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Brey must help Irish find answers to early season struggles

Andrew Soukup | Monday, January 19, 2004

The final horn echoed – yes, echoed – in a half-empty Joyce Center Saturday, but the Irish had long ago given up.A couple of seconds after Hakim Warrick threw down the final of his four slam dunks, Irish coach Mike Brey signaled for a timeout, a gesture as meaningless as it was useless.Warrick’s dunk had given the defending national champions an 18-point lead, and although 3:51 remained in the game, an Irish team unable to contain a Syracuse run had wilted. Trudging back to the bench with a defeated gaze in his eyes, Irish point guard Chris Thomas looked at his teammates and saw absolutely nothing.”They are getting dunks and easy lay-ups, and we are walking up and down the court looking at Coach, looking at each other,” Thomas said. “There’s no expression on our faces.”We are just getting killed.”Yes, Syracuse is really that much better than Notre Dame. Yes, Syracuse is a measuring stick that schools often use to compare themselves to the nation’s elite.And yes, the Irish are in big trouble.Not only did Saturday’s 81-70 loss mark the worst home loss of the Mike Brey era, it started to turn the heat up on Notre Dame’s NCAA Tournament future. Because the way the Irish have looked against many of the top teams on their schedule thus far, one is mad to think they should to be playing in March.The issues are staggering. In a benign Joyce Center so quiet that pins can be heard dropping on the catwalk, the Irish have struggled to harness the crowd’s energy on the rare instances when it does rise to its feet. For the second game in a row, the Irish gave up more than 40 points in the paint, prompting Timmermans to say the Irish lack toughness. Most striking of all, Brey said after the game he’s trying to figure out how this team fits together. “We’re still messing around with minutes and roles,” the Irish coach said after Notre Dame’s 13th game of the season. Yikes.Early-season losses to Indiana and Central Michigan could be chalked up to an inexperienced team trying to find its identity. But as Notre Dame enters a murderous Big East schedule, the Irish appear no closer to finding their identity than they are to finding Atlantis.Now, Brey faces arguably his toughest challenge of his Notre Dame coaching career in trying to prepare this team for another run at the NCAA Tournament.He must discover how to help his team’s offense run effectively through Thomas, a point guard who in big games increasingly crosses the fine line between creativity and chaos. Such mistakes could once be attributed to youthful exuberance, but are now simply mistakes. Loath to putting handcuffs on his best player because Notre Dame needs his improvisation, does Brey finally need to rein in his star guard?He must figure a way to force the Irish to play tougher and meaner in a league renowned for its physical play. The Irish responded well when Timmermans was called for a technical foul after the giant Dutchman got involved in a shoving match trying to protect other Notre Dame players. Will a healthy Timmermans see more playing time?Brey must convince his charges that their success comes from playing within their abilities. Torrian Jones struggled early in the season when he launched jumper after jumper. But a heart-to-heart talk with the head coach convinced the senior to return to his slashing style of play. Will Brey have similar talks with similar players with similar problems?Lastly, Brey has to mold the wounded psyche of a team that “feels like we’re 0-4″ in the league, the coach said. In September, Brey gathered his team and stressed the importance of resilience. But resilience is different from playing hard (which Thomas said the Irish didn’t do), from playing with pride (which Jones said the Irish didn’t do) and from playing tough (which Timmermans said the Irish didn’t do). Is it really that easy to take them one game at a time when the Irish are in danger of not playing in the most important ones at the end of the season?”We just kind of gave up on ourselves,” Jones said. “I know that this team is stronger than that.”Notre Dame’s season is far from over. But each loss to a tough team means that the margin for error grows increasingly smaller.And if the errors continue to pile up, the hollow sound the final horn caused Saturday won’t seem so bad compared to the hollow feeling the Irish will feel if they learn on Selection Sunday they’re playing in a postseason tournament with three letters instead of four.

Contact Andrew Soukup at asoukup@nd.edu. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.