances in two seasons due to injury. Inconsistent outside shooting may be helped by Ryan becoming eligible, and there’s still the transfer market to shop in, but there doesn’t seem to be an obvious cure for the inconsistent consistency of the last two seasons. The much-ballyhooed tendencies of fans today to prefer home viewing notwithstanding, attendance figures are hurting as the Irish are playing in front of smaller and smaller crowds, especially when it comes to their fellow students.
Like Jack Wade, I got faith. But sometimes, faith isn’t enough.
On that aforementioned November day in 2017, Mike Brey had one of (if not the) best winning percentages in the history of the program. On this February day in 2020, he does not. Sparking some new mojo and getting the program out of these doldrums is going to require him to give it a very very heavy shake, which, IMO, means one of two things:
Choice 1: New dedication. Whatever rut may be hampering the steering after 20 years, Brey needs to bounce out. New approaches should be considered, and the best path may be new faces in his office, some which may be unfamiliar. Loyalty to players and long-time friends is one of Brey’s best qualities, but affairs of state must take precedence over affairs of state.
Choice 2: New direction. Brey looks like he’s aged a decade since that Maui championship. 20 years is a long time, and if his last couple forays into broadcasting are any indication, a lucrative television career is there for him any time he wants it. He’s done yeoman’s service for ND these last 20 years, sometimes in the face of an embarrassing lack of support from his administration, and no one would blame him for deciding enough is enough. He would be the first Notre Dame head coach since Moose Krause to retire on his own terms, and it would be well-deserved.
In two decades under the Dome, Mike Brey has won at or above the program’s historical norm, represented the University very well, and has never shown any sign he wants to be anywhere else than where he is. For those reasons and many more, he should be able to make his own decisions as to how things are going to proceed from here.
That said, I’m reminded of one of his predecessors. Digger Phelps did a lot of great things in his first 10 years at Notre Dame, including taking the program to its only Final Four. But he burned up some of that goodwill in his last 10 years, especially when he hamstrung John McLeod by over-promising scholarships on the eve of a national rule change reducing them. Regardless of the perceived justification, it rubbed folks the wrong way.
If Brey truly feels he can right the ship and wants to burn the calories to do it, he earned a chance to do so. But those calories must be burned, and plowing forward with the status quo isn’t an option. Brey and Notre Dame basketball have reached the fork in the road, and as another great American would tell them, they have to take it.
Agree? Disagree? Tell Mike what you think in the comments below