Analysis: Mike Brey, Notre Dame no longer uptight in NCAA Tournament

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

BUFFALO, N.Y. – High-stakes games that come with being in the NCAA tournament — lose or go home for good — have been anything but high-wire acts of late for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

Just the opposite.

As Mike Brey says in the pre-game hype video that runs back on the Purcell Pavilion center scoreboard, when the stakes are high, and the lights are bright, the Irish deliver.

That’s been the case over the last two tournaments, where No. 5 seed Notre Dame (25-9), long labeled a good program who did a whole lot in the regular season but next to nothing in March, has won six games. The shot at No. 7 arrives Thursday in a West Regional first round game (12 p.m., CBS) against No. 12 seed Princeton (23-6), at KeyBank Center.

There may be no basketball program that CBS and Turner networks, which forked out over $10 billion in 2010 for the television rights, like to see more in the field of 64 than Notre Dame.

Consider what the Irish have accomplished during their two Elite Eight runs:

• They played two dramatic opening-round games in Pittsburgh in 2015, beating No. 14 seed Northeastern by four before needing overtime to beat Butler. After that game, Brey disclosed that he had coached despite learning of his mother’s passing earlier in the day.

• They played what many called the game of the 2015 tournament, and one of the best in decades, on a Saturday night in downtown Cleveland, where TBS milked shot after shot of a dejected/concerned/fearful Ashley Judd as Notre Dame took then-undefeated Kentucky’s best punch, and gave the Wildcats a few of their own.

• Last March, sophomore guard Rex Pflueger tipped in the winning basket with 1.5 seconds remaining to beat Stephen F. Austin in a second-round game. In a giddy Irish locker room afterward, former assistant coach Anthony Solomon, who was always so stoic and serious, giggled when he learned that the game was shown to 98 percent of the country on CBS. That’s a whole lot of eyes on the Irish.

• That following week in Philadelphia, Notre Dame roared back from certain elimination to score eight unanswered points in 16 seconds and stun Wisconsin. A Good Friday night, indeed.

When the postseason arrives — March and the NCAA tournament — there’s something about Notre Dame and the drama meter that moves the national meter.

Big-time.

Notre Dame becomes almost like America’s television team. Don’t believe it? Roll back last year’s “One Shining Moment,” montage, which CBS runs to close March Madness once a champion is crowned. Last April, it served as an informal Notre Dame basketball infomercial.

Any school would feel lucky if they get a brief second or two clip of themselves. There were no fewer than 10 clips of the Irish. And a Brey voice-over.

Notre Dame loves March Madness. And March Madness loves Notre Dame.

“A lot of people say that we’re a fun team to watch,” said guard Matt Farrell, who’s often the ringleader with the ball in his hands. “What helps in those big games is having old guys. Yeah, these games are a big deal, but you’ve just got to play loose and have fun.

“We’re comfortable being in those positions.”

That wasn’t always the case — not for the players and certainly not for the head coach, who has taken his self-described “loosest coach in America” tag and run with it. There’s Brey playing drums with rock legend Todd Rundgren. Brey going into the student section to celebrate a big win. Showing off his dance moves before a shoot-around last week down in Brooklyn. Brey being Brey. What a guy to play for, right?

Back before this current post-season party got going, Brey was wound so tight – too tight – that his players tended to play the same way. It all started to shift toward chill during that weekend in Pittsburgh in 2015. When Brey’s mother, Betty, died before the Butler game, getting to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament wasn’t so gotta-have critical in the big-picture game of life.

Brey has since loosened up and doesn’t let his player see him sweat. Now he’ll smile and laugh and tell his guys that they’re fine, even when they’re not. All the while his stomach is doing cartwheels and a bottle of Maalox is mandatory.

Watch Brey in the moments before Thursday’s game. Seated alone on the bench just before tip, he looks like someone just summoned to share his tax audit.

When the red light of the television camera blinks on, the switch flips. For Brey. For the Irish.

“We’ve been in a rhythm lately where we just love it, embrace it, deliver in it,” he said. “It’s gotten to be a little bit of the tradition of the program. It’s kind of what we do.”

Having started last year’s run late at night – the first-round game against Michigan ended at 12:07 a.m., likely long after the casual hoops fan headed for bed – Notre Dame now basically opens the first full day of the tournament. The Irish are the first game of the 16 from the four different sites.

That doesn’t happen without the previous success the last two years.

The big stage awaits.

“We just have guys that are fearless,” said senior swingman V.J. Beachem. “The moment’s never too big for us.

“Opportunities like this, we really cherish. That’s where we’re at our best.”

Time to be again.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame’s V.J. Beachem (3) and Steve Vasturia (32) stand next to Mike Brey during the alma mater on senior night after the Boston College at Notre Dame’s men’s basketball game at Purcell Pavilion Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

NCAA Tournament

First Round

West Region

WHO: No. 5 seed Notre Dame (25-9 overall; 12-6 ACC) vs. No. 12 Princeton (23-6; 14-0 Ivy).

WHERE: KeyBank Center (19,200), Buffalo, N.Y.

WHEN: Thursday at 12:15 p.m.

TV: CBS.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

MEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: This is Princeton’s 25th trip to the NCAA Tournament and first since 2011. The Tigers last won an NCAA game in 1998. … After opening the season 4-6, Princeton has won 19 consecutive games since its last loss, Dec. 20, at Monmouth. … With no scholarships offered in the Ivy League, the Tigers had 19 different players appear in at least four games; nine started at least once. … Princeton finished first in the Ivy League for scoring defense (61.6), scoring margin (+10.6), 3-point field goal percentage (.381), turnover margin (+3.54) and assist/turnover ratio (1.4). It was third in the league in scoring (72.1), free throw percentage (.735), field goal percentage (.451), field goal percentage defense (.333) and steals (6.8). … The Tigers attempted an average of 26.3 shots per game from 3. … Princeton last beat an Atlantic Coast Conference team in 2011 (Florida State). … The Tigers took a foreign tour of Italy last summer. … Princeton finished 2-1 in neutral site games this season with wins over Hawaii and Yale and a loss to California. … It traveled nearly 15,000 miles this season. … There are 372 miles by road between Princeton’s campus in New Jersey and Buffalo. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 2-1. Thursday is the first meeting between the teams since a 1977 Irish loss at Jadwin Gym. … The winner of this game advances to Saturday’s second round to face the winner of No. 4 West Virginia and No. 13 Bucknell, who play Thursday afternoon at 2:45 … Tip time for Saturday’s second game will not be set until the final game of the first round ends late Thursday night.

QUOTING: “We’re kind of playing ourselves. They shoot the 3; they space the floor. They don’t turn it over; we don’t turn it over. They don’t miss free throws; we don’t miss free throws. They know who they are; they’re older. It’s really very similar styles of play.”

• Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on Princeton.