As it did two years ago, Notre Dame will have to go through one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s blue blood programs to win a title.
The third-seeded Irish play fifth-seeded Duke tonight at Barclays Center. Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. on ESPN.
“They've been great matchups,” head coach Mike Brey said of playing Duke. “The matchups were good, and our guys have always been very excited to play the Duke program.
“When I got this job, when we were able to steal a win from Connecticut or Syracuse, those were real program wins for us. And when we've been able to beat the Duke or the North Carolinas, those have been great program wins for us in this league. We're in the early stages of this league. But our guys have always been excited to play against them.”
Brey, of course, was a Duke assistant under the legendary Mike Krzyzewski from 1987-95. He then became head coach at Delaware from 1995-2000, going 99–51 over five years. He’s since built Notre Dame into a consistent top-25 team, going 381-185 over his 17 seasons.
The Irish have risen to the occasion against the Blue Devils since joining the league. Notre Dame is 5-2 in the ACC matchups, including a win in the conference tournament semifinals two years ago. The Irish went on to beat North Carolina in the final.
The teacher, though, wasn’t a fan of his pupil joining the ACC.
Krzyzewski criticized Notre Dame’s arrival to the league in 2013, displeased that the Irish were joining without bringing their big-money football program. Krzyzewski told the New York Post that he “never accepted” Notre Dame as a partial member of the ACC. Brey responded by telling the South Bend Tribune: “Mike should just hug us and welcome us," Brey said. "Now let's go make it the best league in the country.”
Notre Dame has held up its end of the bargain. After a poor 2013-14 season, the Irish have won an ACC title and gone to back-to-back Elite Eights. Tonight, Brey’s team can make it two titles in three years.
Under Krzyzewski, Duke has adapted to the one-and-done era of college basketball arguably better than anyone. The Blue Devils won national titles in 2010 and 2015 and are again poised to go deep in the NCAA Tournament.
Brey, meanwhile, has built a steady program by developing players and staying older. Vastly different from Duke’s game plan, but one that is racking up wins in the powerful ACC.
The two approaches will be tested again tonight at Barclays.
ROLLING IN BARCLAYS
For the first 13 of his 17 seasons at Notre Dame, Brey and the Irish played their Big East conference tournaments at Madison Square Garden, located in Manhattan. Brey finished his Big East career fourth in wins behind only Hall-of-Famers Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and John Thompson Jr., but was just 10-13 in the league’s tournament and never advanced to the Saturday night final.
The ACC has been much more kind.
This season and next, the ACC Tournament will be in nearby Brooklyn, playing at the relatively new Barclays Center. It has been a very friendly arena to Notre Dame — the Irish won both their regular season games at Barclays Center this season, victories over Colorado and Northwestern in the Legends Classic in November.
Last season, the Irish won their first two NCAA Tournament games at the 18,103-seat arena, beating Michigan and Stephen F. Austin to advance to the Sweet 16.
With this week’s two ACC Tourney wins, the Irish are 7-1 all-time at Barclays, the only loss coming in Nov. 2012 to Saint Joseph’s.
“I like this building way more because my record in Barclays is way better than the Garden,” Brey said. “This had the electricity tonight in the semis tonight. We were fortunate enough to play in the semis in the Garden, we never got to the Saturday night. And it was electric.
“I thought tonight was really good. Both arenas are on par. We'll probably be in that arena someday. I don't know if I'll still be coaching when we get there, but we'll be in that arena someday too.”
Notre Dame’s players feel the same way.
“It's obvious we have a lot of fun playing here,” said junior guard Matt Farrell, a New Jersey native. “For me, it's fun playing close to home, a lot of family and friends here.
“All of us are just really comfortable here with the things that have happened in the past with us playing here. A lot of guys enjoy it here. A lot of guys love being in the city, and we just have a lot of fun together here.”
“Really confident in this building,” junior forward Bonzie Colson said. “It's good to have your family and friends cheering you on. We're just playing really well in this building. I can't complain. Just got to keep doing what we do.”
ODDS & ENDS
• Brey on his team’s veteran makeup: “ It shows up in poise. It shows up in outstanding leadership. It shows up in great stability in times of taking punches in a league like ours, which we did. I've always had great senior leaders because I've always had great seniors. It's the rhythm to our program, and I'm really proud of this next wave of old guys that are leading the team.”
• Notre Dame was also the three seed in the ACC Tournament when it won in 2015. The Irish beat fifth-seeded North Carolina that year.
• Brey has 381 victories at Notre Dame, the second-most in program history and 12 away from the all-time record (393).