In the nascent stages of ACC conference play, the Irish seem to be firing on all cylinders once again. A strong 9-0 start was derailed after the Irish blew double-digit leads against No. 1 Villanova and No. 15 Purdue, but Notre Dame got back on track with a big road win in overtime against Pittsburgh, and a hard-fought win at home against No. 9 Louisville. This Notre Dame team remains on the periphery of the College Basketball elite, but it is never to be taken lightly.
The reason for that: Mike Brey. In his 17 seasons at the helm in South Bend, the Irish have locked down the fundamentals of the game and truly become feared opponents. Each year Brey and the Irish are among the best in the NCAA in offensive efficiency, free throw percentage, and assist-turnover ratio. This year the Irish are third, first, and first, respectively, in those categories. Brey has emphasized time and time again that his philosophy uses veteran leadership and solid, fundamentally-sound basketball to win games, and that he does.
After back to back Elite Eight appearances, the expectations were high but fans and critics alike anticipated a drop in performance following the departures of essential playmakers Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson. But then again, they expected a drop in performance after Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant left after the 2014-2015 season. A third straight Elite Eight is not at all unrealistic for this Irish team. Matt Farrell has proven that he can take care of the ball and lead the Irish offense, while sharpshooters V.J. Beachum and Steve Vasturia provide a lethal threat from behind the arc and driving to the basket. Bonzie Colson and Martinas Geben are the brute force rebounders and post players. Year after year, Mike Brey seems to be able to resist the inevitable personnel turnover and maintain a high level of success.
Those are just the tangible, statistical aspects of this Irish team. On paper, they’re efficient, lethal, and fundamentally-sound. But it’s the intangible that really stands out. On the sidelines, Brey is fired up like any other head coach. But Brey exerts a positivity almost unheard of among the likes of college basketball’s elite coaches. In a world of Jay Wright, John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, and Roy Williams, it seems like the level-headed positivity of Mike Brey wouldn’t find its place at the top. Yet it does, and it permeates the team. No matter what five players are on the floor, they all seem to radiate the hope and positivity that Brey embodies. No matter the opponent, no matter how big the task, The Irish always seem to be within striking distance. Since the 2014-2015 season, the Irish have notched wins against top 15 North Carolina and Top 10 Duke on the road, as well as at home against No. 4 Duke and No. 1 North Carolina. The Irish are 4-1 against Louisville in the last five years. When the big games arrive, Notre Dame is there to withstand the challenge and emerge victorious.
There is just an aura of hope and confidence that surrounds Brey and his troops that can’t help but lead to success. I was tentative to make a prediction earlier in the season, but I am confident now. This Notre Dame can certainly make a third straight Sweet Sixteen, but I think they could make a third straight Elite Eight and possibly earn their first birth in the Final Four since 1978.
Mike Brey and Notre Dame Basketball are on a collision course with the national championship. The only variable is time.