Monday, March 24, 2008

Is It Time to Forget About Brey?

It is if you're using this weekend's performance against Washington State in the round of 32 as the sole, end-all-be-all criteria.

Notre Dame's disheartening 61-41 loss to Tony Bennet and the Cougars added an abrupt, discomforting thud to the end of what was by all other standards a tremendous season. Coming in, Notre Dame was faced with the prospect of replacing their two captains and leading scorers from a year ago, figuring out how to make their backcourt work with a player who hadn't played a live game in 10 months, bringing a young team back off the mat mentally from a discouraging postseason performance the previous year, and navigating the absurdly tough Big East conference, a conference Mike Brey's peers deemed so tough the Irish would finish 9th.

Brey responded with one of his best coaching performances, developing Luke Harangody into the Big East Player of the Year and deftly managing the Irish's frenetic pace of basketball for a 14-4 conference record, good for a share of second place. But unlike football, where the postseason is (with basically one exception) a glorified footnote, a basketball season is always remembered by how, and under what circumstances, it ended.

This is one coda the Irish won't reflect on fondly.

After dispatching George Mason with a sly mix of their breakneck transition game and methodical half-court offense, Brey felt the Irish were ready for the ultimate clash in styles: their up-tempo manner of ball distribution that led the nation in assists against Washington State's ridiculously disciplined man-to-man/zone hybrid. Whichever team controlled the tempo of the game was going to win, and the tempo would be dictated by whichever team held firm against frustration. On both counts, the Cougars won via knockout.

The familiar knee-jerk reactions came quickly afterward: "Why the hell can't Brey teach some court discipline? Why don't we have more focus and passion on defense? Why are we so unathletic? Why do we do nothing but take long-range jumpers? Why can't Brey toughen these kids up with a hard non-conference schedule?"

There were a lot of things about the Irish performance Saturday, both on the court and from the bench, that left plenty to be desired. But I'm not convinced it wasn't 'simply' a case of two excellent teams, each with a strength polar opposite of the other, just going at it. That's the beauty and the curse of the NCAA Tournament - no matter who you are, no matter what your pedigree, if you draw a matchup that takes you out of your comfort zone, you're in trouble. Sometimes you can do everything right and still get sent packing because the other team, or even just one guy on the other team, refuses to let it be otherwise.

If you doubt this, consider what happened yesterday to the Beast of the Big East and trendy Final Four pick Georgetown. The Hoyas shot 63 percent for the game and led by as much as 17 against Davidson, but once Stephen Curry caught fire there was no stopping him. Watch the highlight reel - several of Curry's shots in the second half come as he challenges three GU defenders and just shoves the ball towards the hoop, praying it'll go in. An exasperated John Thompson III said it best after the game: "For the most part he had guys all over him and the ball was going in anyway."

Bringing this back around to the Notre Dame-Washington State post mortem, there's no denying that WSU's utter dominance of the game's tempo harkens back to (and reflects poorly on) the prep and execution of the Irish coaching staff. Maybe instead of directing (or at least letting) his team to haphazardly force the issue, something which was painfully represented by several attempts from Zach Hillesland and Harangody (of all people) to go the entire length of the floor for a bakset, Brey and his staff should've been preparing a slow-down style of their own offense. Particularly in the second half, as it seemed like each Irish player took turns running full-speed toward the brick wall known as the Cougar defense, it was obvious that no matter how hard the Irish pressed, WSU was not going to let them elevate the pace. Shouldn't Brey have seen that ahead of time in the tape and statistics regarding the third-best defensive team in the nation?

Yes, he should've. The curious thing is that, to this observer's eye, trying to get Notre Dame ready for this brand of basketball game was exactly what Brey did against George Mason. A lot of people felt the Irish got passive once they opened a lead Thursday and should've really laid the hammer down, but Brey seemed content to rein in his own players. He seemed to hint afterwards that it was partly intentional with an eye towards the next opponent, saying "We never want to play slow, but we can if we have to." On Friday it was more direct: "I think that's what tomorrow is for us: playing slow, playing fast, recognizing when it's becoming more halfcourt, and being smart about it." Despite all that, once tip-off came the Irish seemed unable to recognize what the whole Pac-10 now knows: playing against Tony Bennett's defense is akin to keeping up a tennis volley with a brick wall - the rally only goes as long as you don't make a mistake. The wall isn't going to make one. Once the Irish couldn't get any player on a Curry-like streak of luck & will - they went a measly 3/17 from 3-point land, by far their worst performance of the season from long range, to go with their worst point total and worst overall shooting performance since Brey became coach - the Cougar faithful were booking tickets to Charlotte and a date with top-ranked North Carolina.

So, what's the verdict on Mike Brey? Is he a coaching overacheiver who's learned much from the pratfalls of the Chris Thomas Era, becoming more confident and calculative than ever as he directs a program which often gets treated like a little brother by its own athletic department? Or has he hit his coaching ceiling, establishing himself as a great representative but unlikely to recruit and develop the kind of team that can be a year-in, year-out threat in the NCAA Tournament? I think that before any hasty rush to judgment on that front, Notre Dame basketball fans need to remember this: in the 8 years prior to his hiring, the Irish were a combined 110-124 with no NCAA berths. Since Brey's arrival the program has been 167-86 with 5 NCAA trips.

You could argue that Matt Doherty, who with a 22-15, NIT Runners-Up season in 1999-00 greatly improved the overall pre-Brey ledger, would have had similar results had North Carolina not resorted to it's 11th choice in finding a replacement for Bill Gunthridge, and conclude that Brey hasn't really done much to elevate the program. The problem with that is that it's just wrong to use what a former coach "might've probably" done against his successor. Here's what Brey has done: restored credibility to Notre Dame's basketball program, graduated every player who completed his eligibility in a Fighting Irish uniform, won consecutive Coach of the Year awards in the Big East, and currently has a team that's trending upward, returning 7 of its top 8 scorers and a bevy of upperclassmen leadership. Even with considerable talent being retained though, the Irish do have to rediscover themselves after losing Rob Kurz, who's on and off-court presence over the past three years cannot be underestimated. It will not be as simple as sending Luke Zeller or Tim Abromaitis out there and saying, "Go put up 13 points a game and serve as the team's emotional anchor".

Brey and the Irish are also due for a stern non-conference test this November when they play in the Maui Invitational before facing an as-always loaded Big East which should feature at least nine Tournament-caliber teams. A lot of truth will be told concerning Brey after not this season, but next, because he's now heading down a road he's traveled once before. Five years ago he led another Irish squad on a solid, somewhat surprising run that ended with a Sweet 16 berth, and returned that team's leading scorer (Thomas) plus two freshman who showed tremendous upside (Torin Francis & Chris Quinn), a number of solid role-player types (Torrian Jones, Jordan Cornette, Rick Cornett, Tom Timmermans) and brought in Colin Falls and Russell Carter. The Irish faded down the stretch of that follow-up campaign and wound up in the NIT, the first of three consecutive wilts under bubble pressure that had a good number of people calling for Brey's ouster. There was more than one moment when those '03-'05 Irish teams could've used the steady influence of a Matt Carroll or a David Graves, a leadership void Thomas seemed unable to fill and Brey seemed powerless to solve. That should be less of a problem this time around considering the strong credentials of the returning seniors (Kyle McAlarney, Hillesland, Zeller, and Ryan Ayers) and juniors (Harangody & Tory Jackson). But there are no guarantees, not in the tournament or anything else in college basketball, a fact Brey was keen to acknowledge when questioned after Saturday's defeat:
I don't think you can ever count on [getting better]. One of the things is, 'Is everybody's head going to be the same?' This group has been fabulous. I think maybe we had two bad practices all year. I just told them that in the locker room. They've been unbelievable. It's a great class to teach every day. But you know, guys change. Are we gonna still chase it as a group? You're right, [Kurz is] a big loss right there. The little things [he does], the screening. The dirty work. The defense. You just don't plug in and move on.
Spoken like a coach who already experienced once the perils of not controlling a team led by seniors who just figured they'd show up and be even better. Like a coach who's ready to make sure history doesn't repeat itself. Time will tell, Irish basketball fans. Time will tell.

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