Mike Brey Sent A Message With Notre Dame Basketball’s Non-Conference Schedule; Now He’s Just Hoping It Gets Played
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Mike Brey’s Non-League Schedule Sent A Message; Now He Hopes It Gets Played

Notre Dame could handle the challenge, Mike Brey thought — right trend, positive momentum, a two-year nucleus with a junior class that has made steady progress since absorbing the body blows of a 3-15 conference season as freshmen.

So when the opportunity to play at Kentucky this season arose in the spring, he pounced. It’s on the schedule for Dec. 12, the start of a three-year series.

“It’s a good game for three years for us,” Brey told BlueandGold.com earlier this month. “And for this particular team, let’s go for it. It was uplifting for them during quarantine and lockdown. It was a little thing I told them on a Zoom call and they were all fired up.”

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Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey
Brey scheduled a grueling non-conference slate, including a game at Kentucky, as a sign of his expectations for his team. (Joe Raymond)

The Rupp Arena visit was the latest high-profile addition to the gauntlet that includes the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, two games in Brooklyn in the Legends Classic (two of Connecticut, USC or Vanderbilt), Purdue in the annual Crossroads Classic and a road game at Howard on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Brey rated the non-conference schedule among the three toughest he has assembled in 21 seasons as Notre Dame’s head coach.

There is, though, one roadblock. The inevitability of a delayed start to the college football season and questions about its viability has cast a shadow of doubt on college basketball’s prospects, particularly the first two months. A delayed start to college basketball, perhaps until January 2021, would spell a shortened season instead of a pushed-back one. Non-conference games would be the first casualties.

Even if a season can start as scheduled, it’s hard to envision Notre Dame getting the peak Rupp Arena atmosphere.

“If we show up there, I doubt there will be 20,000 people in the building. It’s still too early, but we have to start thinking more seriously in basketball, like football, ‘OK, what are the contingencies?’”

Decisions are not needed immediately, but coaches and athletic directors can’t hide in ivory towers around the idea for too much longer. The sport’s biggest advantage in returning as normal — time — is not as plentiful anymore. Coronavirus has shown no signs of abiding. Some coaches have already brought up the issue. Rick Pitino, still a powerful voice, has tweeted his support for a delayed start.

“The second semester start is interesting for a lot of reasons,” Brey said. “First, we’d have the advantage of more time on our hands to deal with what’s really going on with the virus. We eliminate travel and interaction with other teams in November and December. We don’t have our players on campus when the whole student body leaves around Thanksgiving.”

The 15 ACC head coaches have a weekly Wednesday morning Zoom meeting, and ideas are already flying. Brey recalled one colleague suggested the creation of an ACC bubble akin to the NBA’s.

“Nothing is a dumb idea,” Brey said.

The ACC already has a contingency plan to squeeze 20 league games into January, February and early March, Brey noted. Notre Dame, though, would play 21 at his behest. He could survive 10 non-conference games being wiped out, but his team will still travel to Howard, bar none. It’s already scheduled in January. He would ask the ACC to work around it.

“If we can play, we’re playing that game,” Brey said.

Decisions are not prudent to make now when football is a free case study on the feasibility of playing this fall and the unforeseen effects that may come from playing college sports during a pandemic. There is no upside in taking action with basketball before football offers some free lessons, if it’s played.

“We have to watch this in September,” Brey said. “Hopefully it gets going. That’s going to tell us a lot about non-league games in November and December for basketball.”

One challenge a conference-only schedule would present the selection committee for the College Football Playoff and NCAA Tournament is weighing conference records against each other when choosing a field.

Non-conference games and all the marquee events of the first two months establish the strongest conferences and the mid-major teams worthy of high seeds or even at-large bids. In a conference-only season, there’s no real way of knowing if, say, a 13-7 Big Ten record is more or less impressive than the same mark in the ACC. Nor could anyone tell if a .500 record in one conference has enough substance for an at-large, while in another it’s a non-starter.

It’s not just conjecture. The formula that assists in revealing those answers would be compromised.

“We talked to Google, who helped us develop the NET,” NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt told Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy. “What they’ve told us back is if there are no non-conference games or dramatically fewer non-conference games, it would impact the effectiveness of the NET.

“That kind of cross-pollination is vital to the accuracy of the NET.”

Brey has a solution: expand the tournament. By a lot. One hundred teams, maybe more. Embrace the inevitable wonkiness of the season.

“It’s probably going to be a hybrid [tournament] anyway,” Brey said. “Do we get everyone in because you couldn’t pick a tournament field if everyone just played conference games?”

Finding a solution is further down the list of priorities. There needs to be clearance to play a season first, and a plan for how to keep everyone involved at the lowest possible risk. And while contingencies are on the mind of many, college basketball’s opening day is more than three months away. There is still some time, even if it feels like it’s disappearing fast.

For Notre Dame, even the opener is another neat twist into the schedule. The Irish will host Army on Veteran’s Day, Brey said.

“When we did the game, we can market it to our veterans in Michiana,” Brey said. “Of course, now, maybe they’ll be 200 people in the stands and that’ll be limited. I’m hoping like heck we can do that. It’s still on the books.”

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