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The biggest moments of Mike Brey’s time at Notre Dame

| Monday, January 23, 2023

It’s the end of an era for Notre Dame men’s basketball. It was announced last week that head coach Mike Brey will step down from his position after the season. The news comes in the midst of a difficult year for the Irish, who are 1-8 ACC play. However, the few low moments of Brey’s 23-year tenure are few and far between when compared to all of the success he brought to a program that struggled significantly in the years preceding his arrival.

Brey’s accomplishments in South Bend include making thirteen trips to the NCAA Tournament, winning National Coach of the Year honors in 2011 and breaking Notre Dame’s career wins record. He will try to add to that list by leading a late-season turnaround in the remainder of the current season. Here is a look back at a few of his biggest moments as head coach of the Irish.

Irish return to the NCAA Tournament

When Brey was hired to coach Notre Dame in 2000 after five successful seasons with Delaware, many expected some early growing pains. He had never experienced the heightened pressure and expectations that come with coaching a major program, and Notre Dame had fallen on hard times in the 90s, churning through four head coaches and failing to reach the NCAA Tournament for 11 consecutive years. Brey wasted no time shattering that streak. He led the Irish to a 20-10 record and the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Brey earned his first victory at Notre Dame in a blowout win against Sacred Heart. Just days later, the Irish knocked off No. 16 Cincinnati, and they would win eight conference games in a row later in the year. With an 11-5 record in conference play, the Irish were champions of the Big East’s West Division.

They earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Led by All-American forward Troy Murphy, the Irish defeated Xavier in the first round. They finished the season with a narrow defeat at the hands of Ole Miss. Brey’s first Notre Dame team surpassed all expectations. They set the tone for the Irish becoming a March Madness mainstay over the next two decades.

National Coach of the Year

Entering the 2010-11 season, the Notre Dame basketball program was in a good place but seemed to have somewhat stagnated. The Irish had qualified for the NCAA Tournament in three of the previous four seasons but had been no higher than a No. 5 seed and had not advanced past the second round. Unranked entering the season, Notre Dame jumped out to an 8-0 start and would not look back. The Irish posted a 25-5 regular season record, defeating an incredible seven ranked opponents. Three of those were in the top ten.

Led by senior guard Ben Hansbrough, named an All-American and Big East Player of the Year, Notre Dame entered the postseason ranked No. 4 nationally. They would earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the highest of Brey’s career and the highest for Notre Dame since 1981. After defeating Akron, the Irish were upset by Florida State in the second round. Despite the disappointing finish, the season was hugely successful for an Irish team that was not expected to make much noise. This year represented some of Brey’s finest work as a coach. Brey was named National Coach of the Year by the Associated Press and other publications and continued his habit of turning overlooked Notre Dame teams into some of the best in the country.

ACC Champions and back-to-back Elite Eights

When Notre Dame jumped from the Big East to the ACC in 2013, many questioned whether the Irish would be competitive in what was considered to be the strongest men’s basketball conference in the nation. Posting a 15-17 record, and 6-12 conference record, in their first ACC season did nothing to dissuade those doubters. Any questions about whether the Irish belonged, though, were more than answered in the two ensuing years.

In 2014, Notre Dame began the season unranked but rose as high as No. 8 nationally after a 20-2 start. Following a 26-5 regular season, the Irish travelled to the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, NC. There they took down Miami, No. 2 Duke and No. 19 North Carolina to claim their first ACC Championship and first conference tournament title ever. As a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame reached the Elite Eight for the first time under Brey, where they fell to Kentucky (who was 37-0 entering the game) 68-66 in an instant classic. The Irish finished the season ranked No. 5 in the nation, and the season stands as the most successful of Brey’s career.

Notre Dame followed that season up with another strong one, reaching the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year as a No. 6 seed. After defeating North Carolina in the regular season, the Tar Heels got their revenge, eliminating the Irish from both the ACC and NCAA tournaments and leaving them just one game short of the Final Four again. That two-year stretch featured Notre Dame greats like Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste and brought the Irish into national and ACC relevancy.

Maui Champs, Notre Dame’s all-time wins leader

In the fall of 2017, excitement was high for Notre Dame’s upcoming season. The Irish had made three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament and sought a fourth behind preseason All-American Bonzie Colson. Additionally, Brey entered the year just 12 wins away from breaking Notre Dame’s all-time coaching wins record, held by legendary coach Digger Phelps, who had coached the Irish to their only Final Four in 1978. After winning their first three games, the Irish headed west for the Maui Invitational, an event that they had never won. Notre Dame cruised through the first two rounds, earning blowout victories against Chaminade and LSU, which set up a matchup with No. 6 Wichita State for the title. The Shockers led by 14 at the half, but the Irish battled back to win 67-66 after Martinas Geben converted a pair of free throws in the game’s final seconds.

Weeks later, Notre Dame would celebrate again, as Brey earned his record-breaking 394th win in an 88-58 home victory over NC State. The Irish would falter down the stretch and settle for an NIT appearance after Colson missed most of the year due to injury, but the 2017-18 season brought a pair of memorable moments that ensured Brey’s place in Notre Dame history.

Protecting Purcell and a surprising postseason run

Four years later, Notre Dame had still not returned to the NCAA Tournament. After a blowout road loss to Boston College that dropped the Irish to 3-4, that seemed unlikely to change. At that point, however, Notre Dame flipped a switch and would turn their season around with a nearly perfect home record. In their next game, freshman Blake Wesley sank a game-winning jumper that pushed the Irish past No. 10 Kentucky. They would go on to finish 14-1 at Purcell Pavilion and surprised nearly everyone by finishing second in the ACC with a 15-5 conference record. Despite their strong regular season, the Irish received just a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament and were matched up in the First Four against Rutgers.

Notre Dame took full advantage of their postseason opportunity, defeating the Scarlet Knights in one of the most memorable games of the year, a double-overtime thriller. From there, the Irish handled Alabama and led for most of the game against Texas Tech before giving away a late lead and falling just short of the Sweet Sixteen. Led by All-ACC performers Wesley and Dane Goodwin, the Irish were a fun team to watch all season long and rose to the occasion in nearly every crunch-time situation, especially when defending their home court.

Contact Matthew Crow at [email protected]

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