It’s the one word the head coach often circles back to in good times and in bad, after wins and even losses. One word that Notre Dame’s Mike Brey believes best describes life in college basketball.
A one-point lead becomes a one-point loss when a shot at the buzzer falls. Or a narrow win arrives when a shot rolls around and halfway down, then jumps out. A season can go one of two ways — really good or really not good — when a key guy goes crazy or goes down with an injury. It’s that fine a line between winning and misery.
Following are a baker’s dozen “What If …” scenarios that had they played out differently, might have altered the course of Notre Dame basketball since 2000. Some are good, some not so good. But all prove Brey’s point.
Everything about it, when you’re in it, is fragile.
• What if Troy Murphy had stayed his senior season?
Murphy remains without Notre Dame basketball peer in this regard — he was a pure pro. You could see it; you could sense it. He had the look of someone who would play at the highest level for a decade or more, then did (12 seasons). A rookie of the year and two players of the year honors in the Big East in his first three years and Murphy skipped his senior season of 2001-02 to become the program’s last NBA lottery pick.
Had he returned, the Irish starting lineup in 2001-02 would’ve featured a front line of Murphy and Ryan Humphrey, another eventual NBA first-round pick. David Graves was at small forward with a backcourt of Matt Carroll, another future NBA guy, and a freshman by the name of Chris Thomas.
Stack that five against any the Big East offered that year and Notre Dame likely would beat it. Without Murphy, Notre Dame went 22-11 in 2001-02. Murphy might have meant four or five or six additional wins. The Irish would’ve beaten Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Sweet 16 — and beyond — beckoned. It would’ve been the best lineup in Brey’s tenure.
• What if Matt Doherty doesn’t take the North Carolina job?
It was 20 years ago in July when Doherty, a UNC graduate and former Tar Heel, was coaxed home by Michael Jordan. In one season at Notre Dame, Doherty had breathed a whole lotta life into a program that needed it. The Irish won 22 games and finally had a basketball pulse. Then Doherty was gone.
The Carolina job proved too big a step too soon for Doherty, who’d only been a head coach for that one year. He struggled to sustain success at Carolina, but likely wouldn’t have at Notre Dame. He would’ve had a chance to figure out what worked and what didn’t without the white-hot expectation spotlight. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t.
Doherty stays and Brey never arrives.
• What if Jerian Grant’s fade 3 beats Kentucky?
Notre Dame rides that Midwest Regional final championship winning wave into its second Final Four and captures its first national championship. It also becomes the greatest win — to that point — in program history. Better than UCLA in 1974. Sorry, Digger.
That win over UCLA was historic and memorable and all that, but it was a regular-season game in January. This one would’ve been against an undefeated team loaded with future NBA guys for a trip to the Final Four. In Indianapolis.
Had Notre Dame won that night in Cleveland, it would’ve kept on winning. There’d be one big banner hanging today in Purcell Pavilion. And Grant would take over for Dwight Clay for taking and making the one shot everyone remembers.
• What if Matt Ryan doesn’t transfer after the 2016-17 season?
He’d have had every chance to make a run at Colin Falls as the program’s leader in 3-point field goals made (331) and Chris Thomas for 3s attempted (833). His right arm and shoulder would’ve throbbed for weeks from overuse. Think of those scoring struggles of 2017-18 and 2018-19, which would’ve been Ryan’s junior and senior years. Imagine how many shots he’d have gotten in the offense.
Ryan transferred and played one year at Vanderbilt, then played last year as a graduate transfer at Chattanooga where he made 88 3s to earn first team All-Southern Conference. He found opportunity for minutes and shots and starts at both schools, but it was all right there for him in South Bend. He just didn’t have the patience to let it play out.
• What if Chris Thomas’ knee doesn’t crumble?
His last two years of college likely become one year before Thomas jumps early for the NBA. Toward the end of his sophomore season, he toyed with turning pro and was touted as a possible late-first round NBA draft pick. He sought a guarantee, but never got it. Coming off Big East rookie of the year honors in 2001, then second team all-league and honorable mention All-American honors as a sophomore, Thomas returned for his junior year, but was never the same.
Thomas underwent microfracture knee surgery after his junior year, and admittedly rushed back for his senior season. His game lacked the explosiveness he showed his first two seasons. It was hard to watch, harder still to think of what might have been had he stayed healthy. At the least, Notre Dame gets to the NCAA tournament in 2004 and Thomas at least gets a serious NBA look. Neither happened.
• What if Bonzie Colson doesn’t break his foot in 2018?
Colson was on track to reap the rewards of staying for his senior season. He’d make a run at Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. Maybe even an All-American. He’d be on the NBA draft radar and likely would be selected somewhere inside the two-round draft in June 2018.
Colson then was diagnosed with a broken foot in early January and everything that could’ve been for him and for the Irish that season wasn’t. Colson missed 15 games while Notre Dame came up basically one win shy of getting to the NCAA tournament a fourth straight season. Instead of cementing an NBA roster spot, Colson’s had to go the G League/European route. That wouldn’t have happened had the injury never occurred.
Notre Dame makes the 2018 NCAA tournament and Colson makes an NBA roster if he stayed healthy.
• What if Luke Harangody doesn’t tweak his right knee in the second half of that game at Seton Hall his senior season?
Austin Carr (2,560) would no longer be the leading scorer in program history, and Tom Hawkins (1,318) no longer would be the leading rebounder in school history. Brey’s “burn” offense also likely stay tucked somewhere in the back of the playbook.
Harangody was on track to become the leading scorer and rebounder in school history (he’s second in each category) before missing five games with a bone bruise. Without Harangody, Brey downshifted to the burn, which helped the Irish win their last four regular-season games to all but lock up an NCAA tournament bid. Notre Dame then won two Big East tournament games going with its slow-down style. By that time, Harangody was back, but the burn had run its course.
• What if Notre Dame landed Klay Thompson?
Yes, that Klay Thompson, who all but committed to Notre Dame during his recruiting visit. Thompson’s father, Mychal, told Brey and former Irish assistant Gene Cross, who was in charge of the kid’s recruitment, that his son would indeed sign with the Irish. Thompson wound up at Washington State, played three seasons, scored 1,756 career points and became arguably the best pure shooter in NBA history as a lottery pick of the Golden State Warriors.
His final year of college coincided with the 2010-11 Irish team that finished 27-7. Imagine Thompson in the same backcourt as Ben Hansbrough and in the same starting five as Tim Abromaitis. Notre Dame set the school record for 3-pointers in a game that season with 20 against Villanova. With Thompson, it might’ve been 30.
Seeing Thompson play in person during the 2019 NBA finals, Brey still had thoughts about what might have been.
• What if Pat Connaughton went all in on baseball in the summer of 2014?
The Baltimore Orioles selected Connaughton in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, and promptly gave him a signing bonus of $428,000. But there was a catch — Connaughton could return to school to finish his business degree and play his senior basketball season.
Had Connaughton chose to take the money and run, 2014-15 probably means no 32-6 season or Elite Eight. Colson, then a freshman, could’ve eventually absorbed some of Connaughton’s minutes and work load but nobody on that 2015 team would’ve been anywhere close to the leader Connaughton was that winter. He and Grant drove the Irish to greatness. They fed off one another. One needed the other.
Had Connaughton followed the money instead of his heart, he’d still be where he is today — a professional athlete waiting to return to work. Instead of being an NBA guy, Connaughton would be a starting pitcher in the majors. It happened for him in basketball; it would’ve happened for him in baseball.
• What if Milwaukee’s Dylan Page made that layup at the end of the game in the first round of the 2003 NCAA tournament?
It’s staggering to think that he didn’t. Right at the rim as time was set to expire, Page had the chance to write a storybook NCAA script — a game-winning shot at the buzzer. That would’ve been it for Notre Dame. No stunning victory over Illinois two days later. No trip to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 seasons.
Brey weathered three straight seasons with no NCAA trip (2004-06) after that Sweet 16 in 2003. But three straight seasons of no NCAAs on the heels of a first-round stunner loss to Bruce Pearl and Milwaukee? Probably not a stretch the coach survives.
• What if Notre Dame beats Duke to win the 2017 ACC tournament championship?
The Irish seemingly were closing in on their second league tournament title in three seasons that Saturday night at Barclays Center. Notre Dame led Duke by eight with 11 minutes left and showed no signs of letting up, until Colson tweaked his ankle. That seemed to demoralize the Irish, and woke Jayson Tatum. The Irish had no answers for the eventual top five NBA draft pick, who scored seven points the final 2:34 in a six-point Irish loss.
Notre Dame wins that game, and the program rides the adrenaline to another Sweet 16 in 2017. It also jumps into select ACC company. Only three teams — Duke, North Carolina, Virginia have won multiple league tournament championships since 2000. Imagine the hand-wringing in the league office had Notre Dame become the fourth. Instead, that loss started a slide that the program still struggles to shake.
• What if conference realignment didn’t ruin the former Big East?
It would’ve been like 2011 again and again. That was the year the league sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame had it rolling that year, going 27-7 and 14-4 in the league. Brey won league and national coach of the year. Notre Dame had any number of rivals — Georgetown, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, Syracuse, Villanova. Those were some high-level games in terms of energy — on the floor and in the stands. The Big East, before it fell apart, was the apex of conference basketball for the Irish. The games mattered. The home fan base actually cared. The program had a true hoops identity.
It was a league too good to be true, and then it was gone, all thanks to football.
• What if Brey didn’t believe in second (interview) chances?
Brey was a finalist for the Notre Dame job before it went to Doherty in 1999. A year later, he was again a finalist and chased it as passionately as he did the previous offseason.
If he passed on it and chose to stay at Delaware a sixth season before chasing another high major job, the program likely doesn’t set school records for most conference wins (14) in two of the nation’s toughest leagues. The Elite Eight runs of 2015 or 2016 probably never happen. Guys who weren’t elite prospects coming out of high school — Colson, Connaughton, Matt Farrell, John Mooney — likely go elsewhere.
This program looks a whole lot different, and not necessarily for the better. Not many coaches would’ve stayed as patient with the program as Brey. For a renovated arena. For a practice facility. For the constant conference changes it had to endure. For the university to prove it cares about hoops.
It’s that … say it … fragile.