Mike Brey bullish on Notre Dame men's basketball success
INDIANAPOLIS – They play a pretty successful brand of basketball up north, too.
When four premier college programs converge around Christmas for an afternoon doubleheader of the game that’s sort of religion in the state, most storylines center on the three schools that sit closest to the capital city.
Located 150 miles away, the fourth remains a relative outsider.
With its five national championships, Indiana (8-3) stands alongside Duke and Kentucky and UCLA as one of the game’s bluebloods. Butler (8-1 and ranked No. 17) forever found a spot in the national spotlight by beating massive odds to get to consecutive national championship games — including one in its backyard — out of the Horizon League. Much of the talk about No. 9 Purdue (11-0) has been about when the Boilermakers might actually win a Crossroads Classic contest. They’re the only team that hasn’t the first four years, but there’s plenty to like this season about coach Matt Painter’s crew. It has all the pieces to challenge for a Big Ten championship and more.
As for Notre Dame, most focus this time of year centers around what bowl game the football program is headed toward. Yet when it comes to sustained basketball success over the last five years, no Classic participant has been as good as Notre Dame.
“We’re the most consistent program in this state,” coach Mike Brey said. “It ain’t even close.”
Notre Dame leads all Classic schools in regular-season wins over the last five years with 121. Butler has 116, Indiana is at 105 and Purdue 100. The Irish have averaged 24.2 wins per season, highlighted by last year’s dream drive to the Elite Eight after capturing the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship. Notre Dame finished 32-6.
So where’s all the love?
“I don’t know,” junior guard Steve Vasturia said with a shrug.
“People kind of forget about us,” said junior guard Demetrius Jackson.
“It gives us a little bit of a chip on our shoulder,” said classmate V.J. Beachem. “A lot of people just think of Notre Dame as football.”
In what will be a sold-out Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Irish fan turnout/support/noise in the annual doubleheader usually finishes fourth. A distant fourth. There’s a ton of cream and crimson. Plenty of blue and white. Much black and gold. But blue and gold? Not so much, even though Notre Dame enters Saturday’s game against Indiana (2 p.m., ESPN2) with a three-game Crossroads win streak.
Brey was asked Thursday if a win over Indiana given its place as THE program in the state, would be a “statement” win. His answer seemingly flipped the question. Given what Notre Dame has done of late, a win by Indiana would be a “statement” win for the Hoosiers, a program in the question posed to Brey that everyone in the state is “enamored” with.
“They should be enamored with us, quite frankly,” Brey said. “We’ve been winning games in that (darn) building for a while. We’re on a nice roll down there.”
And then some. Notre Dame has been just as consistent long after the Crossroads when it comes time for conference play. The Irish have won a Classic-quartet best 58 conference games over the last five years. They’ve won at least 11 in four of the last five years while splitting time between the Big East and the ACC. Butler has 51 in the Horizon, Atlantic 10 and Big East. Purdue has won 49, Indiana 37 out of the Big Ten.
“We’re really proud of where our program is,” Brey said. “Sometimes I think it gets lost in the works.”
Point guards typically make sure everyone gets into a good offensive rhythm first, second and third before looking for something for themselves.
But Saturday’s game between Indiana and Notre Dame features two point guards – Yogi Ferrell and Demetrius Jackson – who are both Indiana natives and former McDonald’s prep All-Americans currently leading their teams in scoring.
A 6-foot senior from Indianapolis, Ferrell is averaging 16.8 points. A 6-1 junior from Mishawaka, Jackson is at 17.8.
Both can score it and move it. Ferrell leads his team with 71 assists, more than double the next closest Hoosier. Jackson has nearly a 3-to-1 assist/turnover ratio (45/16).
“Are there two guards playing better than these guys in the country right now?” Brey wondered. “I don’t think so. That matchup is probably worth the price of admission.”
Jackson insists he’ll pay more attention to what he and the Irish need to do to win than what Ferrell’s up to. It’s Notre Dame-Indiana not Jackson-Ferrell.
“Honestly, I’m just worried about us,” Jackson said. “It’s almost like I have tunnel vision to everything else. You have an awareness of the teams and conscious of what they do, but I’m just always worried about Notre Dame.”
Indiana and Notre Dame each have plenty of perimeter talent, which lends Brey to believe that this game may swing on getting solid efforts from power forwards Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson.
The 6-10, 245-pound Auguste is second on the Irish in scoring at 14.4 points. He leads the team in rebounding (10.4) and has posted double-doubles for points and rebounds in three of the last four games and six of eight. The 6-5, 225-pound Colson has been really active the last two contests (averaging 12 points and eight rebounds). He’s averaging 9.0 points per game and is second to Auguste in rebounding at 7.2
Indiana’s main interior presence is freshman Thomas Bryant (6-10, 245), who averages 11.6 points and 5.3 rebounds. The Hoosiers also get help up front from Michigan transfer Max Bielfeldt (6-8, 245) who averages 8.7 points and 4.5 rebounds. Troy Williams (6-7, 215) leads Indiana in rebounding (6.9) but is more of a wing/slasher than interior presence.
“I would hope our frontline could do some work on the backboard,” Brey said. “Bonzie and Zach have really been a strong force. For us to win it, our frontline is going to have to have a good day.”
Notre Dame spent less time with basketball and more this week on the books during final exams, which wrapped Friday. The Irish scrimmaged Wednesday before a rare evening practice Thursday.
Getting the players’ minds back on basketball this time of year often is difficult when given a home game against a lesser opponent. Not so much when they have the chance to play a marquee game against a big-time opponent in an NCAA tournament-type atmosphere like Saturday.
“It comes at a good time,” Brey said. “It’s such a big, buzzing game. It’s great right after exams.”
Once the course work was finished Friday – Jackson was among those that still had a paper due – the Irish can concentrate on nothing but hoops until Jan. 12, the first day of the spring semester.
“They’re basketball players for a while,” Brey said. “Sometimes you see some really great production out of guys when the academic stuff is off their back.”
Notre Dame takes a plethora of win streaks into Saturday’s game. Consider:
• The Irish have won their last three games (ties their season high) dating back to the Nov. 29 loss to Alabama.
• Notre Dame has won each of its last three games in the Crossroads Classic after a loss to Indiana in the inaugural event on Dec. 17, 2011.
• Following the win at Illinois earlier this month, Notre Dame has won its last four games against the Big Ten — Illinois and Michigan State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenges, Purdue in the Crossroads and Iowa last month at the AdvoCare Invitational. The Irish have not lost to a Big Ten team since being beaten by Ohio State in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 21, 2013.
• Notre Dame has won its last four games against its Crossroads colleagues – two wins over Purdue and one over Indiana in the Classic and one over Butler in a memorable 67-64 overtime victory in Pittsburgh in the third round of the 2015 NCAA tournament. That delivered Notre Dame to its first Sweet 16 in 12 years.
Notre Dame and Butler do not play in the Crossroads Classic.