Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Brey Is Who We Thought He Was

Mike Brey tricked me, I bought into this team and him as a coach because he had stopped comparing his team to the Irish of the 90's. He called for this team to play in the Big East Championship game. He called for a deep run in the tournament. At the half against Louisville in the Big East Semi-Finals everything looked great. Then Mike Brey started talking to the team at halftime and everything fell apart. I have no idea what Brey said in the locker room, but I can only hope that it isn't something he ever repeats to anyone. A 14 point lead seemed like it should be safe and a game on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden was 20 minutes away. Then Louisville remembered that this was Notre Dame basketball and the Wu-Tang Clan could write a song replacing Wu Tang Clan with Notre Dame and Ain't Nothing with Is Something in the title and they wouldn't be that far off.

With multiple football coaches being fired in the previous decade for mediocrity there is no reason to accept it from the basketball team. Every once in awhile Notre Dame makes a run at a conference title and falls just short. Then they fall short of expectations in both tournaments. Then nothing happens. The Purcell Pavilion fails to fill because people smarter/saner than me know better than to designate time/money to go to games and care about this team. I'm sure they want the best for the team and they still root for the Irish hoopers, but they know what's coming at the end.

Now, I don't want to take to much away from a regular season that was as good as it was. A Big East Player of the Year award and a Coach of the Year award show that as well as anything. A preseason tournament win with wins over Georgia and Wisconsin, wins over Gonzaga, UConn (twice), Louisville, and Pitt on the road. They were winning all the close games and blowing out most of the teams they should, but the losses also had something in common they were all double digits on the road. The team that went undefeated at home had issues on the road. This probably should have been a warning sign for the post-season, when no games are played at home.

Will I root for the team and care about wins and losses next year? Of course I will, but there will always be a lingering doubt about the coach until he proves me wrong. Maybe having players in the Brey system for 4 or 5 years isn't a good thing because they become to much like their coach. He has beaten one team from a major conference in the NCAA tournament and even after that win was a blowout loss to Arizona, his only trip to the Sweet Sixteen and that was in 2003. Four trips to the NIT in the last eight years (including a loss at home to Holy Cross), double digit losses in all but three of his seasons. Contending for a Big East championship every couple of years isn't good enough for me and it shouldn't be for Notre Dame. Thankfully there's always ice hockey. Frozen Four anyone?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Notre Dame Awards

Congratulations to Mike Brey, the Big East Coach of the Year (and rumored National Coach of the Year) and Ben Hansbrough, Big East Player of the Year. As well as Tim Abromaitis winning the Big East scholar-athlete award for the second time in as many years. Also thanks to Mississippi State for running a selfish offense that pissed Ben off and made him transfer.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mike Brey. I think I'm sorry.

So, I'm not a huge fan of Mike Brey, I'm not shy about this, earlier this year I tweeted that I wouldn't mind switching the men's and women's coaches at ND. Coach Brey has attempted to prove me wrong and I'm not going to go all Drew Sharp and take responsibility for his success*. Brey thinks it's better to recruit players that will grow into their roles and redshirts players in order to have one of the oldest teams in the Big East every year. I have called out his use of redshirting Abromaitis and still think he did it wrong, he should have lost his freshman year and not his sophomore year. Having Abro for his sophomore season was probably the difference between that team being in the NIT and the NCAA tournament. Prove me wrong!

Harangody getting hurt last year was the best thing to happen to Brey, he realized he had to coach differently without his star and now he is able to switch schemes depending on the opponent. The fact that it took him 10 years at ND to figure this out is a bit befuddling, but what are you going to do. His coaching this year has been phenomenal as Notre Dame doesn't lose close games which is opposite of his team in 2005-2006. The NIT team that lost to Michigan to end their season, lost 10 games by less than 5 points (including twice to Michigan) and all of their wins were by more than 5 points except two (IPFW and Wofford).

With 5 seniors on this team and 3 of them back next year, I hope for more of the same from the Irish, with Eric Atkins the only underclassmen for next year we'll probably see a freshman get Atkins-like minutes next year. But this is about this year, and what a glorious year it's been, beating everyone but 5 teams? A completely unexpected turn from a team that lost it's two best players from last year. Ben Hansborough is way better than I thought he could ever be, probably the Big East player of the year, Eric Atkins doing enough to show that his future at ND will be bright. Tyrone Nash is the most underrated player on this team, doing enough every game to be the difference and that 3 pointer he hit was wondrous (Free Ty Nash). The only real disappointment is Scott Martin as he has been called by Mike Brey "the best offensive player I've coached." A two year lay-off is tough to overcome (Dayne Crist anyone) and I expect big things from Martin next year. I still wonder if Everett Golston will actually play basketball at ND, he says he wants too, but if Andrew Hendrix doesn't win the job (I expect he will) then Golston may have his hands full with football.

Mike Brey has coached brilliantly this year, although his move with Ben Hansbrough against UConn left a lot of people scratching their heads. And then blaming Hansbrough brought rushing back memories of poor Mike Brey decisions. Yes, we could laugh about it, because they won, even joke about how Hansbrough and Brey did it on purpose to show the other players they could win without Ben. Mike Brey has built a team that can win in the B(ig)EAST but before I jump fully aboard the band wagon I need tournament results, Dominion and Winthrop, Ole Miss and Arizona are still memories I'd love to replace with a Final Four run or at least Elite Eight and the Notre Dame seeding should bare those expectations out. I'm still in disbelief that this team is in the running for a ONE SEED.

So Mike Brey, I apologize, sort of, for now. Win two games in MSG and three games in the tourney and I'll admit that, for this year, I was wrong. Then do it again next year. And keep doing it. The bar has been raised by Brian Kelly, and his team went 8-5, Notre Dame expects excellence and you need to keep delivering it.

*Drew Sharp is a Detroit columnist that called out one of Izzo's MSU teams, I think it was the team with Ager, Brown and Paula Davis. When that team advanced to the Final Four Drew wrote a column about how his column calling out the Spartans was the reason they advanced so far... Seriously. Luckily for Drew he writes for the same paper that employs the liar Mitch Albom thus making him only my second most hated writer at the Free Press.

Monday, March 7, 2011

New Territory

In my 25 years of existence, I never had moments like I had this past Saturday.

First there was the Notre Dame - UCONN game. With a fairly comfortable eight point lead and just over eight minutes left, Mike Brey decided to put Ben Hansbrough in the game with four fouls. Ten seconds later Notre Dame's best player and emotional leader was back in the bench with his fifth foul. I received a text from my buddy a few seconds later, "Uh oh, ND is screwed! At least they locked up the 2 seed in the Big East..." Being the over optimistic super fan, I decided to berate that friend with a text condemning his pessimistic attitude and also telling him that our correspondence during the game was now over. I simply don't allow that negative energy in my presence during times like this, even if that negative energy was present via text message.

Next thing I know, led by Kemba Walker, UCONN went on a 13-0 run to take a five point lead. That's when conflicting thoughts started racing through my head. "You've got to be kidding me! Same old Notre Dame. Wait, this team is different, we'll get this. Hold on, I've read this book before. Screw it! WE GOT THIS!" I knew I was definitely in new territory because I knew this team was different than in years past. This isn't a team that is demoralized by runs anymore, this isn't a team that lets things bother them, like losing their best player and leader. Notre Dame proceeded to go on a 9-0 run and take a four point lead. But while the Irish had chances to close out the victory, missed free throws allowed UCONN to stay within striking distance. With a three point lead, UCONN came down with seconds remaining and for the first time I can remember it was another team fumbling the ball in the closing seconds with a chance to win the game, because ND forced the ball out of the UCONN's best player's hands.

This victory was all about a team. Kemba Walker scored over half of UCONN's points and his teammates didn't know what to do when he passed the ball when the Huskies had a chance to tie to the game with seconds remaining. When Ben Hansbrough, who had been en fuego, fouled out. I think there was a shock right away, and Notre Dame stepped up. Not just one player, but the whole team. Eric Atkins played composed and took care of the ball. Scott Martin, Tim Abromaitis, and Carleton Scott all hit shots, and Tyrone Nash took the game over by passing, shooting, playing D. Nash was truly the MVP of the game. That was just on the offensive end, on the defensive end the Irish managed to stop the run and make big stops as the game went on. Not letting UCONN take another lead.

When the final buzzer sounded I was more relieved, proud, and excited for a Notre Dame team than I have ever been. This team just keeps coming up with ways to win like I've never seen an Irish team to do before.

Moments later I made my way to the elliptical to watch the Villanova-Pittsburgh matchup. I was on the elliptical to try to get rid of this Buddha belly and to also calm my nerves while I watched a game that would decide if Notre Dame would earn a share of their first ever Big East championship (unless you count the 2001 Big East West Championship, which I don't). Never before have I watched a Nova-Pitt game so intently, and genuinely caring who won the game. Of course, that team was Nova.

Jay Wright actually had a good gameplan for Nova. He was going to use the Mike Brey formula for beating Pitt, the "Burn" offense. Unfortunately for Villanova, and for me, they don't have the shooters or the offensive efficiency to do that. I don't think I had ever screamed at a game so much that I didn't have a team in. However, this was the first time since the Bulls dynasty that I had a team with a legitimate shot at some sort of championship. So there I was, screaming at a Pitt-Nova game, with hopes of that first Big East Championship. Of course, since the basketball gods hate me, Nova eventually succumbed to a very good Pitt team. Giving the Panthers the outright Big East regular season championship. Stupid Villanova.

As the day turned into night I started to regain my optimism with the basketball gods. Purdue suffered a big upset at the hands of Iowa and then UNC upended Duke. That's when I started thinking, "Notre Dame has a shot at a one seed!" I don't think that thought has ever, in my life, crept into my brain. Then something amazing happened. ESPN pundits confirmed my feelings that I thought might have just been crazy. Notre Dame did have the chance to be a one seed in the NCAA tourney.

So, just in one day I experienced more firsts than I ever have with Notre Dame basketball. I hope as the next couple weeks come with the Big East and NCAA tournaments that we can experience a couple more firsts.