By Liam Farrell ’04
Senior Alumni Editor
Going into the 2010 basketball season, Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey had a pretty good idea of what his team would look like and found success with a veteran-laden squad. The Irish posted more than 25 victories and earned a second seed in the NCAA tournament before losing to a hot Florida State squad.
The 2011 version of the men’s basketball team is a much less known group, especially with the loss of Ben Hansbrough ’11, Carleton Scott ’11, and Tyrone Nash ’11.
“We’ve lost some men. One of the things I have to keep in mind is patience,” Brey said recently in an interview with ND Today. “Last year’s team on the first day of practice was ready to play Georgetown. Especially the five seniors, the guys who started, they were ready to go.”
Here are some excerpts from Brey’s interview with ND Today last month as the Fighting Irish take to the court for another season.
Q: What do you think the success last year means for the team and the program as a whole?
A: It probably brought to the forefront, even more so, our consistency. We have had a great run over 11 years of being right there and consistent. We’re proud of that and I would hope moving forward it would give us momentum as we go into this season. We have a nucleus of young men that were part of that success but we also have a nucleus of young men who were in our program, didn’t play the minutes, but yet felt what it felt like to go through that. I am really counting on them to use that last year in residency, so to speak, practicing against those main guys and watching them play, and have success to carry over into this year. That’s a real important factor for us. (Alex) Dragicevich, (Jerian) Grant, (Joey) Brooks, (Eric) Atkins, (Tom) Knight — they have all been here with us. They have all been here and they have all felt and saw how we handled last season.
Q: Is it important to witness success as well as play alongside it?
A: I think one of the identifying factors of our program is guys get better here. We don’t have guys leaving after one year. They aren’t “one and done.” We have guys who are with us four and sometimes five years. And what we have done, when we have asked a guy to do more, we have asked him to do it a lot of times in his second or third year with us. Our percentage is probably very, very good that they have delivered because they have been with us, they have been in the classroom with us, so to speak. (Tim) Abromaitis is a great example. For two years he just wasn’t ready, and then his third year he burst on the scene. Everybody said, “Where was that guy?” Well, he was getting better. We got him older, we got him stronger, we got him better.
Q: That’s really kind of an older approach to building a program.
A: And it’s refreshing to coach in. It’s one of the reasons I hope I can do a good enough job to retire here. Nothing’s changed from the first day I got the job. It is a little bit of a throwback that you have guys four and five years, guys understanding, “I have got to get better.” We have our handful of freshmen who are good enough, and they are in there when they are, but some other guys just need some time.
Q: Abromaitis and (Scott) Martin come back but you did lose Scott, Nash, and Hansbrough.
A: This year’s group is going to need some time as we go through a very difficult non-league schedule, and we are going to take our punches to kind of learn about each other. You know, when you start with two fifth-year seniors though as your captains — Abromaitis and Martin — it’s a pretty good place to start in college basketball, and I feel Atkins and (Jack) Cooley have been in those battles. It’s kind of like, who is five, six, seven, eight for us? And right now we only have nine guys healthy to play. I can go on the first day of practice and say, “Look, let me start out by saying this: Everyone is going to play.” I’m excited about that. We need more of them to be good. We need more — I don’t want to say, necessarily, young guys — but new guys to take big roles for us to get an NCAA (tournament) bid.
Q: So it’s not so much waiting for one diamond in the rough, you need to have two or possibly three.
A: We need a couple guys getting better and it could change throughout the year. And that’s one thing I need to keep in mind. I don’t think I’ve ever had in my 12 years here so much unknown after two key guys or three key guys. We have had a pretty good continuity. We only have one freshman, so we’re not exactly young — we are new to the roles. I’d rather have a new guy who’s been in our program a year or two then four freshmen. Having said that, Pat Connaughton, our lone freshman, will have every opportunity, and we need him. I think for me it’s, be patient, observant, and this thing is going to change.
Q: Is it different this year in terms of preparation because of the demands of the early schedule?
A: You have to get them ready as soon as possible. Those are opportunities for key wins. In years past we’ve been able to get a bunch of those. Last year we got all of them other than Kentucky. The great thing about it is, as you play for those, as you go for it, you are in or you are out of the NCAA tournament based on the regular season Big East schedule. Starting December 27 (against Pittsburgh), no matter what we did in December and November with these non-league power games, we are either going to get in or get out of that tournament by the grind over six weeks. Maneuvering and pacing us through the regular season is something we’ve kind of got a feel for now and it will be the most important factor again.
Q: How has the basketball program improved or changed over the course of your tenure here?
A: When I got here, I would not have thought we didn’t get into the NCAA (tournament) for ten years. That is a big gap where you lose some momentum. We joined the Big East a little late and we were trying to figure that out. We had to establish an identity in the Big East, a presence in the Big East, and I think we have firmly done that. We have a style of play that you can identify with. Getting back into the NCAA tournament was a key. Then you had to get an NCAA bid kind of regularly. You have to go regularly to be taken seriously. Seven out of 11 (seasons) gives you credibility.
Now what do we aspire to do moving forward? We’ve played on Friday nights in (Madison Square) Garden. You get to the (Big East tournament) semifinals in the Garden, it is unbelievable, it’s electric playing in the tournament there. It is one of the great things about being in the Big East and that’s why I hope we can stay as part of the Big East. I’ve said to guys at times, “I wonder what it would be like to cut the nets down on the Saturday night (after winning the championship) in the Garden.” I think that would be very special, and then to play further in the NCAA tournament. Those are the next things for me that I dream about now.
You’ve got respectability, you’ve got consistency, yet you strive to get further.