All things considered, Mike Brey has done a very nice job building the Notre Dame basketball program into a perennially solid club in what’s now an incredible difficult Big East Conference. Brey has won over 60 percent of his games roaming the sidelines for the Irish, and he’s been named the Big East Coach of the Year three times — in ’07, ’08 and most recently, in ’11 for the fine work he did leading Notre Dame to a second place finish in conference. For all he’s done right, Brey still has plenty of holes on his resume that I’m sure he’d like to start filling beginning this year. Namely, the lack of success his teams have had in the NCAA Tournament.
Notre Dame advanced to the Sweet 16 just once under Brey’s direction, all the way back in. Since then, his teams either qualified for only the NIT or failed to make it past the second round. As a No. 2 seed this year, Brey and the Irish have a great shot to reverse that trend and finally make a deep run into March. Brey joined 106.7 The Fan in D.C. to talk about coaching at a football obsessed school like Notre Dame where hoops plays second fiddle at all times, if he agrees that it might not have been such a bad thing for the Irish to bow out of the Big East Conference tournament rather than grind through a long weekend of tough games just before the Big Dance, what he sees in Notre Dame’s first round opponent the Akron Zips, how Ben Hansbrough has exceeded even the loftiest expectations he had for the transfer, and how he’s relayed to his players some of his thoughts on the two new basketball films that folks are talking about — the documentary on the Fab Five, and the production about Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV squads.
On coaching at a school that’s so obsessed with football:
“It can always be interesting here, there’s no question about it. No, we have a great group here. It’s been an energizing group to be around for five months because they’re so mature, they’ve handled their business, we’ve had good leadership and they’ve kind of help me run the thing. We’re just trying to get our energy back before we head over to Chicago. We’re thrilled we’re a two seed and headed over to Chicago. Chicago’s a great Notre Dame town so we’re going to head over there tomorrow.”
If he agrees that it wasn’t so bad for Notre Dame to lose in the Big East tournament rather than facing the brutal grind that it would have taken to win it:
“Well that’s certainly how we’re going to spin it psychologically. Our program when I got here, we had been 30 games under .500 in the Big East, and we’ve been pretty consistent for 11 years, and we’ve been to four semifinals now up there in New York. But we’ve never played on Saturday night and I really talked a lot about that to this group this last six weeks. I didn’t talk at all about an NCAA seed or brackets, it was more trying to get there. So we were disappointed. Louisville played great and wore us down a little bit. But having said that, you get back, I’m glad we play Friday not Thursday, the extra day is helpful for us. And I’m glad it’s only a bus ride to our site and not getting back on another plane. But I think what has made the Big East Tournament and the regular season more of a grind, the tournament has always been intense and high energy, but we added two league games a couple years ago so now, instead of 16 league games, you play 18 league games and then go there. I think that really does take its toll and you have to just really pace your guys physically the last month of the season and now before you head to the NCAA Tournament.”
On Notre Dame’s first round opponent, Akron, and what the Irish need to do to avoid another early exit like last March:
“Well that’s the one thing I talked to our guys about Sunday night after we got our assignment and our matchup, I said everybody gets on and starts projecting out their bracket, or you’re the pick to do this — I said I don’t think we can do anything until we win a first round game. And really that’s been internalized by this group. I think one of the reasons we were very good early was we had a little edge about us all summer because we lost a first round game. We had a great run last year from being a 6-8 in the league and an NIT team to being a six seed and we lost to a heck of a team. Old Dominion’s a heck of a team, and I’m sure as heck glad they’re not in our bracket again. That’s the first thing I was looking for; I was saying keep them out of our bracket. I think that’s driven our group, I think they’re very aware. Hey can you get on a run, can you do this — I said, everybody slow down, let’s win a first round game. And for everything this group has done this year and they’ve been really consistent, I think that’s something that they’ve really internalized. Akron is a team that has won a championship. They cut nets down. They’ve won 12 of 14 games; we’ve won 12 of 14 games. So I mean, they’re a group that’s used to winning. They’re older which happens coming out of those leagues. They can really shoot it, and they’ve got a couple front line guys that are physical guys and skilled, a foreign kid. So they know how to play. They’re really well coached. They’ve been in the MAC title game four of five years. They’ve been winning for awhile. So college basketball is so crazy we have to be very ready to go on the afternoon on Friday.”
On if he thought Ben Hansbrough would be as outstanding as he’s been this season:
“Well I think he’s definitely gone past what I thought, but I felt the bloodlines and watching him a little bit when I watched Mississippi State, I felt there was a lot to work with. In the summer, I got on the road after he transferred — every SEC coach said, winner, tough guy, edgy guy, and they all wanted him. He works, he’s a maniacal gym rat kind of guy. Two areas where he improved to make him the Player of the Year in the league and drive us into the territory that we’re in — he almost played the game too hard; and you ask can you do that? Yeah, you can play too hard and too fast. He’s learned to change tempo on the offensive end and play without the ball in his hands. He used to be a run to the ball guy after three passes; he’d run and get a hand off, almost like a youth league game where a kid would run and get it just to get it in his hands. He’s come a long way there. And then as a leader, he’s been able to be a diplomat and know when a Eric Atkins needs to be hugged and not jump down his throat. I think that style of leadership has really helped us. I’m as proud of the leader he has been this year, as the play on the floor. But he really believes, he’s set the bar high, he drives it and his teammates respect him because he’s there every day. And he’s made some amazing winning plays for us.”
If he’s had a chance to see either of the two new films about college basketball — the one about the Fab Five and the one on Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV teams:
“Well it’s interesting, our players watched it, and of course they gave me a hard time for wearing a tie and having more hair on the bench. Little do they know, they weren’t there to watch the Fab Five. I told them the reason you wear baggy shorts and black shorts is the Fab Five and you don’t even know it. And Carlton Scott said that’s a good point. I said those guys impacted all the style stuff and it was an amazing show. The other thing that was interesting was there were freshmen that were so talented that they were able to make a run two years in a row. They were a young team and it was actually when we played them — and we had really good teams, I mean, we had great teams that won it back-to-back — but they were like the Beatles, they were like Springstein’s band, they were bigger than life. There was always such a buzz about them. Now, I did watch a little bit of it and Vegas was the best team I’ve ever been around. Of course, they beat us by 30 in the title game, and we stole it the next year in Indy. But that was the best college team I had seen in my 25 years. They were men. They truly were. They were a whole other level.”