Notes from the Geetar: Mike Brey’s Frosty Moment

el kabong with geetar

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

19 thoughts on “Notes from the Geetar: Mike Brey’s Frosty Moment

  1. Gary M Schoonaert says:

    As a season ticket holder for many years I have watched this Notre Dame program closely. It doesn’t seem like Notre Dame or Mike Brey put enough effort into this sport to be successful. They are “ok” with being mediocre. Its hard to hear Mike say he is just going to recruit locally. After many years of buying tickets I am considering pulling the plug on this basketball team. They try really hard, but does the university or their head coach. It doesn’t seem like it.

    • I don’t recall reading a quote from Brey saying he was “just going to recruit locally”. Do you have a link to it?

  2. Brey is a great guy but he is not a good coach. Poor recruiting and absolutely horrible end of game decisions (or lack there of) have cost us dozens of games over the years. we need a change. ND should be perennial top 25 team with occasionally frequent runs in the top 10. Other smaller catholic schools do it: Gonzaga, Seton Hall, Creighton and of course Villanova. Nova of course is an excellent academic school b which is smaller than nd and has inferior resources yet competes at an elite level. ND doesn’t do this because they dont want to. they could! The school seems happy with mediocrity in basketball ( and in football winning but not big winning). The solution needs to change with a new AD and possibly even a new president

    • I’d love ND to be a perennial top 25, but I just don’t think that’s realistic. Here is a list of the current active streaks for making the NCAA tournament, which implies these teams are at least in the top-25 (it’s easy to say top-68, but with the automatics, it’s probably more like the top-35 or so that make it every year):
      – 30 – Kansas
      – 24 – Duke
      – 22 – Michigan State
      – 20 – Gonzaga
      – 9 – UNC
      – 9 – Cincy
      – 7 – Villanova

      There are only 7 schools who have made the tournament the last 7 years, and UNC ain’t making it this year. It’s hard to be a perennial top-25, as going into this tournament only at most 6 teams will have made it the past 8 or more seasons. With that stated, ND needs to be more consistent than Brey has demonstrated over his tenure. I’m not quite sure what the target should be, maybe 3 out of every 4 years?

    • I think one thing you may be overlooking with regard to those other Catholic schools is the lack of a football program. Kids like to be kings of the school. They don’t like playing second fiddle. Try naming the schools that do both football and basketball well and then eliminate all of the big public schools. It’s a really short that we’re on. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done…but nobody seems to be doing it. (And I’m not sure any private school is doing it as well as us…other than Baylor right now…and that’s very temporary).

  3. Mike Brey needs to step aside and let a younger coach (who values recruiting) take over the program. This program is in a “rut” that requires a coach to direct much energy and enthusiasm into a “stale” situation.

  4. It’s a tough one, a real tough one. I like Mike Brey. I think most Notre Dame fans like Mike Brey. He’s been called the loosest coach in America. I like how he treats his players and I think he is a good guy, easy to root for, unlike Brian Kelly, who I think is kind of arrogant. That said, you get the feeling Notre Dame should be doing more on the hardwood. Three years missing the tournament is going to be hard to digest. All the close losses have to stand out. Are they due to poor coaching by Brey at the end of games? Maybe tonight’s miraculous win over Carolina — and it was miraculous — will turn things around. I am just not sure.

  5. North Carolina is a weird case this year. According to 247 sports, they had the 9th best recruiting class in 2019 (13th in 2018). On paper, they should be a top-25 team, and they definitely are talented.

    I have had the opinion for a long time that Roy Williams just isn’t a good gameday coach. He’s a great recruiter, and I think that is mostly why he has been able to win 3 national titles. When the recruits he brings in meld together, they are tough to beat. When they don’t, they look more like this year’s squad, albeit without as abysmal a record as they have been this season…

    My point? This UNC team has the talent to play with anyone. Although a bit anecdotal, just look at their game against Duke – they should have won but last-second shots by Duke sent it to OT and won in OT.

  6. The two paths converging idea reminds me of a similar one in Alice in Wonderland lore. Alice came to a fork in the road she was walking and stood there pondering which way to go. The Cat asked her which way she wanted to go and Alice said “I don’t know. The Cat then replied, “Well it doesn’t make any difference, does it?” (Paraphrased)

  7. Tic Cavicchia says:

    You left out Xavier as a Catholic school that achieves more than ND in basketball. Xavier has 12 second round tournament games to NDs 8. Xavier has 7 sweet 16 appearances to NDs 3 and Xavier has 3 elite 8 appearances to NDs 2 during the Brey era. The only reason is Xavier recruits better and they play defense much more consistently than the Irish. ND should be in The ncaa tournament 4 out of every 5 years.

  8. John Monetta says:

    IMO, Brey’s main problem is his lack of enthusiasm for recruiting which of course is the lifeblood of any program. He hasn’t worn out much, if any, shoe leather on the recruiting trail.