Noie: Mike Brey returns to his head coaching roots as No. 9 Notre Dame visits Delaware

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

NEWARK, Del. – If he needed something quick for breakfast before a morning staff meeting – say an egg-white omelet and fresh fruit, which have since become staples – The Post House on Main Street would do.

If an afternoon bite before practice beckoned, he could head back up College Avenue for crab cakes at Klondike Kate’s, where his once-open tab might still be running.

If he had to go recruiting, the all-important Interstate 95 corridor was just over a mile outside his office door.

And if it all became too much for the first-time head coach to handle, when he tried to have his hand in everything while delegating seemingly nothing over those five seasons, his vacation home in Rehoboth Beach was 88 miles away.

Mike Brey has taken his Notre Dame basketball teams on hundreds of road trips to play college basketball games during his 18 seasons as a head coach. He’s been to Hawaii. To Southern California. To the U.S. Virgin Islands. To big buildings and bigger cities around the Northeast as a member of the Big East. To Tobacco Road where he now spends winters in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Brey has seen and done – and won – a lot on the road with the Irish. But no venture has prepared him for Saturday when No. 9 Notre Dame (7-2) steps into a sold-out Bob Carpenter Center (5,000) for a non-conference game against Delaware (4-5).

Waiting on the opposite sideline will be Martin Ingelsby, who spent 17 years at Notre Dame as a point guard, operations guy and assistant coach for Brey. Ingelsby is in his second season at the same school where Brey’s head coaching career started. Try as Brey and his staff and his players have done to convince themselves and everyone around them that this is just another game on the schedule, it isn’t. Not even close.

“It’s surreal,” Ingelsby said Friday during lunch as campus traffic crawled past on Main Street. “To have him back here, he’s legend in this area. He’s revered. People ask about him all the time.

“He made his mark as a head coach here.”

If facing his protégé wasn’t enough, Brey will do it at the same school where he won 99 games, including two America East conference tournament championships. Those wins – in 1998 and 1999 — delivered trips to the NCAA Tournament, where the Blue Hens have since been only once (2014).

Friday evening's practice was the first time Brey was back in the Carpenter Center since 2007 when he was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. Before South Bend became home, this place was for Brey.

“Really, really great memories there,” he said. “To play against Martin is kind of weird feelings. You almost don’t want to compete against your former guys.”

Unique opportunity

Saturday will be only the second time that Brey has faced one of his former assistants turned head coach. In 2012, Lewis Preston brought Kennesaw (Ga.) State to town. But that was a home game. This one’s in Brey’s former coaching home.

There’s no blueprint in any of Brey’s coaching reference books for this.

How do you go back to a building where you learned to become a better college coach? Where you learned to lean a little more on your assistants? Where you learned to calm down? Where you slowly built up confidence with each win, which convinced you that you can maybe do it at an even higher level? Where you won enough games to be considered a finalist – twice – for the Notre Dame job, which you landed July 14, 2000?

Heck, it's where Brey's mock turtleneck look was born.

None of it’s not lost on Brey. He didn’t get the Notre Dame job because it was the only opening he ever really chased. He got it because he won – and won a lot – in the place called New-ARK.

“Man, I was fortunate,” he said. “I had really good players. If I didn’t have really good players, I don’t get this job.”

Some of those former players planned to swing by practice. Others wanted to stop by the team hotel across the street and catch up with their old UD coach. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a 1984 UD graduate and ND hoops fan, have leaned on Brey for seats.

Be it time or tickets, everybody that was around during his Delaware days seemingly wants something from Brey.

“I want to be a good guy and do that,” he said. “So I’m trying to handle that diplomatically.”

Now in his second season in Newark, the 39-year-old Ingelsby installed a lot of what the Irish do offensively to the point where UD plays like ND. Their sets — circle, wheel — even have the same names. He recruited a chunk of the current roster. He knows Brey as well as anybody in the business.

“It’s a different dynamic,” said Irish associate head coach Rod Balanis. “It’s hard to push it aside.”

Brey had the option to do just that. Prior to leaving Notre Dame in the spring of 2016 after a second-straight run to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, Ingelsby handled the program’s non-conference scheduling. Mid-majors schools like Delaware often would call seeking games. Ingelsby’s response often was the same.

“I would hang up the phone,” Ingelsby said. “It would be like, ‘Nah, you’ve got no chance.’ We didn’t return a lot of calls.”

This one was returned. When Ingelsby was a finalist for the job in the spring of 2016, Brey talked with Delaware athletic director Chrissi Rawak. Hire my guy, Brey said then, and he would get to Newark for a non-league game. Rawak did, so the Irish are here for a game that’s long been a sellout and hyped since summer.

This is a big deal. Because of Notre Dame. Because of Brey. Because of Ingelsby. He just hopes his young team can embrace the atmosphere. Embrace the opportunity. And play well enough to give themselves a chance to win.

Same goes for the Irish, who have lost two of their last three. Notre Dame’s back on the court for the first time since Tuesday’s loss to Ball State just looking to be better. Just looking to win.

“Doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” he said.

This time, it does.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

WHO: No. 9 Notre Dame (7-2) vs. Delaware (4-5).

WHERE: Bob Carpenter Center (5,000) Newark, Del.

WHEN: Saturday at 7 p.m.

TV: CBS Sports Network.

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

NOTING: Delaware sophomore swingman Ryan Daly scored 22 points with five rebounds in a 75-72 home loss Wednesday to Buffalo. … The Blue Hens are 1-2 at home with the win over Division III Wesley (Del.) College. … Delaware returns four starters off last year’s team that finished 13-20, 5-13 and ninth place in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Blue Hens won a combined 17 games the previous two seasons. … Delaware was picked this preseason to finish seventh in the 10-team league. … Delaware ranks eight in the CAA in scoring offense (72.8), fourth in scoring defense (71.2), third in field goal percentage (.467) and ninth in 3-point field goal percentage (.322). … Notre Dame leads the series 1-0 following an 80-75 victory at Purcell Pavilion on Dec. 7, 2013. These teams meet again next season in South Bend. … Since scoring 92 points on Nov. 21 against LSU, Notre Dame has averaged 69.5 points its next four games. … Delaware freshman guard Ryan Allen and Notre Dame freshman guard D.J. Harvey were teammates at DeMatha (Md.) High School.

QUOTING: “We still have things we need to answer and figure out. Not going to overreact. Let’s tweak a few things and see if we can get a win.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose team has lost two three.