In both the Big East and the ACC, Mike Brey has done a brilliant job at Notre Dame.
The school faces many of the challenges Duke does: it’s an elite academic institution with high admission standards in a brutally tough (two for Brey actually) basketball conference.
Yet he’s gotten better over time.
Much like Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Brey hasn’t gotten many elite recruits, but he does get good ones who buy into his system and usually stay around for at least three years and quite often four.
It’s a luxury that coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim and Leonard Hamilton have not always had in recent years.
A good example of a Brey player is Bonzie Colson, who came back for his senior year last season ready for a great final campaign. Colson was a unique player who could play inside at 6-6 and actually be dominant. You have to appreciate coaches who look at high school players like Colson, Seth Curry or David Robinson and see future greatness.
Unfortunately, Colson broke his foot, then broke it again, and missed most of the season. He went undrafted but signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers as a free agent.
Still, he represented a lot of what Brey’s culture at Notre Dame could and should be: a guy who was talented but who didn't have an immediate path to the NBA. He worked hard and made himself a great player - and a believer in Notre Dame basketball.
Largely because of Colson’s injury and also injuries to fellow senior Matt Farrell and promising freshman DJ Harvey, Notre Dame had a disappointing record last season, finishing 21-15. Not exactly a nightmare, but just 8-10 in the ACC, good for 10th place, ahead of only Boston College, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Pitt. The Irish still made the post-season, competing in the NIT. That’s better than staying home but it’s not going to make Notre Dame very happy anymore.
The Irish return two seniors, three juniors and one sophomore.
The seniors are Rex Pflueger, 6-6, and forward Elijah Burns, 6-8.
Pflueger is a returning starter who is a wonderful all-round player and an outstanding defender. He hasn’t been a great scorer to date, but other guys have been asked to do more offensively. This year it may be more his turn.
As a junior, Burns played 10 mpg and scored 2.3 ppg and 2.3 rpg. He might help with stuff that’s not obvious or easily measured and could be a great practice player but don’t look for a massive statistical boost from him.
The juniors are John Mooney, Nikola Djogo, Juwan Durham and TJ Gibbs.
Gibbs is the most accomplished of them. He averaged 15.3 ppg last season and three apg. He’s legit.
The 6-9 Mooney filled in some during Notre Dame’s injury stretch and acquitted himself well. He’s also Notre Dame’s best returning three point shooter. Given how much Brey uses the three point shot to open the inside and to push opponents off balance, that is likely to get him more minutes.
Djogo, a 6-7 Canadian, showed some real flashes last season. He’s a savvy player but he had trouble putting the ball in the basket consistently. He can build a niche around defense but he’s a generally useful player. He has good instincts. He just needs to hit some baskets to make a bigger impact.
Harvey, who Duke also recruited, showed signs of being a very good freshman. He had 17 points against NC State in one outstanding outing.
His season ended against Louisville as he played just seven minutes before picking up a bone bruise on his knee. He tweeted on January 17th that he’d be back in a month.
Well a month later he had another injury in practice and soon after had cartilage repair surgery.
Fast toward to August and he hadn’t recovered enough to make a team trip to the Bahamas.
He was supposed to be ready to go when the season started. We assume that’s still the case but haven't heard officially. He’ll be critical for this team and if he’s not ready or not fully recovered that’s going to hurt.
Durham is a 6-11 transfer from UConn. He’s had a year to get Brey’s system down. If he can at least defend inside and rebound he’ll be a major help. If he can add offense to that, he’ll be a huge addition.
With so few guys back, Brey needed a big class and he got it.
Prentiss Hubb is a 6-3 guard out of Brey’s old stomping grounds, the DMV (D.C., Maryland and Virginia). Gonzaga High is one of the better basketball schools there and he was very good for them. Unfortunately he blew out his knee last year but is apparently ready to go.
Nate Laszewski is a 6-10 kid who can really shoot outside and Brey, as we know, loves the long ball. He’ll find time if he’s physically ready because Notre Dame needs firepower.
Chris Doherty is 6-8 and probably one of those kids Brey will bring along as he matures. He’s basically an inside player at this point. He could find a niche with rebounding, defense and screening. As a writer once said about careers, someone has to dig in the dirt. If he’s willing to do dirty work he could play early.
Dane Goodwin, 6-6, is a coach’s son - father Damon coaches D-III Capital University - and the younger Goodwin, not suprisingly, is fundamentally sound. He can play anywhere on the perimeter which makes him a wonderful sub. We’re not comparing him to anybody but when Mike Dunleavy was a freshman, his versatility allowed Duke to go with a six-man rotation and no one got overly tired. Just about everyone could play at least two positions and so everyone got a blow on a regular basis.
Goodwin might be able to do something like that for the Irish.
Rob Carmody has some things in common with Goodwin. He’s a bit smaller at 6-4 but he’s very athletic, he’s also coach’s son and he is versatile enough to play 2-3 positions.
Typically Brey brings freshmen in and seasons them until they’re ready to step up. He won’t be able to do that as much this year. He has just six scholarship players back, only two have extensive starting experience and a third is recovering from a serious knee injury. One more is a transfer who has never played a minute for Notre Dame and who didn’t exactly set UConn on fire when he was there either.
It’s hard to predict how the season will go because there is so much we don’t know. Has Harvey truly recovered? Can Pflueger contribute on offense as needed? Will Djogo start to hit some baskets? Which freshmen will contribute most?
There’s a lot that only time can answer but there is one thing that is pretty much a given and that’s Brey.
He’s been in South Bend since 2000 and has, with the arguable exception of iconic Digger Phelps, become the most successful coach in Notre Dame history.
He’s coached with Morgan Wooten at DeMatha and with Coach K at Duke. You couldn’t possibly ask for better training than that. The guy knows what he’s doing.
And if you look at the official roster for Notre Dame, you’ll see one K-like touch: there are no positions listed.
Like K, Brey is willing to let guys play to their strengths. If Colson can play center at 6-6, great. If Mooney can rain threes at 6-10, fire away.
As long as it works, it’s good.
Like Virginia’s Bennett, Brey has proven masterful at finding guys who fit his system but unlike Bennett, Brey’s main means of attack is offense. His team opens the floor like few others and moves the ball well enough that you can’t defend everyone. It’s a nightmare to play against but it sure is fun to watch when your team isn’t playing.
We don’t know if the offense can maintain that level of excellence this season but Brey is an extraordinary coach who will get the most of out his players. Never sleep on the Irish.