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Men’s Basketball

Adams: The real pivot point for Mike Brey’s program

| Wednesday, January 29, 2020

As I wrote the summary of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team’s 85-84 loss at No. 5 Florida State, I struggled to keep the story as objective as possible. I fought my fingers to not type the various adjectives that would turn the wrap into an editorial. But now, I no longer have to hold back.

I previously wrote a column claiming that the Irish were at a turning point after losing a home game to Boston College for the first time since 1997. I hereby retract that claim to say that now is the time where the program meets Robert Frost’s proverbial two roads diverging in a yellow (or rather gold) wood.

On Saturday, Jan. 25, the year of our Lord 2020, Irish head coach Mike Brey reached a breaking point. The kind of breaking point that would cause Notre Dame legend Ara Parseghian (God rest his soul) to roll over in his grave. The kind of breaking point that brought Coach Brey’s press conference to a screeching halt, to a full-on assault against those perceived to be slighting his team at every turn.

“[Florida State] shot it like I’ve never seen before,” he began. “[Our guys] calmed down a little bit. I’m proud of our group. We gave ourselves a chance. Disappointing though, we had chances there at the end.”

Nathanial George | The Observer
Irish sophomore forward Nate Laszewski looks on during Notre Dame’s 84-82 loss against Syracuse on Jan. 22 at Purcell Pavilion.

Then, much like Florida State’s hot shooting, once Brey got rolling, he couldn’t cool off.

“[Did senior forward Juwan] Durham get fouled on that last one? On that steal? Did he get fouled on that?” Brey asked in reference to Durham’s clutch steal and layup on an inbounds pass to make it an 85-84 game with 16 seconds remaining.

“How about the walk on [graduate student guard Rex] Pflueger, at half court?” he asked in regard to a questionable traveling penalty against the graduate student guard that led to a Notre Dame technical foul.

Then, Brey let loose.

“Sometimes we’re treated by the officials like we haven’t brought football as a full member, but yet we get a full share of the ACC Network TV,” Brey lamented. “Are you kidding me? [Referee John Gaffney] T’s up our bench from across the court because he’s pissed off at us? I’m frustrated, man.”

He took a brief moment to complement Seminoles head coach Leonard Hamilton, who he described as a good friend, and the play of their team, before he threw his arms up in exasperation and walked out of the press conference less than a minute into it. He was done saying, or rather shouting, his piece.

“You gotta be kidding me man. C’mon, man. We’re in the league too. We’re in the league too now, c’mon. C’mon, John Gaffney. God. Congratulations to Florida State, [they]’re fearless. Great team, they can win it [all],” he said.

For a full explanation of what set Brey off, please refer to our report on the fine that his criticisms prompted.

Brey’s rant against the system is the culmination of college basketball life being about as hard on Notre Dame in recent seasons as it possibly could be, save for the NCAA handing out a death penalty. For a full recap of the journey for the Irish over the past three seasons, I refer you once more to my previous column.

In short, Notre Dame is the hardest luck team in college basketball, and maybe the most of any Power-Five team in the modern era. I don’t say this because they’ve gone 13-31 against ACC competition the last three years, including 5-21 in the last two. I say it because virtually every loss is a heartbreaker.

I’ve loved Mike Brey ever since he partied in the locker room with his shirt off after the Irish beat Wichita State in the championship game of the Maui Invitational. And I have to admit he’s had to deal with some absurd injury situations, at one point losing Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell and D.J. Harvey for a span in 2017 and losing Pflueger for the season last year, in addition to absences by then-juniors guard T.J. Gibbs and forward Juwan Durham.

It’s a testament to Brey’s coaching ability that the team has been able to hang around in close games as they have the past few seasons, especially with the disparity in talent during said injury spells, and that makes it all the more heartbreaking.

Aside from Notre Dame’s 21-point blowout loss to Maryland earlier in the season, the Irish have lost their other seven games by a combined 25 points. That’s an average differential of about 3.57 points per game. Take out their 11-point season-opening loss to North Carolina, and they’ve lost the other six games by a combined 14 points, “good” for an average margin of 2.33. That’s agonizingly close.

Florida State was a game that honestly came down to referee calls, because the Seminoles were about as on fire as a team could be for the first 36 minutes of the game. Somehow though, the Irish hung around and made their move. Unfortunately, those calls just didn’t go their way, and Brey’s comments are somewhat justified considering college basketball’s officiating has been pretty bad this season.

Don’t get me wrong though, I question Brey for some of his decisions, like refusing to play senior forward Nikola Djogo at all during their 73-68 loss to N.C. State. A few of those losses (see: N.C. State, 62-60 loss vs. Indiana, 67-64 L vs. Louisville, 84-82 loss vs. Syracuse, 73-72 loss vs. Boston College), unlike against Florida State, were in Notre Dame’s hand and they let them slip away.

The fact of the matter is that there are no great teams in college basketball this season. Everyone has been losing to teams they should be beating, and the ACC is worse than it’s been in a long time. This should have been Notre Dame’s year to creep up the conference standings and make it back to the NCAA tournament. I say “should have been,” but there is hope yet.

I’m not saying this team is the reincarnation of the 1983 N.C. State Cardiac Pack that won a must-win ACC Tournament to get to the NCAA tourney, where they beat Houston in the championship. However, given college basketball’s weaknesses, it’s conceivable that this team could go on a run and make it to the Big Dance. This is a pivot point for the Notre Dame program, the kind of pivot Pflueger apparently lacked on the terrible travel call against him.

So then, here’s the question: What happens when the hardest luck coach of the hardest luck team in America, coincidentally also the “loosest coach in America,” reaches the end of his fuse? Can he lift the Irish over that 2.33-point barrier? Can they finally win the games they should?

The answer to the last question is yes, because we’ve seen them do it this season at Syracuse and at Georgia Tech. As for the first question, I haven’t a clue. But I think something has happened to Brey.

John Gaffney may have lit a fire under Brey, a fire that may have reminded Brey that his seat could get awfully warm if something doesn’t change. This is the time to reevaluate, retool and light that same fire under your players. Now is the time to turn the tide and work a little Irish magic.

What happens when an Irishman’s back is against the wall? All I know is it ain’t pretty. As for the loosest coach in America, we’ll just have to see.

Your move, Mike.

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

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

Contact Hayden