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ACC Preview #8 - Notre Dame

The Irish may dip a bit but Notre Dame isn’t going away.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-North Carolina vs Notre Dame

Mar 27, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Bonzie Colson (35) reacts during the first half against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game in the East regional of the NCAA Tournament at Wells Fargo Center. 
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to believe that Mike Brey has been at Notre Dame for 17 years. He was a sensational assistant for Duke and turned in an outstanding five-year run at Delaware, good enough for the Blue Hens to be mentioned for bigger conferences.

While Notre Dame was in the Big East, he was a reliable presence, making the post-season every year (nine NCAA and three NIT appearances).

Oddly though he only made it as far as the Sweet Sixteen once as a Big East team but as an ACC entry, he’s made the Elite Eight twice in a row after finishing 15-17 in his debut season.

The spectacular performance the Irish turned in against Kentucky’s brilliant 2015-16 team - a near upset - was tremendous and may have changed the perception of his program entirely.

In case you somehow forgot, a smallish Irish team came within a shot of upsetting then undefeated Kentucky, denied only by a stunningly athletic defensive play by Willie Caulie-Stein.

Notre Dame followed that up with another Elite Eight run, losing this time to UNC, 88-74.

This year it might be tough to match that recent standard of excellence.

Brey loses Zach Auguste, who urned out to be a solid big man, and Demetrius Jackson, who was a perfect point guard for Notre Dame.

He returns 6-6 Steve Vasturia, now a senior, 6-8 VJ Beacham, likewise a senior and 6-5 Bonzie Colson, perhaps the most unique player in the ACC currently. Who else has a 6-5 guy who can play in the post? Colson is a blast to watch.

Martinas Geben, a 6-10 junior, will probably inherit Auguste’s position inside.

Point guard is an open question. Junior Matt Ferrell may get the job at least initially, but the long-term answer will be freshman Temple Gibbs. It’s just a question of when.

We liked what we saw from 6-5 Rex Pflueger last year. He’s a nifty player, smart and resourceful, never more so than when he tipped in the game-winner against Stephen F. Austin in Notre Dame’s 76-75 NCAA second round win last spring. He’s just a solid player.

Like Matt Ryan (6-7), he’s a sophomore now.

Ryan was still getting over a hip surgery last year and is likely to be much better this year.

Notre Dame has established itself as a legitimate ACC team and in particular a pain in Duke’s side. Brey’s offense moves the ball quickly and forces you to choose between defending the the three or passes inside. It’s not the Princeton offense - it’s much more electric than that watchmaker’s offense - but it has similar qualities and poses similar dilemmas.

It’s a branch of motion offense that’s very difficult to stop. Brey calls it full court motion and tries to pressure the defense constantly (hence the Princeton comparison).

Brey is also exceedingly tolerant. His players don’t fear getting yanked over a minor mistake and play with confidence.

It’s become a proud program, a fun program, a place where guys still advance as they gain experience.

As Duke fans we haven’t enjoyed losing to Notre Dame in the ACC; as Mike Brey fans, we couldn’t be prouder.

When he took the job, someone - we think it was Skip Bayless - wrote an article damning him as a vanilla choice, a sign that Notre Dame had given up on basketball. We said we thought that was unbelievably stupid and short-sighted.

Seventeen years later, we think we had the better argument. Brey’s become a wonderful coach and he’s built a wonderful program. This year might be a minor dip - or maybe not - but whatever happens, his program is one of the best around.