By Coleman Clarke
The late second half collapse against the Xavier Musketeers was a bitter pill for Irish fans to swallow however, and does raise some questions about whether or not Notre Dame teams can be mentally tough enough to advance in future NCAA tournament games.
The Fighting Irish had an 8 point lead that evaporated late in the second half of their first round game against the scrappy Musketeers, who took advantage of a crucial lane violation committed by Irish guard Jerian Grant in the final seconds of a heartbreaking 67-63 defeat. This was a game Notre Dame should have won against a Xavier team that hasn’t been as strong as they usually have been in recent years.
The Fighting Irish certainly have been more than respectable in the season over the 5-6 years, with last season’s win loss record of 27-7 being the high-water mark for Coach Mike Brey since his coaching career began in 2000 with the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame hasn’t been able to make significant noise in the Tournament since 2003 when they advanced to the Sweet 16 round.
When Notre Dame lost veteran forward Tim Abromaitis for the season, they seemed destined to miss the NCAA tournament, given their relative inexperience and youth, particularly in their backcourt with sophomores Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins, who appear to be poised to be the cornerstones of a strong Irish team next season.
Coach Brey, in what might be his best coaching job, since his arrival in South Bend 12 years ago, allowed his team to play within their limitations , which were numerous, and reel off impressive victories against top 15 teams, including an exhilarating victory at home against then #1 ranked Syracuse Orangemen at home. The Irish, not as athletically gifted as some of the other Big East teams, used solid defense and timely three point shooting to lead them to victory. They surpassed many expectations of even the most critical Irish fans this year with their play on the basketball court.
The question that many Irish fans have is this: should this year’s team have done more in the tournament? Yes it’s nice that they got there given the obstacles they faced with the loss of their veteran leader Tim Abromaitis. However, this writer believes that the Irish mentally broke down and gave a very winnable game away because they lacked the focus and maybe even fire to win in the last two or three minutes of the game. This is troubling considering that they were able to use a few big home victories to galvanize their team and clinch victories against more talented teams on their schedule.
Does Mike Brey, who has been very successful in winning with inferior players, particularly when compared to the rest of the league, need to tweak his style and perhaps ratchet up the intensity level? I am not calling for him to yell and scream like a raving maniac on the court like some of his other counterparts, but rather instill a little apprehension in his team when they make a mistake, especially a costly mistake committed by Jerrian Grant in the final minute of a game that all but sealed the deal for the ND loss.
Maybe the Notre Dame players feeling a little uncomfortable heading back to the bench after committing a mistake might not be a bad thing for this team to develop a tougher attitude in times that demand mental toughness. I think back to John Cheney coached teams and remember vividly how a player would not want to go back to the bench after committing a foolish turnover. The look on Cheney’s face could cut through stone when such a mistake occurred. Of course, who could forget one of the greatest coaches of all time in Bobby Knight. No one is asking for Brey to reinvent himself, he has done a very good job with rigorous academic standards and a smaller pool of athletes to work with when comparing him to other teams like Syracuse and Georgetown, who are not burdened with the academic restrictions of Notre Dame.
However, there does not seem to be the fear of any repercussions from the Head Coach when a mistake is committed. Brey does rant or show consternation when one of his players makes a mistake. He is one who chooses to use positive reinforcement, which probably endears many of his players to him. It would be nice to see him exert a little more force on the sidelines when things are going wrong for the Irish.
But don’t look for Brey to become that coach at this point in his career.
However, Notre Dame has made significant upgrades to its basketball facilities and raised their profile to a higher and very respectable level in the Big East. They have shown that they can play with and beat the giants in the conference. They have won 93 out of the last 100 games at home, making them one of the best home teams in basketball over the last 4-5 years. They have a hostile crowd that makes things very difficult for opposing teams.
Coach Brey is a class act and seems to do his best coaching when his team’s backs are against the wall. A few years ago when they lost forward Luke Harongody to injury, Brey utilized a burn offense, that was designed to maximize his teams strengths of shooting the three point shot while exhausting most of the shot clock, a technique that absolutely frustrated many opponents and drove opposing coaches crazy.
Brey has restored respectability to a program and genuinely seems to want to finish his career at Notre Dame. Despite a disappointing showing in this year’s NCAA Tournament, there is still cause for optimism for Irish fans for the next season. They return virtually everybody from this year’s NCAA tournament team, including the possibility of guard Scott Martin, who may petition the NCAA for a 5th year, along with Tim Abromaitis, already a grad student, possibly petitioning for a 6th year of eligibility as well.
Yes, this season was both exciting and disappointing for Irish fans, depending on your expectations for the program. It remains to be seen whether or not they will take the next step in the NCAA tournament and give Irish fans the thrill ride that they are looking for.