Notre Dame men's basketball embracing return to poverty

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Encores ain’t easy.

Once the ACC Championship finger bling gets passed out, there will be a bunch of paupers playing in Purcell Pavilion.

Time for the Irish to get poor again.

Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey is taking his team back to its roots to approach the upcoming season.

Rags-to-riches worked once. Last year, though, it was the real thing. Soup-kitchen hungry. This year, it’s like the Irish gave away the fortune they accumulated to find that mean streak again.

Kind of a dangerous ploy: Faux poverty.

Heading into last season, Notre Dame’s yearning for respect was legit. Its first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference was a 15-17 (6-12) disaster. The Irish turned that hunger into a March feast that included an ACC Tournament title, a run to the Elite Eight, and a near-miss in an instant classic against No. 1 Kentucky.

“One of our themes has been to be poor again; be hungry,” said Brey. “We’re doing the same breakdown drills when we were really poor a year ago coming off 15-17. I’ve made that a point every day.

“There’s a little bit, ‘Let’s try to go further,’ (with the players). That was all talk from within (the players) all summer. They kinda became addicted to what happened in March and want to do it again. You know, there’s pressure on this group after last year. That’s a good thing.”

Minus two key components from last year’s run, Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, Brey’s mission and message has been to make his team the hunter again, rather than the hunted.

“It’s easy to remember how successful we were last year,” said junior forward V.J. Beachem. “We need to remember how we felt at this time last year. Nobody was supporting us. Nobody really believed in us.

“We know how teams feel. They’re going to be coming at us with an ‘X’ on our back, the same way we came at them last year. We just have to embrace that.”

It’s a difficult line to walk. On one end, it’s important for players to know how to win. On the other, this isn’t Kentucky. Brey just can’t roll the basketballs out, tell his players which goal to shoot at, and expect success.

Complacency may be Notre Dame’s greatest adversary, at least early in the season – before the reality of the fight kicks in.

“We’re trying to move away from last year,” Brey said. “This group tasted some amazingly new territory last year.”

The only other time that Brey led an Irish team to the Sweet Sixteen, 2003, the run was followed by three straight trips to the NIT. When asked what he learned from that experience that he could use to bullet-proof this team, he backpedaled a bit.

“I don’t know if I’ve thought specifically like that,” Brey said. “I’ve thought, ‘How could we ride this unique momentum in this new league?’ We have more of a presence in this new league. We have more respect in this new league.

“We were worried about losing that after 6-12 in our first season.”

At least by the way they talk in mid-October, the players are buying into Brey’s contrived scenario.

“(Being poor again) isn’t too hard when we’re on the court,” said senior forward Zach Auguste. “On the outside, we’ve still got a lot of people giving us credit. That’s something that we’ve forgotten. We’ve moved past that. We’ll always have (last year) always in our back pocket, but right now we’re focused on being poor again and starting from scratch.

“You keep (that taste) in your mouth; you develop it and you go from there.”

“We’re getting ready for a new season,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “We’re coming in with the mindset we’re hungry; nothing is going to be given to us.

“(Last season is) a memory, you have to put that behind you like every other game. Whether you win or lose, you put it in the past and move on.”

Easier said than done sometimes.

Notre Dame Head Coach Mike Brey and junior V.J. Beachem joke around during Media Day, Tuesday, October 13, 2015, in South Bend. SBT Photo/ BECKY MALEWITZ