If there was any lingering doubt in the minds of Notre Dame fans that it’s time for change in the men’s basketball program, it should’ve evaporated into the Durham, North Carolina air on Valentine’s Day night.
Quickly, a scene setter — there’s about 35 seconds to play in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Mike Brey visiting the arena where he got his start as a college coach for the final time. Notre Dame’s star freshman JJ Starling just got the Irish to within one, on the verge of feel-good upset that, no, wouldn’t have mattered for the teams long term prospects in the slightest, but might have given Brey and his veteran team a rung to hang their hat on as they play out the closing stanza of a thoroughly underwhelming year. But first, Duke has the basketball. Up one, in the bonus, just about five more seconds of game time than the shot clock.
Now I don’t claim to be a particularly sharp basketball mind, but I can do some quick mental math. The Irish’s defense ranks right around 289th in the country, per the basketball analytics gold standard of KenPom.com. Their peers are teams like Northern Colorado and Canisius. It’s the worst mark in the ACC, even behind a woeful Louisville unit that recently accomplished the rare feat of making the 2022-23 Irish look like a good basketball team. Duke’s offense, meanwhile, ranks 72nd — hardly enough to knock your socks off, but waayyy better than the side of the ball they were squaring off against.
There are four possible outcomes to this possession, from a scoring perspective (I guess five, technically — but let’s hope no one’s dumb enough to foul on a made three-pointer.) A three pointer all but ends the game for the Blue Devils, making it a two possession game with under a full shot clock to go. Two points, either a made basket or from two free throws, makes it tough sledding, but not impossible; a made three on the other end likely sends it to overtime, and all your guys can hit a three. A single made free throw gives you the chance to tie it with two or win it with three. And if the ball doesn’t go through the rim? A basket will give you the lead with just seconds to play.
So what, pray tell, does a coach who knows this discrepancy, who has a sense of what his team needs to do to best set themselves up for a chance to win for the first time on the road all season, do? Foul, obviously. With a foul, you remove the worst-case scenario from consideration — no three points here. You’re still in the game. But it gets even more attractive an option with Duke only in the single bonus. Because men’s college basketball still operates in the hoops stone age, a foul will send Duke to the line for the front-end of a one-and-one — they have to make the first shot to try the second. If they miss, you’ve gotten the best case scenario of no points, or if the Blue Devils snag the rebound, you just foul again. Once you get the ball back, you still have plenty of time on the shot clock to actually run an offensive set rather than try for a desperation play. Throw in the knowledge that your defense is, charitably, bad, and the answer becomes obvious — if you let the Blue Devils work the clock at all, and in so doing likely give up a basket, you put yourself in a big hole. You must foul the moment the game clock ticks under 30 seconds, send Duke to the line, and give yourself the best possible chance at a game-tying or game winning basket.
What does veteran coach Mike Brey do? The exact opposite strategy. He lets his league-worst defense play out the possession, allows the Blue Devils to work the clock down, and Duke hits a wide-open three pointer. Two possession game, ten seconds to go. Ball game. It’s not that Notre Dame played a bad defensive possession, it’s that smarter coaching removes the possibility of that game-sealing play entirely.
Maybe I’m just new enough to basketball fandom to miss something in the above case, but it seems pretty cut and dry to me. On the road, game on the line, chance for the biggest win of the year, and Mike Brey makes objectively the wrong call. One would think, with nearly three decades of head coaching experience and eight more on the bench for one of the game’s all-time greats, that Brey has enough basketball knowledge to easily spot the correctly strategy on the fly — he’s certainly paid enough to be able to make these kind of calls. But for whatever reason, he missed it. The Irish lost the game, letting an opportunity for a really fun win slip away.
That’s a microcosm of my time following Brey’s team, since my freshman year of 2017-18 — almost, but never quite good enough. Just enough to keep you thinking the team might someday do something cool, but never getting there. And it keeps coming back to the head coach — lackluster recruiting, no real sense of defensive direction, an offensive system that’s grown to rely far too much on guys having spectacular days instead of setting them up to have said days. After six years of futility, Brey’s pending retirement can’t come fast enough.
What is Notre Dame men’s basketball in 2023?
I don’t mean this particular team or this particular season. By late February, we’ve clearly established what this team is — namely, Bad with a capital B. The reasons for this are myriad, but most of them stem from a horrid lack of post depth, with no true center and maybe like one-and-a-half functional forwards. This fundamental flaw flies in the face of every piece of basic basketball logic, and is the root cause of the team’s tendency to fall into huge scoring slumps and the terrible defense described above. And, perhaps most saliently to where the program as a whole stands, it falls directly at the feet of the head coach.
When Mike Brey came back for one more ride, committing to seeing things through with a super-senior class he recruited after a NCAA tournament run that probably saved his job, the hope was that the team’s extremely veteran core combined with some exciting young talent would be enough to be competitive. That theory proved wrong nearly from the years’ opening tip, as the Irish struggled mightily in nonconference play with (supposedly) vastly inferior opponents. At a late-November game I attended, the Irish let Bowling Green, of all teams, hang around for about eighty percent of the evening before a spectacular Falcons cold stretch let the home team pull away. It wasn’t so much that Notre Dame won as Bowling Green lost. The writing was on the wall then — ACC play has since poured a bucket of cold water on any illusion the Irish had of being competitive, before dropping napalm on the smoldering remains of hope.
I have a hard time calling this season, as ugly as it is, disappointing. To find disappointment in this season would be to acknowledge your expectations were just way too high to begin with. Sure, the team was stacked with veteran’s and a few exciting young players, but last years’ glimpse of mild success for the first time in some time really seemed to have help many forget that said veteran core spent the vast majority of their college careers losing basketball games. Poise? Killer instinct? The other benefits of being an old team in college hoops? You can’t claim to have those after not cracking .500 in the ACC until a first-round NBA guard came along. Any hope this core could sustain success on its own was always a fool’s hope, rooted more in wishful thinking and revisionist history than reality. Instead, Notre Dame returned to the bottom of the ACC, its only moments of fun being a truly weird thumping of Michigan State and almost beating Duke and Virginia.
There it is. That’s the word. That’s where we are.
That’s what this program is. It’s an also-ran. Maybe not quite an afterthought, but never a star. At its best, it’s a spoiler. What it is decidedly not, is a national contender. Both in terms of sports on campus and the broader college basketball world, Notre Dame men’s basketball exists as a side dish.
Mike Brey, at times, seemed to be a guy who got it. He understood what this program is at its essence. The reason why Brey has long been deemed a perfect fit in South Bend is that his moniker of “the Loosest Coach in America” is exactly right for a program that exists in Touchdown Jesus’ mighty shadow. Brey always kept things in perspective — he knew he wasn’t the central act, and embraced it. When it worked, it was a welcome breath of fresh air compared to the admittedly self-serious and near-constant existential dread heaped on the football program. Brey’s best teams did things that the Joyce Center hadn’t seen (on the men’s side) since Digger Phelps. Beating #1 Syracuse. Five overtimes against Louisville. The last team to beat Kemba Walker in college. Beating Duke. But Brey didn’t thump his chest about these, didn’t declare ND had suddenly became a basketball school. Didn’t heap expectations on the plate. He just made his dish as good as he could make it.
This attitude, though, ended up being Brey’s downfall. He conflated looseness with lack of effort in his later years, rarely venturing farther than an hour’s drive to recruit and some years not snagging any signees at all — a cardinal sin for any college basketball coach. His later teams seemed lethargic far too often, uninterested in playing defense and not being creative enough offensively to justify the lack of effort on the other end of the floor. I pretty much have to take it on faith that Mike Brey’s team used to be fun to watch. For the last six years, it’s been mostly aggravating. Too many situations like the end of the Duke game. Not nearly enough wins. Brey’s played out the fiddle. It’s time. To be honest, it’s been time for quite a while. The retirement announcement read less as a “time to hang it up” and more as a “doing this so they don’t have to fire me.”
The great thing about not being a powerhouse program is you don’t have the past weighing you down. It frees you. Don’t expect to be great — you rarely have been. Don’t worry about expectations. Just go have some damn fun. That’s the approach for a program who’s crowning achievements have been beating UCLA once at its height and almost beating Kentucky another time. But there’s a difference between playing with house money and getting robbed blind. Recently, ND’s drifted too far to the latter. When the side dish starts to taste bad, you stop eating it.
Notre Dame men’s basketball should be the epitome of some guys being dudes, throwing a ball around for fun, screwing around and maybe beating Duke once in a while. I’d prefer they not be embarrassing, but getting emotionally invested in the men’s team is both fruitless and nonsensical. Football is the god-king emperor-in-chief and there’s an elite basketball program down the hall to sustain us through the winter months — throw in an occasional hockey run through the playoffs and that’s about all the athletic bandwidth we got up here. If the men’s team can be fun on occasion, great! If not, oh well. Like any good side dish, it should compliment the entrée, never being the highlight of the meal, but maybe in the hands of a particularly good cook pairing with it perfectly.
Let’s take 2015 as an example. The 2015 run through the ACC tournament and to the Elite Eight is only remembered so fondly by ND fans because it was one of the best results in program history. Beating Duke and North Carolina in back-to-back games helps, sure — a little blue-blood blood always helps color our retrospectives. But copy-paste those results into a program with a winning history, and you get… the 2017 women’s basketball team, most notable for featuring all the players that would win a national title the following year. It would barely be a blip on the radar — no one’s making highlight videos or waxing nostalgic about the 2017 women’s team unless they’re building up to talking about the 2018 team.
I’m not trying to diminish how fun that 2015 run was — on the contrary, that kind of run is what this program should be all about. My point isn’t that we shouldn’t talk about 2015, but that we need to contextualize it correctly. That run should be remembered because it was Notre Dame men’s basketball, a program that doesn’t do that kind of thing, doing it. It’s not an expectation resetter. It’s entirely of the moment, a once-a-decade kind of thing if we’re lucky. It’s not what this program is. It didn’t raise the program’s floor or lead to sustained success or any of that. That run stands alone because it is alone. It should be appreciated on its own terms, in its own context. Like a great potato salad or batch of baked beans.
Notre Dame has legitimate claim to blue-blood status in two major sports, and men’s basketball ain’t one of ‘em. That’s a thing we should not only live with, but embrace.
So who’s next?
I really couldn’t say. It will take a special breed of coach for sure — someone who’s comfortable not only playing second fiddle to football, but second fiddle in their own building. I’ll go out on a limb and say that’s not most college basketball coaches.
With all due love to our recently-vanquished Gamecock friends, this job is to basketball what South Carolina is to football — a program without an established history of winning that many feel should look and act like a big boy despite playing in the toughest conference in the country. Except, no, it’s worse than that, because even at South Carolina football is still the first sport on the pecking order. At Notre Dame, men’s basketball is at best third and usually fourth or lower. (Don’t believe me? Check the attendance figures.)
Maybe, then, we ought to look to the South Carolina football model, and hire a coach who’s won a national title elsewhere to come do a retirement tour in South Bend. How much money would it take to get John Calipari, who is almost certainly the Lou Holtz of college basketball, to drive six hours north????
I kid, I kid (unless…? No for real though could you imagine that?). I think/hope that Notre Dame has the good sense to stray away from the Brey coaching tree — it’s clearly time for a new voice around the program. It’s time for a full reset. Notre Dame has an opportunity to make it’s program fun again, to jetison the needless expectations of being good at this sport or to live up to Brey’s best teams.
And no matter what, there shouldn’t be an expectation that the hire lasts for as long as Brey did. If he’s bad, he’ll be gone by decade’s end. If he’s good, odds are he’ll leave for greener pastures even sooner. For most coaches, this just isn’t a destination job. No chef wants to be judged by their mashed potatoes.
On the flipside though, the only real way to screw up the hire would be to tap a scumbag, or a cheater, or a diva. None of those in college basketball, right?
Let’s approach the hire like the program — without expectations or all that much investment, just hoping that something good might come of it once in a while. Avoiding embarrassment is the only job requirement. The new coach could be fun, or he could not be. It won’t matter much either way.
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