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February 14, 2012

Worth its weight in gold

Superstars and prima donnas don’t mesh well with Mike Brey.

“I’ve shied away from talented guys who on the summer circuit, there’s too much drama,” said Brey recently. “I’ve shied away from hard to manage guys.”

While programs such as Kentucky, Syracuse and Memphis in recent years have achieved much of their success through sheer talent, Notre Dame and Brey choose a different path.

Chemistry, maturity, unselfishness, team-first attitudes - not that those programs don’t have some of that as well - serve Brey well. It’s working again this year despite relative youth compared to the last five Irish teams which won 120 games, due in large part to an aged nucleus.

To be sure, Luke Harangody and Ben Hansbrough brought plenty of talent to the equation. You don’t win Big East Player of the Year without a ton of basketball ability.

But it’s a meshing of strong “character” qualities that have made players such as Martin Ingelsby, Harold Swanagan, Matt Carroll, Chris Quinn, Rob Kurz, Colin Falls, Zach Hillesland, Tory Jackson, Harangody and Hansbrough such positive leaders for a program that can’t always match up to the upper echelon programs with seemingly limitless talent.

“A lot of it is done in the recruiting process, and I think a lot of it is done with who we are as a university and what we attract,” Brey said. “We get some sharp guys, and it’s kind of built-in.

“We’re a pretty stable group. We have been for the most part annually here. (We are) a group with very clear heads. They’re not really thinking about what’s the next phase of my basketball career after Notre Dame. They just want to get better.”

It’s happening again this season as the leadership qualities in players such as Scott Martin, Eric Atkins and even Jack Cooley have surfaced amidst Notre Dame’s current six-game winning streak, which has catapulted the Irish into the top 25.

“We’ve had continuity of good upperclassmen who have set the tone and helped lead, and we’ve done it without Tim (Abromaitis),” Brey said. “Scott is a main voice, which is very new territory for him. I felt we needed to make Eric Atkins a captain. But what’s happened now is Jack Cooley is showing signs of being a leader, which excites me for next season.

“(Cooley) knows, ‘I can’t let my guys down now.’ That’s the greatest pressure of all. He’s saying stuff now like a captain, and I didn’t know I’d ever see that.”

That leadership shows up in the most critical times.

“Now you have a group that’s pretty confident, and they really feel good about end-game situations,” Brey said. “The last five minutes, they really feel they should win.

“You can work on that in practice, but that has to happen when the lights are on and you have to have a couple guys that really believe. I think we do collectively, and that’s why we’ve won a lot of close games.”

Of course, the true leader of all the good things that represent Notre Dame basketball is Brey himself, who has - after 12 seasons with the Irish - learned how to tie it all together to make one of the most cohesive teams in the land.

“When you’ve had an older nucleus that has had good success with you -- trusts me -- they’re really empowered to take ownership of themselves and really manage that locker room,” Brey said.

“They knew they just had to be good college players because (we) weren’t any good in November and December. When older guys can help run your locker room, it’s worth its weight in gold.”

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