With Notre Dame football in the dumps, head coach Brian Kelly on the hot seat, and athletic uncertainty in the air, another solid start from the men’s basketball team has acted as a warm embrace for die-hard Irish fans following a disastrous fall. But in the ACC conference play is the killer, and while Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish have shined thus far, they’re toughest stretch of the regular season has arrived.
Although Notre Dame will begin the week at a healthy 17-3 overall, 6-1 in the ACC, a perfect 12-0 at home, and ranked 15th by The Associated Press, Tuesday’s tilt versus 12th-ranked Virginia marks the beginning of a six-game gauntlet that also includes games at 11-8 Georgia Tech, versus no.17 Duke, at ninth-ranked North Carolina, and versus 12-7 Wake Forest and sixth-ranked Florida State.
Over the weekend, Notre Dame bounced back from just its third loss of the season by throttling a struggling Syracuse squad 84-66 to snap its four-game slide against the Orange and earn payback against Jim Boeheim’s boys thanks to a 30-point performance from senior V.J. Beachem.
Saturday’s 18-point win over Syracuse was worth much more in Notre Dame’s locker room than on paper. But a 6-1 start in this conference is no joke, and the Fighting Irish could permanently push their season in the right direction by earning what would be a huge victory over Virginia when the Cavaliers roll into South Bend on Tuesday.
Following a flawless 9-0 start, the best in Brey’s 17 years with the program, the Irish ran straight into an early December date with the top-ranked Villanova Wildcats, blowing an 11-point lead on the way to losing their first game of the season 74-66. Seven days later, the Irish then dropped their second straight game in a 86-81 loss to the 20th-ranked Purdue Boilermakers despite leading by as many as 17 points.
But along with last week’s loss to Florida State, all three of Notre Dame’s losses have come against probable tournament teams, and the six-game stretch that begins with Tuesday’s visit from Virginia will give the Irish a chance to get those top-25 losses back.
Unlike most power conference coaches, Brey has managed to create a climate of success that doesn’t depend on a steady stream of one-year wonders while transforming the program into the type of nationally-respected power that it once was. His current crew includes just three bench-riding freshman—the same number that were on both of his Elite Eight teams. And if you’re looking for an example of Brey’s philosophy at work, look no further than junior guard Matt Farrell–the team’s starting point guard who spent two years working tirelessly both on and off the court before becoming Notre Dame’s starting floor general.
Since arriving in South Bend, Brey’s recipe for success has led the program to 11 NCAA Tournament berths, three appearances in the Sweet 16, and two straight trips to the Elite Eight during 16 years at the helm. Preaching fundamentals and transforming high school standouts into key cogs in Notre Dame’s basketball empire is Brey’s business, and it’s no surprise that this year’s team ranks among college basketball’s best in assist-to-turnover ratio and team free-throw shooting.
There’s no denying that Brey has become one of college basketball’s best head coaches during his time with the Irish, and while participating in a recent discussion about which coaches are the most valuable to their programs on ESPN’s College GameDay. ESPN’s Rece Davis said it best.
”This year, the guy I think is most valuable to his team, he’s been that way the last couple years, is Mike Brey at Notre Dame,” said Davis. ”You go back and think they lose Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, they’re supposed to go down. They don’t, they go back to the Elite Eight, consecutive trips. [They] lose Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste, and here they are again.”
”I think Mike Brey, because of the culture and the pattern, not only does he wait and get old teams, he’s been able to stay old and stay with veteran teams,” continued Davis. ”He’s built a program that is sustainable. I think he is the most valuable coach in the country this year.”