Never has a 10-year contract elicited such grandiose proclamations.
If you didn’t know anything about the Notre Dame men’s basketball program, and then tuned into Tuesday’s press conference announcing the extension of Mike Brey’s contract through the 2021-22 season, you’d think that the Irish have been knocking on the door of Big East and national titles and just can’t get that last hinge to loosen.
“We’re in business to win NCAA championships, and if I didn’t think Mike Brey could win an NCAA championship in basketball, we wouldn’t be sitting here today,” said Irish athletics director Jack Swarbrick, making an on-campus appearance amidst his involvement in college football playoff talk with the BCS conference commissioners. “I believe he can, I believe this program can.”
Brey got caught up in the championship talk, too.
“Absolutely,” said Brey when asked if winning a national championship at Notre Dame was realistic. “Where we’re at and how we’re recruiting and how it’s coming together and what our guys are talking about, that’s something that’s realistic…
“Those big dreams you want to dream, they’re worth dreaming now. The groundwork is laid, and now we’ve got to figure out a way to get us there in March. I think about that every day.”
What sounded like a mere formality Tuesday remains an extreme a long shot. There have been no buzzer-beaters that have denied the Irish access to the Elite Eight, no Danny Ainge-like heroics to burst Notre Dame’s bubble, no missed official’s call or late free throw that prevented a run to the Final Four.
All of this talk of post-season success comes on the heels of six NCAA tournament victories over 12 seasons, four of which came in the first three years of the Brey era. Notre Dame has won two NCAA tournament games in the last nine seasons. The Irish failed to land an NCAA tournament bid in four of those nine seasons.
“In some ways relative to winning a national championship, Mike has done all the hard work,” Swarbrick said. “He just needs to win six games in March now. The hard stuff is building the foundation. We’re the national champions in graduation rate in college basketball. We got all the hard stuff done. We’ll go the last mile now.”
While it makes for good copy on an otherwise uneventful June day at Notre Dame, it is a statement based strictly upon the promise of three impressive regular seasons and some improved showings in the Big East tournament.
What looked like a second straight trip to the NIT in 2009-10 turned into a late-season rush without injured Luke Harangody. He returned to contribute to two Big East tournament wins, but the Irish quickly bowed out of the NCAA tournament with a one-point loss to Old Dominion.
In 2010-11, Big East player of the year Ben Hansbrough led the Irish to a 27-7 record, including a trip to the semifinals of the Big East tournament, only to lose as the No. 2 seed to Florida State on the second-day of the NCAA tournament in Chicago.
This past season, the Irish had no business finishing third in the Big East regular-season standings without Carleton Scott, who bypassed his final year of eligibility, and Tim Abromaitis, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. Yet the Irish recovered from a slow start, strung together nine straight victories, and qualified for their third straight NCCA tournament appearance before falling in their first game against Xavier.
The “hard stuff” that Swarbrick refers to remains the hard stuff. Brey has indeed learned how to recruit for Notre Dame in the Big East. He’s developed a chemistry that truly is a sight to behold when the Irish are clicking, particularly on the offensive end. He’s managed to cultivate a level of confidence in the regular season and the Big East tournament that makes Notre Dame a difficult match-up for even the most athletically skilled teams in the country. Notre Dame plays quality basketball under Brey.
Brey earned and deserved an extension.
But the hard stuff is still the hard stuff. The task of “just winning six games in March” is a monumental undertaking that hasn’t been approached by this program in 34 years. (Even then, it took the 1977-78 Notre Dame team just three victories to reach the Final Four.)
Notre Dame has won six NCAA tournament games in the last 12 years. Notre Dame has won six NCAA tournament games in the last 22 years. Butler won more NCAA tournament games in two seasons than Notre Dame has won in the last 27 years.
To be sure, the Irish are loaded heading into the 2012-13 season. The return of Scott Martin, Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant, Jack Cooley and Pat Connaughton, the addition of Garrick Sherman, and the influx of talent in the freshman class make the Irish a legitimate contender for the best record in the Big East for the first time since Notre Dame joined the conference in 1995.
Notre Dame’s happy face Tuesday is typical of any school’s “we’ve got great news” press conference. Swarbrick should be pleased that he’s secured Brey for the long haul. Brey, too, deserved to take a bow. He’s done more with Notre Dame basketball than the talent level should yield. He’s secured his future up to retirement.
Swarbrick and Brey are correct. Notre Dame appears to be on the verge of becoming a consistent Top 25 team with enough pieces to do some damage in the NCAA tournament. Brey will have another veteran team. Another 25-victory season is expected.
But until Notre Dame proves it can play beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, skepticism is mixed in liberally with the optimism. Until the Irish can show that the chemistry it displays during the regular season can be translated into post-season play, the hard stuff is still the hard stuff.