NEW YORK – Mike Brey’s voiced cracked as the discussion went from his team’s 69-57 loss to Louisville in the semifinals of the Big East tournament Friday to his 13-year run in the conference that put his name on the college basketball map.
It was uncertain as to whether Brey’s failing pipes were a result of two hours of imploring his players and hounding the officials, or a genuine rush of emotion over the last Big East tournament he’ll likely ever coach in.
“I’m very disappointed we could never get to Saturday,” said Brey following his team’s third straight Big East tournament loss to Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad.
“I don’t think it’s really hit me yet. I can’t say enough about the Big East. The Big East has made me. I’ve always said I’ve been as proud being a Big East guy as I am a Notre Dame guy. We’ll miss that. Unbelievable memories of the league and especially this building.”
There was a time not that long ago that Brey downplayed the importance of his team’s results in the Big East tournament. Placing a much higher value on the NCAA tournament, it was as if Brey couldn’t wait for the conference tournament to get the hell out of the way so he could get on to more important things.
Then the Irish began to have success in the event hosted at the venerable Madison Square Garden on the corner of 7th Ave. between 31st and 33rd Streets, and it started to take on greater importance to Brey as his team continued to sputter in the NCAA tournament.
That’s five straight seasons the Irish have won at least one game in the Big East tournament and seven victories overall in the last half-decade. Now, when Brey talks about playing in the Big East tournament at the Garden, his emotions swirl.
“I’m thrilled that we played in the semis on such a magical night here,” Brey said. “A little bit of unfinished business, but we’ll get over it quickly and get ready to prepare for next week.”
Next week is when the NCAA tournament begins, and if the memories of that event prompt Brey to choke up, it’s not because those magical nights in the Garden match his team’s play in the nation’s big bracket.
That’s because Notre Dame has won just two NCAA tournament basketball games in the last nine seasons since Brey led the Irish to the Sweet 16 way back in his third year as head coach. He’s now in his 13th campaign.
NCAA tournament success has been a long time coming. But it’s about to happen again.
It’s customary to wait until Sunday’s bids to come out before determining whether Brey and his Irish can break down the barrier that they’ve been bumping into since defeating UW-Milwaukee and Illinois in Indianapolis back in March of 2002.
But this isn’t about favorable match-ups and ideal locales. In fact, Brey bristles when he hears anyone from the Notre Dame camp talk about “a good draw” when it comes to post-season play.
Play quality basketball – like the kind the Irish appear to be trending toward – and the second- and third-round opponents (don’t forget those play-in games count as the first round now) shouldn’t really matter.
Notre Dame is doing enough positive things in recent weeks to portend a bit of a run.
“We found something here that I think can help us,” Brey said. “We played with a freer mind. We shot it better. I sure hope we can move forward with that. There’s a confidence coming out of here.
“We played well against Rutgers. We beat a heckuva team in Marquette on a neutral floor. This team that beat us tonight is going to be a one seed. We had our chances. We were right there. There’s a lot for us to feel good about, and this tournament helped us get tougher and more confident for next week.”
Pitino knows what second-round and third-round NCAA tournament opponents will face when they draw the slot with the Irish Sunday.
“They’re a dangerous team because Mike Brey does three things: he gets his guys to have fun, they relax, and they play smart, and come tournament time, you need to do that,” Pitino said.
“Although he hasn’t gone to a Final Four, Mike Brey is one of the best coaches in the game because he gets his players to relax, have fun, and pass and shoot. They put four shooters on the court at one time and it can really hurt you, and they’ve improved defensively.”
Indeed, the Irish were right there with the Cardinals late in the first half when Luke Hancock nailed a three-pointer with 6.3 seconds left to give Louisville a seven-point halftime lead. Notre Dame would quickly whittle the deficit down to three early in the second half.
But a combination of Notre Dame’s fatigue from playing three days in a row, Louisville’s depth and guard play, and a boatload of turnovers against a team that creates mistakes for everyone it plays closed the door on one dream.
Still, the Irish are primed for the NCAA tournament. The opponent that draws Notre Dame Sunday will have to contend with a battery of big men, underrated guard play, a new hot shooter, and a team playing with pride, maturity, poise under pressure, and confidence.
“Notre Dame is a great team,” said Louisville point guard Peyton Siva, who teamed with Russ Smith in the backcourt to score 32 points on 13-of-28 shooting and 12 assists.
“They’re led by two great guards. They’re probably the most underrated backcourt in the nation. It’s definitely tough playing against them. They match up so well against us.”
Such praise may be lost on some Irish fans that have a difficult time grasping the realities of college basketball these days. Games aren’t as aesthetic as they used to be. The flow that once earmarked this great game has been replaced by a steady diet of 22-19 halftime scores.
Maybe it’s because there’s too much over-coaching coming from the sidelines. Maybe it’s because the officials have allowed – at least in the Big East – for wrestling matches to break out in place of basketball games. Maybe the game needs to tweak the shot clock to pick up the pace a bit.
Whatever the reasons, deciphering good basketball from bad is more difficult for the average fan, and when some watch Notre Dame play, they don’t see anything special.
They’re missing the earmarks of a team fully capable of getting to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Anything less than that would be a disappointment.
“We’re going into the NCAA tournament hungry,” said Pat Connaughton, the aforementioned shooter who made 15-of-24 three-point attempts (62.5 percent) in the Big East tournament after making 42-of-128 three-pointers (32.8 percent) during the 31-game regular season.
“We’ve got to have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.”
The Irish can’t seem to get all of their big men playing well in the same game. But Garrick Sherman is on fire – or at least he is every time he plays against Gorgui Dieng and Louisville, which is no small feat. Jack Cooley had a bounce-back effort against the Cardinals. Tom Knight had a tough night, but the senior will come prepared to play next weekend.
Guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant are playing confidently and fearlessly, although Louisville forced the latter into six turnovers Friday night. The Irish could use a boost from Cam Biedscheid, who is now playing like the skinny, lot-to-learn freshman that he is. The fourth big man – Zach Auguste – has been inconsistent too. But at least he provides another big body and plays above the rim.
More importantly, as a team, the Irish believe they are on the verge of something special in the post-season, which is a welcome change for the uncertainty that seems to have permeated this team heading into NCAA tournaments past.
That’s why Brey hates to hear discussion about good draws. Play well – play Notre Dame basketball – and you’ll come out on top.
“I didn’t like our first half, the second half I did,” said Brey of the Louisville game. “But I loved our other two games. I think we’ve found another gear up here at the right time with what’s coming up next week.
“We need to take care of the ball, but we played against a relentless team that turns you over. We’re going to have to defend and keep it to one-and-done. For the most part, we did some very good things here defensively. Rebounding has got to be a key for us, and it sure would be nice to keep shooting the ball well.
“I felt for the most part we were very poised, more poised than we were during the regular season, and we were pretty darn good during the regular season. We were mature about stuff. We didn’t hang our head as much on mistakes, and tonight, we made a lot of them.”
This isn’t a team that’s going to make a run to the Final Four. It will run into a team that will put more pure ability on the basketball court – much like Louisville – and expose Notre Dame’s shortcomings. But they’re fully capable of breaking through this decade-long barrier.
“Coach Brey has a lot of confidence in us going into the post-season, and we have a lot of confidence in ourselves,” Grant said.
Notre Dame has become a formidable regular-season and conference-tournament team. The time has come for its NCAA tournament résumé to reflect it.