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Farmer: Brey ranks as one of regular season’s best (March 8)

Douglas Farmer | Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mike Brey did not make it four of six Big East Coach of the Year awards Tuesday night. Instead, this year’s honor went to South Florida’s Stan Heath. By no means was Heath undeserving — Brey voted for him after all. But the award should have belonged to Brey.

Of all the criticism the Irish coach has faced in his 12 years under the Dome, one thing can no longer be doubted: He is one of the best regular season coaches in the country.

Is that a back-handed compliment? Perhaps. But isn’t a back-handed compliment better than no compliment at all?

Could this back-handed compliment have been delivered in years past? Quite possibly, but this year eliminated any shred of doubt from even the harshest of critics.

Is this the description Brey wants attached to his name? Doubtful, but this usually precedes those loftier accolades.

Notre Dame begins play in the Big East championships two days later than teams such as Pittsburgh and Connecticut because Brey’s engineering avoided a down-year similar to the ones which struck the defending conference and national champions, respectively.

Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun joined the other coaches in the Big East to place Notre Dame ninth in the conference preseason poll. Such a finish would have the Irish sweating come Selection Sunday. Instead, Brey can sleep easy Saturday night — no matter how his time in Madison Square Garden goes this week — knowing Notre Dame has a berth in the Big Dance.

In those same preseason votes, coaches selected Irish graduate student forward Tim Abromaitis to the preseason all-conference first team. Instead, Abromaitis only played two games this year. Following a four-game suspension due to a minor NCAA violation he averaged 14.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, all at the CBE Classic in Kansas City, Mo. Then, just after Thanksgiving, Notre Dame’s best player, and to this day the one averaging the most points per game this season, tore his ACL and ended what should have been a campaign for the Big East Player of the Year award won by Marquette’s Jae Crowder on Tuesday.

Without Abromaitis, the Irish could have packed in this season. That expected ninth-place conference finish had plummeted to a likely 11th or 12th, at best. Notre Dame was in serious trouble.

Except no one told Mike Brey.

A week into 2012, Notre Dame stood at 9-6, with all six losses coming away from home. In the first of Abromaitis’s two games this season, the Irish lost by 29 to Missouri. They followed that with a 20-point loss to Gonzaga and a 16-point shellacking from Cincinnati. Next up was a trip to Louisville. Few media members showed up, and even less expected the Irish to do so.

Except no one told Mike Brey.

Notre Dame waltzed into the KFC Yum! Center and finagled a double-overtime win over the then-No. 11 Cardinals. Yet, the Irish were still in trouble. A split of a two-game home stand later left the Irish at 11-8, with a 3-3 record in the Big East. Undefeated, top-ranked Syracuse was coming to town. Teams who start poorly in the Big East don’t have the luxury of soft games to make up the deficit. The Irish were not out of danger of watching their season disappear.

Except no one told Mike Brey.

The Irish beat the Orange, sparking a not-to-be-forgotten court storming. The Irish went to Seton Hall and Connecticut, and beat them too, and for good measure, added six more conference wins to the streak. For a few brief moments, one Wednesday night, it looked as if a Big East regular season title was within grasp. Alas, Syracuse beat South Florida on Feb. 22, and kept on winning, but Notre Dame will gladly take its third-place finish. Yes, that is six spots better than the Abromaitis-led squad was predicted to finish.

Someone should be sure to tell Mike Brey.

Or, don’t. Let’s see what bliss this ignorance brings next.

Mike Brey is, without argument, a magician when it comes to regular season success. He took a down-trodden 11-8 team and led them to a 21-10 conclusion with a top-25 ranking.

If no one tells him, can he finally lead the Irish to Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, or, better yet, the first appearance in the NCAA’s second weekend since the last of Matt Doherty’s recruits left in 2003?

Perhaps Mike Brey knows the answer.


Contact Douglas Farmer at dfarmer1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.