Notre Dame Fighting Irish Basketball’s Selection Sunday … For 2022
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Notre Dame’s Selection Sunday … For 2022

Perhaps Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner can be a source of motivation for Mike Brey and the 2021-22 Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

The age discrepancy between the two — Pastner is 43 and Brey turns 62 this March 22 — is fairly vast, but both had a recent four-year spell that appeared to spell coaching doom.

Out of nowhere, Pastner’s Yellow Jackets won the ACC Tournament this year. It was the most surprising “where did that come from?” result in the tourney since Brey’s Fighting Irish in 2015 — the year after finishing 15-17, including 6-12 in the conference, plus getting bounced in the first round of the ACC Tournament by Wake Forest.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball coaches Digger Phelps and Mike Brey
Digger Phelps (left) went through the same experiences late in his career as a victim of his own success as Mike Brey has been in recent years. (Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports)

In the previous four seasons until this one, Pastner was 65-67, and 31-43 in the ACC, while Brey in his last four is 65-61, and an even worse 28-46 in the ACC.

This will officially be the third consecutive year Brey and his program will not be in the NCAA Tournament. Last year is not counted because of the cancellation of the tourney due to the pandemic, but even then the Irish were in a battle entering the ACC Tournament just to try to get on the proverbial bubble.

So was Pastner’s Georgia Tech team — and a fifth straight exclusion from the Big Dance this year would have severely jeopardized Pastner’s chances of returning for a sixth year. To win the ACC Championship at his program for the first time in 28 years all but assures him job security at the school for many seasons to come.

For Brey, the 2015 ACC Championship, and then subsequent back-to-back Elite 8 appearance in 2015 and 2016 ,virtually guaranteed him a lifetime contract, or at least for now through the 2024-25 campaign before riding off into the coaching sunset, or perhaps a second career in television.

Familiar Path

Brey joined two other Notre Dame coaches to achieve consecutive advancements to the Elite Eight.

The first was Johnny Jordan, who accomplished the feat in 1953 and 1954 (and a third in 1958). A beloved figure as an alumnus and because of his congeniality, the back end of Jordan’s career saw the game passing him by and he faltered with only one winning season and NCAA Tournament his last four seasons.

After a 10-14 finish in Jordan’s 14th and final year (quite similar to Brey’s 11-15 this year) in 1964, the Notre Dame student body booed the coach, prompting Jordan’s resignation just one year after a 17-9 mark and NCAA Tournament appearance.

The second was Digger Phelps, who attained the back-to-back Elite 8 appearances in1978 and 1979, with the former still the lone Final Four berth in the program’s annals.

He had set an immense bar — and then in his ensuing 12 years became a victim of his own success with only five NCAA Tournament victories. He too had a three-year absence from the tourney from 1982-84, including a 10-17 finish in 1982. A Sweet 16 appearance in 1987 soon became overshadowed with an underachieving 16-13 outcome his second-to-last season (with a first-round NCAA Tournament loss) and a 12-20 farewell tour in 1990-91.

By the end of his tenure, Phelps’s name could no longer be used in the pre-game introductions because the booing from the student body had become an embarrassment.

And now, history is repeating with the highly affable Brey even having tasted some limited, scattered boos from the student body late this year in a pandemic year that saw extremely sparse attendance.

Ending the year with a lifeless 101-59 loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament cast further doubts on a program that has ostensibly gone stale, including sub-standard recruiting the past three years.

The Big Picture Beyond 2022

When Brey’s Irish missed the NCAA Tournament in the three straight years from 2004-06, he began to believe his six-season run with the Fighting Irish had run its course. He was on the cusp of applying for the North Carolina State job vacated by Herb Sendek before Notre Dame director of athletics Kevin White and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski helped convince him otherwise.

Still, Brey felt he was at the crossroads then, but it was allayed with a 24-8 mark in year seven, including 11-5 in the Big East that earned him the first of three Coach of the Year honors in the league over the next five years.

"I would say this group coming back, going into my 22nd year, is in the same boat as my seventh year,” said Brey following the North Carolina debacle. “…I think I'm right on that mat again. Been there, done that.

“…The line is drawn in the sand. A year from Sunday, we need to show up in that bracket. Plain and simple.”

Or else what?

Is Brey inferring that another season without a bid means he will voluntarily step down? In an interview I had with him in the summer of 2019, he acknowledged that missing the NCAA Tournament three straight years (never mind four) can often be a death knell among Power 5 coaches.

“I have older, veteran coaches telling me, ‘Don’t retire. Ride it as long as you can,’” Brey said. “Well, I’m not going to ride it if I’m faking it, or if I’m not productive. Believe me, I will be, ‘You need a new voice, you need new blood.’ I’m not going to go kicking and screaming.”

And what if Notre Dame does make the NCAA Tournament in 2022, and then proceeds to get bounced in the first or second round? Is that the new bar now? Just be one of 68 teams invited every three or four years and be content with that status?

What about beyond 2022? Notre Dame next season will have seven seniors on the roster — an unfathomable achievement in today’s college basketball. The modus operandi under Brey has been to “stay old.” Basketball IQ and experience has been the program’s identity and the way to compensate or combat the superior sheer athleticism of its numerous ACC opponents. If not in 2022, then when?

Unfortunately, there is no “wow factor” in the three recruiting classes from 2019-21, especially compared to the highly lauded 2018 haul that next season will be seniors — yet own a 20-36 league record to show for it.

The overall operation right now appears to be twisting in the wind. Or where it was at the end of Jordan’s tenure in 1964 (two years later it would be 5-21) or Phelps’s in 1991 unless the recruiting vastly improves and the strength/development accelerate.

Brey admitted the program is currently at a “crossroads.”

A year from now on Selection Sunday, maybe we might see a feel-good celebration with Notre Dame returning to the NCAA field for the first time since 2017. There will be the usual stories about resilience, overcoming adversity and the Fighting Irish seniors “staying the course” amidst all the criticism and setbacks the past several years and how the program is once again reinvigorated, resurrected and born again.

Hopefully, that will be the case, as it was at Georgia Tech this year.

Otherwise, the twisting wind could result in quite the tempest.

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