When Notre Dame lost to Indiana in Indianapolis on Dec. 17 to fall to 7-5, and again after back-to-back losses to Connecticut and Rutgers to fall to 3-3 in the Big East in mid-January, the coaching staff and the players were at a crossroads.
The coaches could crack the whip mercilessly, or share in the responsibility and get back to work by teaching and trying to improve on a daily basis.
The players could write it off as a lost season, or realize their shortcomings, accept the instruction from the staff, and try to “win the next practice.”
Fourteen games into the Big East season, the Irish are now 19-8 overall, 11-3 in the Big East, and currently tied with Marquette for second in the conference. Coaches and players scaled the mountain by clearing their heads, getting back to work, and putting one foot in front of the other.
“We’ve always had really coachable guys here,” said Brey Monday morning, about 36 hours after the Irish overcame a 20-point first-half deficit to defeat Villanova in overtime, 74-70.
“The students that they were — they let us teach back in November and December when we weren’t very good — was really a key, and it started with guys that wanted to be good and leadership that helped keep selling the message, even when we were losing.
“That is the most gratifying thing, and I tell them that all the time. I’ve said many times to them that it’s an honor to be their coach. They wanted to get better, and through this stretch where we’ve won, they’ve stayed hungry and they’ve wanted more. That’s really mature, staying hungry and still chasing it.”
The Irish have now won eight in a row, but No. 8 was no easy task, particularly after falling behind 39-19 with less than two minutes remaining in the first half. Brey said in the preceding weeks that he was waiting for a chink in the emotional armor of the team to show, but it never did. Saturday night was a little different.
“It wasn’t one of overly emotional,” said Brey of his halftime speech when the Irish trailed by 16. “It was a little bit of confronting them on kind of looking around the first half. That was the first time I’ve seen us gliding a little bit since we got this thing started.
“Quite frankly, I expected it sooner. They reacted really well. By the end of (the Villanova game), I was talking about a methodical comeback (and) four-minute segments. It was the tone you were ready to talk about, it just really hadn’t presented itself until the first half the other night.”
The maturity of players such as point guard Eric Atkins and fifth-year senior Scott Martin has helped. So too has the competitiveness of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, and the wide-eyed innocence of stardom that has inspired Jack Cooley.
“Scott Martin is almost like an assistant coach at this point of his career,” Brey said. “Eric has a great feel for our system, and the guys he plays with. He’s really bright?
“It’s a real innocent climb (by) this group because it’s so in with both feet. Obviously, a lot of them come back next year. What will it be like next year? That’s the interesting challenge of coaching.
“But this group has been so innocent. The only senior is Scott and he wants to come back. You have really good heads, no distractions?(They’ve) kept the frame of mind because through all this — people telling you that you’re good, you’re on a roll, people talking about you — human nature can say, ‘I need to do more of that for my game.’ That can creep in, and I’m the most paranoid guy about that being in this business for as long as I’ve been.
“So there are a lot of dynamics — especially as you keep winning — that are very interesting to me. This group has handled it?pure. I’ve been waiting for them to have a breakdown, and they haven’t, but again, I don’t trust anybody.”
Perhaps the greatest trust of all from Brey has been in himself. Now in his 12th year at Notre Dame and 17th overall as a head coach, Brey has never been one to admonish his players in front of a live audience. He plays the role of confidence-giver, which he’s expanded now that he’s firmly entrenched.
“I’m sure as a younger coach I was a little more excited and anxious,” Brey said. “But I think overall, my demeanor has been to be poised on the sideline, even though inside you may be doing back-flips. When the guys look over, they don’t see a maniac, they see a calming influence.”
Brey’s approach has empowered the players to take possession of their own team, which is why timeouts for the Irish are frequently a free-flowing exchange of ideas as opposed to a verbal beat-down or a one-sided conversation.
“Our huddles are group discussions many times,” Brey said. “You know that scene in the movie where the teacher says, ‘Talk amongst yourselves’? There is a little bit of that, and I really value their feedback. It gives me a little bit of a vibe listening sometimes to where we’re at, what we’re doing, and what they talk about on the court.
“I think it’s important for them to look over and see some poise and calm and control. You pick your spots when you show your energy. There’s no question that Eric Atkins is calm and poised, and Scott Martin’s poise has gotten contagious with some other guys on the team.”
Whether it’s a veteran team like the one he had last year with the strongest voice of all (Ben Hansbrough), or a young, innocent group like this year’s team, Brey clearly has found his voice, and he’ll stick with it as long as he’s in coaching.
“I’m going to be loose the rest of my career because I can be,” Brey laughed. “I’m being loose the rest of the way. If I can’t be loose here, I’ll go be loose somewhere else?
“I don’t know if I’d had more fun with a group, and that’s saying a lot after last year.”
Large selection without the Bookstore sticker shock
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