Mike Brey’s Unorthodox Lineup Move Hits The Right Notes
Mike Brey’s memory is apparently short. Or at least selectively so.
In the past week, Notre Dame’s head coach had, 1) watched his team end a four-game skid in a Jan. 16 win over Boston College that featured some semblance of defense, resilience and strong shot selection, and 2) overseen intense practices Thursday and Friday where he upped the competitive setting. Both were signs of momentum – an absent phenomenon around his program in prior weeks.
None of that, though, mattered at all as Brey processed what he described as a dispassionate showing by his starters in Saturday’s practice. It was unnerving. It led him to go big, get extreme and take a mighty risk. In the middle of practice, he decided to start the second group and make the starting five come off the bench for Sunday’s game at Miami to send a message that lethargic days carry penalties.
“I yelled it at the top of my lungs at the end of practice, “That’s it, the blue shirts (backups) are starting tomorrow, shoot 10 free throws and I’ll see you on the bus,” Brey said Sunday night. “We’re trying to set a competition standard.”
The final minutes share from Sunday’s game indicates it was more of a symbolic gesture than a complete rotation makeover, but Brey’s desire was evidently taken to heart.
The usual all-upperclassmen starting group of Prentiss Hubb, Trey Wertz, Dane Goodwin, Nate Laszewski and Juwan Durham combined for 63 bench points, a presumed school record, and brought in a 73-59 victory. The Irish (5-8, 2-5 ACC) have won two straight games for the first time since February 2020. They did it by putting forth their best defensive game and, once again, generating and making quality shots at a high rate.
What read like a pointless move when it came on the screen hit the proper chords.
“[It was] just to humble us,” Durham said. “We all had a high hat on, I’d say. In practice, we were not doing good. We were scored on at least three straight times. It put a fire under our butts.”
In sending a message to his starters, Brey sent one about this year. A season played in lifeless gyms that has generated apathy and grumbling among the masses won’t end by going through the motions with the passion of a parking enforcement officer. Brey is going to keep pushing buttons. And his roster seems receptive.
“Our intensity, we talk about it enough, but we had to go out and actually do it,” Hubb said.
One win over a depleted Miami outfit that’s now 2-7 in the ACC isn’t altering the season's outlook and undoing the damage of a 1-5 start. It did, though, convey the idea that cases of snuffed out competitive fires will be rare if not nonexistent. Even if the Irish’s self-admitted end objective now is to finish .500 in the ACC, a few rungs below their preseason NCAA tournament hopes.
“My feeling was I need to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Nope,’” Brey said. “Even though you guys are our starters and you played well against Boston College. That standard has to stay with our group.
“They were fabulous. I’m proud of how they handled it.”
In a change of script, Notre Dame built on the eight-point halftime lead it held. The typical second-half swoon was absent, and the Irish’s advantage reached 19 points. When Miami unfurled a full-court press that turned Notre Dame over five times in 3:09 and sliced the lead to seven, Notre Dame regrouped without even needing a timeout and broke full-court traps three straight times to produce layups.
By all accounts, the brief benching jolted Hubb the most. Notre Dame’s junior point guard often enjoys Brey’s protection and complete faith, even in his lowest moments. In the prior dispatching of Boston College, he posted 10 assists against just two turnovers and made a trio of three-pointers. He defended with more gusto. And yet here he was ceding the controls due to one off day.
“Prentiss may have played his best overall game on Saturday [against Boston College] and I didn’t start him,” Brey said, still a bit incredulous.
“He was pissed off, talking in our huddles, challenging guys if they got beat and getting guys in the right position. There was more of a strong personality. I hope he continues with that.”
All told, Hubb had 19 points and nine assists. He was 5 of 7 on three-pointers and took all but two of his attempts at the rim or beyond the arc. The initial disappointment turned into production. Into obvious competitive juice.
“I was out there for my teammates,” Hubb said. “It is what it is, I didn’t start, but coach Brey told me I’d play a lot and I wasn’t worried. I was jumping up, getting hype for every last shot they took, thinking every one was going to go in.”
It’s all grins and good vibes in hindsight, but the potential for adverse effects Brey’s decision carried is worth bringing up to highlight the gamble. In a different but plausible world, Notre Dame’s regular starters enter the game down 10 points three minutes in and never catch up. Any leftover vibes from the prior week’s victory vanish, replaced by a new low. The Irish board a plane back to South Bend with confusion and second-guessing festering.
That’s a recipe for internal strife and long-term residence in last place. Instead, the Irish roll in to prep Wednesday’s game against No. 16 Virginia Tech feeling like it has a chance to end their ranked game skid and compete with a team that bullied them off the floor less than three weeks ago. That sounds like Brey’s ideal end result to an unorthodox move.
“You hope you have good enough relationships with Prentiss, Dane, Nate, Juwan especially that they’ll respond the right way,” Brey said. “Sometimes you never know, but I think I’ve invested enough over three years to know they’d respond well.”
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