How does Notre Dame coach Mike Brey feel about his basketball team this season? Like, really, truly feel about it?
None of the usual coach-speak stuff about liking his guys and believing they have a chance to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017 and all that offseason nonsense. Every coach in the country shares similar sentiment.
Short of a shot of truth serum, or a couple glasses of red wine, Brey’s never going to say. Too early. Too much work remaining. But you can get an idea of how he feels about his squad by the way the non-conference schedule sets up.
This one could be a doozy.
Notre Dame already knows going in what to expect from the Atlantic Coast Conference — 20 league games with a possible start in December. Knowing that, and knowing that his team might need an extra shot of confidence early, Brey’s often been one to pull back on big non-league games.
Not this season. Brey gave a glimpse Thursday with how he feels his team should be ready to make a jump with the addition of a pretty big non-league opponent. Like really, big. Big Blue Nation big.
Late Thursday morning, Notre Dame and Kentucky announced a three-year basketball series. It starts this season — Dec. 12, 2020 — at Rupp Arena.
“Here we go,” Brey told the Tribune in a text.
In other words, let’s do this. Not next season or the year after. Now.
Doing this deal now sends a message to the Irish — they can be better and be good sooner than later. Like, this season. If Brey didn’t believe it, he wouldn’t have made the deal.
He would have pushed it to the side. Revisit it in a year or two. Notre Dame loses three critical contributors off last year’s team — T.J. Gibbs, John Mooney and Rex Pflueger. Typically, that would nudge Brey to play it safe in the non-league. Stay at Purcell Pavilion, load up against schools that offer low resistance, and get some much-needed wins. Build confidence heading into league play.
Taking this team, led by the junior class of Prentiss Hubb, Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski, to 23,500-seat Rupp Arena does the opposite. The Irish likely won’t play in a louder road venue all season. It’s blue and white and molar-rattling noise from the floor to the rafters. It’s Wildcats and wild. It’s just what this team needs.
Time for them to grow up or get run out of town. What’s it going to be? Brey’s anxious to find out.
Scheduling Kentucky raises this season’s bar. No more treading water in the ACC (the Irish went 10-10 last season after 3-15 the previous). Time to climb the conference standings. Time to be good. Time to get back to the NCAA tournament.
Playing Kentucky now accelerates the heartbeat, and the expectation level.
Kentucky visits Notre Dame in 2022. The 2021 game — on Dec. 11 — is still considered a to-be-determined site. Playing Kentucky might mean good business and television exposure at say, Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats will bring fans. New York loves itself some Notre Dame from the school’s time in the Big East. But given tomorrow’s college athletics climate with so much unknown during and after the coronavirus pandemic, going to the Garden might be too big of a reach too soon. If that’s the case, Kentucky at United Center in Chicago makes the most sense.
Bankers Life Fieldhouse is the most logical neutral-site landing spot, but Notre Dame already plays annually in downtown Indianapolis at the Crossroads Classic. And Indy’s anything but a Notre Dame town. Maybe the opposite.
Adding Kentucky is a coup for Notre Dame, which has struggled to sustain success the last three seasons. Outside of its annual Crossroads matchup (Purdue’s the opponent this season) and the annual ACC/Big Team Challenge (opponent TBD, likely at home), Notre Dame was expected to add Georgetown as its marquee non-league game. The schools were expected to renew their Big East rivalry with a two-year (home and home) series. In January, the Hoyas basically told the Irish, yeah, no thanks.
That opened a spot, and Brey took a big swing. That’s good. Overdue. And OK. Even in a season when Duke and Virginia await as repeat league opponents. Even with league road games against Louisville and North Carolina. Even when Purdue will be a problem in Indianapolis. Even with last year’s core Irish leadership gone.
The last time Notre Dame was expected to be good, and projected to be an NCAA tournament team was in 2017-18. Brey’s non-league schedule reflected that. Notre Dame opened on the road (against DePaul) for the first time since 1999. The Irish played five of their first seven games and seven of 11 away from home. They wanted that challenge. They needed that challenge.
What they didn’t need was Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell going down for extended stretches with devastating injuries. That cost the Irish an NCAA bid, and forced Brey to play his future non-conference cards closer to the vest.
Notre Dame’s non-league strength of schedule in 2018-19 was 269. Last season it was 295. Those Irish teams needed early wins and didn’t need to be challenged. Last time it was challenged in 2017-18, its non-con SOS was 176.
This one needs challenges. Without actually saying it, Brey said as much with Thursday’s series statement.