Inside Mike Brey's world as Notre Dame's basketball coach during pandemic

Carter Karels | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to push the world economy into a recession, Mike Brey will consider taking a frugal approach in the coming months.

The Notre Dame men’s basketball coach may pass on meeting the 13-scholarship maximum permitted by the NCAA. The Irish brought their scholarship total to 11 after officially adding wing Tony Sanders and Santa Clara guard transfer Trey Wertz.

How the remainder of Notre Dame’s 2020-21 schedule will be filled may also depend on the situation, Brey said. Universities elsewhere have cut or reduced Division I athletic programs, budgets and pay of coaches and other staff members.

“I think you have to have an open mind to everything given the climate for your budget to help your athletic department, because we are all going to be in a crunch a little bit,” Brey said Wednesday in a press conference on Zoom. “We are still recruiting, but unless it’s a great fit, it wouldn’t be bad on the budget if we didn’t have to pay for another scholarship.”

That openness became a theme during Brey’s first public interview with local reporters in more than a month. Before Brey begins season No. 21 at the helm of Notre Dame, he knows the coming months will bring uncertainty.

By fusing positivity with practicality, Brey believes he and his team can prepare for whatever is next.

“We don’t need to be panicking about stuff,” Brey said. “Like I tell our guys, have a routine every day. Get your body moving. There’s no excuse to not be really in shape during this time. Come on. We can eat better. We have better control. We can exercise.

“We’re going to be back. We’re built for it. And when we come back, it’s going to be fun.”

After losing three starters (forward John Mooney and guards TJ Gibbs and Rex Pflueger) from a 20-12 team seemingly destined for the NIT, Notre Dame enters a pivotal offseason plagued by unpredictability. Brey and his assistant coaches are collaborating to ensure the Irish players keep pace with their athletic and academic expectations.

Some players have experienced trouble finding access to indoor gymnasiums with hoops and weight rooms for strength training, Brey said. Head strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski heads the effort in helping the players with their exercise routines, sending them body-weight workouts and remaining in contact with them daily.

Pat Homes, Notre Dame’s director of academics services for student-athletes, assists with their distance learning. Each of Brey’s assistants are assigned a few players to track academically. They each use Zoom as their primary communication.

“I am a Zoom master,” Brey said. “And I didn’t know anything about Zoom three weeks ago.”

Zoom played a major role in the Irish landing commitments from Sanders and Wentz earlier this month. Neither had been to South Bend prior to their decisions. Receiving a tour of Notre Dame’s campus, facilities and classrooms via Zoom helped them feel comfortable enough to pledge.

“For as much film of basketball I’ve watched for 35 years,” Brey said, “I think you can watch some tape and get a feel for a guy. You can certainly get a feel for a family by way of a high school coach, guidance counselors, teachers and developing a relationship.

“This Zoom communication, where you can at least look people in the eye and get a feel for their personality, that’s the best we can do. We did that a lot with those two prospects, Tony and Trey.”

July represents a crucial recruiting month in college basketball. But if campus visits remain prohibited and coaches are unable to meet with and evaluate prospects, recruiting may last longer than usual.

Whether recruiting and scheduling opponents will be delayed remains unclear, but Brey’s preparing for the possibility that both could last through August. He’s also open to adding from the transfer portal.

“The portal is the portal. It’s out there. We examine and investigate it every day,” Brey said. “My assistants, we’ve had discussions on it. There are a couple kids right now in it that we’ve communicated with. We haven’t offered any of them yet, but we are trying to make decisions on them.”

To start the college basketball season on time, Brey said players need only a couple weeks of training and preparation after returning to campus. That contrasts with Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly, who identified July 1 as the latest return date required for the college football season to play out as scheduled.

Brey is bracing for all scenarios, including starting the season later than expected.

“Basketball is nimble. We don’t have a lot of equipment,” Brey said. “We need a ball and a couple hoops. We can be balling a little bit. Football, as we know, is a whole other animal.

“Basketball guys are kind of in shape year-round. We go on foreign tours in the summers and we play three games. We scrimmage.”

Once the season returns, ending the three-year drought and making the NCAA Tournament will be Notre Dame’s goal. The Irish are now “(junior guard) Prentiss Hubb’s team” according to Brey, who said that dynamic began in the final half of last season.

Hubb, who ranked third on the Irish with 12.1 points per game last season, continues to emerge as a leader in Zoom meetings, Brey said. The way juniors Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski develop as full-time starters and how Robby Carmody returns from a second season-ending injury are among other points of emphasis Brey mentioned.

“I think that’s the next step for us after being put on the mat two years ago and getting our butts kicked all over the place, losing 19 games,” Brey said. “I thought we came off the mat this year and showed a surge. We got some momentum back.

“The natural progression is to be an NCAA Tournament team for us and get back into that rhythm with that. We’ve experienced that most of the time I’ve been at Notre Dame.

“I think we will be able to score the ball, and we’ve got good perimeter play. I think a lot of it will come down to our rebounding and our inside scoring. And then, can we rebound as a team?

“We are going to take care of the ball, we are going to play on that offensive end efficiently. … I’m kind of excited about who they are going to be as we get going.”

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Notre Dame men’s basketball head coach Mike Brey calls a play against North Carolina on Jan. 17.
Notre Dame’s Prentiss Hubb (3), left, with T.J. Gibbs, has taken a leadership role in the club’s Zoom meetings.