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Full transcript of Digger Phelps interview

Andrew Owens | Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What are your thoughts on Notre Dame’s chances in the Big East this year?

It’s going to be an interesting year because, as I said to [senior forward Tim] Abromaitis the other day — I saw him at the end of practice. I said, ‘Well, I think I’m going to go on the air and say that what Jimmer Fredette did last year for BYU, I can see Tim Abromaitis doing that for Notre Dame, getting 35, 40 [points] in big games, like when Pitt comes in here Dec. 27.’

Obviously, he’s our go-to guy. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how [junior forward] Jack Cooley plays inside replacing Nash and can his endurance get up to 26-30 minutes a game without getting into foul trouble, but still be a factor where he can get 10 points, 10 rebounds a game. He’d be happy with that I’m sure and I think [Irish coach Mike Brey] would be too.

I think [sophomore guard Eric] Atkins and [sophomore guard Jerian] Grant have got to play together and blend in and become a solid backcourt. Joey Brooks can help. I think Joey Brooks has the potential to guard anybody if he takes that challenge.

Scott Martin — can he stay healthy? Can he give us two halves of consistency?

From that standpoint, you’re talking about a six-man rotation. But I like the freshman. [Freshman guard] Pat Connaughton is a tough kid. I think by the time the season blends in, I think he’s going to give us some depth in the backcourt, which we’re going to need.

But then obviously the two big kids, [junior forward Tom] Knight and [junior forward] Mike Broghammer have got to give you some minutes. They’re guys I’d use 10 fouls on. They’re just going to beat up on other teams’ centers, like [Alex] Oriakhi of UConn. But what will be interesting to see — I think my biggest concern is rebounding. I don’t mean just defensive rebounding. If we’re going to control games, you got to get second chance points, and that can be an issue because we’re not physical and we’re not quick. I think Mike [Brey] will play a lot of zone to try and do it that way and not run and shoot as much. Obviously take the fast breaks, but play a lot of games low-60s, high-50s, especially against team like Connecticut and Pitt when they come in and the Louisvilles of the world in the Big East.

I think we’re going to be challenged with Detroit if [Eli] Holman doesn’t play, that really helps because he had 13 double-doubles last year for Detroit. Their starting five averaged double figures. Without Abromaitis, that’s going to be an interesting game. When Abro comes back, we’re going to play five games in 10 days when we play Missouri and the day after, whoever we play, win or lose, that’s six games in 11 days. How tired are we going to be? Then of course you’ve got Indiana, Gonzaga — two tough road games before we play Dec. 27 with Pitt coming in here.

As I look at the Big East, Syracuse without Rick Jackson — okay, they’ve got three big guards. We know that. Connecticut without Kemba [Walker] — if he’s averaging 30 [points per game] and another [nine assists] per game, that’s 48 points. They may have [Jeremy] Lamb back and Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith and company, but I’m not sure yet. I’m anxious to see Pitt here, because I’m not sure on them because I think they lost a lot. I think Villanova’s down. Louisville could be legit. So my point is I don’t think the Big East will get 11 teams in, they’ll fight to get eight. [Notre Dame] has a shot. Our goal should be to play Wednesday and win one game in the Big East tournament, and then you’re in, as an at-large. That’s our challenge to get there.

So from that standpoint, you’re missing three good players. [Tyrone] Nash did his part, obviously when you look at [Ben] Hansbrough and the way he played in big games, and then to me the mystery is why Carleton Scott left. When you see the three kids at North Carolina — Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes and John Henson. Then you’ve got Jared Sullinger at Ohio State back, Terrance Jones at Kentucky, Paul Jones III at Baylor back. Those six kids made the decision to come back for another year because the NBA was suspect. And if Carleton Scott came back, he could have averaged 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] and been a late first-round draft pick or early second-round next year, but he made that choice to leave. We will miss him, because he would have been that presence that we needed. So we lost three quality players and it is going to be interesting to see in time how these guys mature and what they do, especially when it comes time for the Big East challenge.

It seems like Mike Brey has a certain type of player he brings in here and it might not be the most athletic player, but he gets a lot out of them. How do you think he is able to do that?

Especially with the transfers, they’ve always found ways where he’s gotten them to be productive. We may not be a run-and-gun team, but we’ll play with consistency. What we had last year was five seniors so to speak. This year we have two seniors, when you look at Scott Martin and Abromaitis, they’re fifth-year seniors, so that really blended in.

Look at Butler — they had the senior experience. Juniors and seniors can go far in the NCAA tournament. It will be interesting to see how that starting lineup of Cooley, Abromaitis and Martin when they’re all healthy, can rebound. Can they shut teams down that are athletic or physical? That was our downfall last year. As good as we were with Nash, Scott and Hansbrough, man anytime we played anyone physical, like St. John’s in [Madison Square Garden], I mean we beat them here, but they’re a different team in the Garden, or Kentucky with that second half. Then you saw what happened when you take on a Florida State team who just beat us up in both halves. You’re going to face teams like that. There are teams out there and that’s going to be the difference maker — how can we rebound on both ends of the floor. That’s what you’re going to have to do and how do we stop the athletic teams, who can get on the boards against us? That will be an issue as we get through the season, to see who shows up and who’s going to mature. I look at Joey Brooks, he can be like [former Irish player] Billy Hanzlik, who could guard anyone and shut them down. That’s what he did for us and he’s the best athlete on the team, and he’s a junior, and he can give us that defensive edge because you’ve got to be able to shut certain guys down. If Atkins gets in foul trouble, who replaces him on the point? It could be an issue as you go through big games. So it’s going to be interesting to see who comes through with that maturity part of the physical game.

What should Notre Dame do in terms of conference realignment?

I’d love to see us join the ACC. We are east of the Mississippi when it comes to fundraising, alumni clubs, etc., and I include Chicago when I say that. And that’s not going to go away, and obviously we have west coast cities. But for us now, if we’re ever going to compete for a national championship in football and be a part of that BCS formula, to be where LSU is and Alabama drop to three and Oklahoma State at two. If Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State, could there be a rematch between Alabama and LSU? Yeah, if the other things happen. But, I just don’t see how we will ever have the opportunity to compete for a BCS national championship without being in a conference. What’s the best conference for us? If I’m looking out right now, I’ve got to say the ACC right now for football and basketball.

ACC North — Boston College, Syracuse, Pitt, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech. That’s the north. South — The four Carolina schools, Wake [North Carolina] State, [North] Carolina, Duke, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Miami, Florida State. Wow. Bring it on — football and basketball.

Obviously north plays south in football for the championship game and the winner goes on to the BCS national championship game. You take basketball — year one, you play the [ACC] tournament in Greensboro, year two in Madison Square Garden. There’s the north and south. Then go to Atlanta and Washington D.C.

To me, I feel for recruiting, I feel for our base. We haven’t been a national title contender [in football] in 25 years. So what does that mean? Well, in spite of that, we’ve seen our University raise, because we don’t have a research center or a hospital, we’ve raised $2 billion over seven years. So, to me, for us to have that national exposure, it’s the east coast exposure from Boston to Florida, and that’s our base when you take a look at alumni cities, including Chicago. That’s never going to change. So from that standpoint, still bring it all together, but give football a chance to compete for a national championship. And I think for basketball for recruiting. To recruit out east. If it’s down to where it’s Seton Hall, St. John’s, Providence, Rutgers, Villanova, Georgetown — that’s six. South Florida, seven — who else am I leaving out? So if they added Temple and Dayton, or [does Notre Dame] want to go play in the ACC for basketball? That’s why I think It’s a combination of both for football and basketball, and now’s the time to do it. But I would still say we should keep our NBC home contract. We can negotiate that. Then play nine games [in the ACC] in football. I’d give them nine. Still play Navy because of tradition, Southern Cal, and rotate with Michigan and Michigan State every other year.

Did you think it was the right move for Pittsburgh and Syracuse to go to the ACC and Connecticut if they follow?

Yeah, it’s amazing when you take a look at the whys and why nots. Obviously they’re bringing football with basketball to the ACC. You think about adding Pitt and Syracuse, two top-10 schools, to Carolina and Duke, who are always at the top, you’re dominating and the most powerful conference in the country. What’s going to be interesting is to add those teams, like say Connecticut, Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame and [former Big East school] Boston College, well they’re all Big East schools, but now you’re blending that style of play, which has always been physical, aggressive, toughness against the finesse of the ACC, you combine that style of play. You talk about being ready for the Final Four. I just think it’s a no-brainer when it comes to marketing, and in my opinion that’s what I see as the future for Notre Dame. Once football gets to where we can compete for national championships, look at what the Pac 12 and what they’re doing, and the Big 12 and ACC and SEC and Big 10, we’re going to get frozen out without a chance to play for the BCS national championship — we’re not going to get enough points or teams on the schedule to qualify for the slot to be in the top-four in the final two weeks of the season, where it also depends on the [conference] championship games. How are we going to compete for a national championship in football if we don’t join a conference? To me it’s because of location — the east coast.

Does Notre Dame need a practice facility in basketball?

Yes. It’s time. Nothing against the new hockey facility, don’t get me wrong, but I had hoped we’d do something like Ohio State. They built a new arena for basketball and hockey and it seats like 15,000. Ohio State can have a regional in hockey because they have 10,000-plus seats. We can’t, because we only have 5,000, even though it cost $50 million. Obviously they did it, it’s done, but to me if they built a facility where parking lot is now for hockey and basketball, then you have that resolved. Tear down the [Joyce Center], and build your practice facilities. You’d have what Kentucky has, and what a lot of these schools have now. It’s all part of the package for men’s and women’s basketball. Kentucky’s cost I think $30 million, one side is men’s and the other side is women’s but they got it done. It’s used against us in recruiting obviously. We downsized to 9,100, but you look at Villanova with 8,000 on campus, the Peterson Event Center [in Pittsburgh] seats 8,000 or 9,000, so that’s not an issue, but yeah, the practice facilities are important, so hopefully that’s coming soon for men’s and women’s basketball, because obviously we have one of the best hockey facilities in the country. Basketball was 11,400 and we sold it out, because we won. I think that was what worked for us and I think for us to still be able to have facilities. The Pit is the Pit, which I loved, because on game nights we used to go down there at 7 p.m., go through a walkthrough for 20 minutes, and then go up at 7:30 for pregame warm-ups, but that was special and that’s how we used it for game nights. You look at the women and what they’re doing — we’re marketing both, men’s and women’s basketball and hockey — they sell out. I think they’d get 10,000 fans, but that’s just me. If you win, you get the crowds. It would have been nice to have that advantage to have a site, like Ohio State, for one of the four sites to go to the Frozen Four. Obviously as good as we are in hockey, we’ll still show up. We’re going to be good. How they’ve been the last couple years, they’re right on target to go after it.