Noie: Non-league matchup with Howard bigger than basketball for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It was touted as the tonic for what troubled the Notre Dame men’s basketball team that winter.

Having opened 2008-09 with massive expectations and a Top 10 ranking, the Irish season hit some serious skids. Notre Dame fell out of the national rankings and fell apart in the Big East. It couldn’t win at home, couldn’t win on the road, just couldn’t win. A six-game league losing streak stretched over 25 agonizing days and two different months.

January felt like it lasted 71 days. February didn’t feel any better.

Everyone around the Irish needed a break from the grind of league play, the mounting frustration and the pressure to get it all back on track.

Something needed to change. And soon.

That something was a rare non-conference game wedged within conference play. Whatever ailed the Irish then, and plenty did, just might be fixed with a road trip to Los Angeles to play UCLA one Saturday in early February. Get out of the Big East, get out of the Midwest winter, get out of their own heads for a while. Get to the coast, get some sun and some In-N-Out Double-Doubles (no cheese, please) and get recharged for the stretch run.

Everything then went from bad to worse.

Notre Dame’s losing streak slid to seven following a loss to UCLA. The 26-point margin of defeat was at the time the largest in coach Mike Brey’s tenure with the Irish. Maybe it was the long flight out, or the 10 a.m. local tip time for television. Whatever it was, the Irish didn’t put up much of a fight.

Afterward, in a quiet visitor’s locker room at Pauley Pavilion, Brey did a slow boil and seemed out of answers. But not options.

He stressed that all five starting positions in the lineup were up for grabs – “All spots open, baby.” Practices would not be pleasant. Nothing about an extended losing streak in the middle of league play ever is. Brey preached that change was coming. That included the head coach.

Never again, Brey insisted, would he schedule a non-conference game within conference play. Didn’t work that season and wouldn’t work moving forward. It wasn’t worth Notre Dame taking its time and energy and focus from league play for a non-league game. For any non-league game. It just didn’t matter in the big college basketball picture.

For 12 years, Brey followed that philosophy. From January forward, it was nothing but league play. In the Big East. In the Atlantic Coast Conference. And then this month happened. And then last week happened.

Real life is bigger than college basketball, and it offered Brey an opportunity to reassess his non-conference scheduling stance. It was time to make an exception. For all the right reasons.

He then scheduled a game that he believes has to be played this season. During conference play.

Notre Dame will go to Washington to play at Howard on Jan. 18, 2021 — on Martin Luther King Day. In a university press release announcing the game last week, Brey explained his reasoning.

“This seemed like the perfect fit,” Brey said. “As our program searched for the best way to remain active participants in the push for social change, a visit to one of our nation’s top HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges/Universities) on Martin Luther King Jr. Day will provide an incredible educational experience for our student-athletes, coaches, support staff and university.”

Basketball ties between the schools’ coaches run deep. Howard’s Kenny Blakeney was recruited to play at Duke by Brey. He served on Brey’s staff at Delaware. Like Brey and Irish associate head coach Rod Balanis, Blakeney played at DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School. One of Blakeney’s assistants, Eric Atkins, played point guard for Brey at Notre Dame. Brey’s current point guard, potential all-league candidate Prentiss Hubb, is from nearby Upper Marlboro.

Brey indicated earlier this month an initial wish to push this game to 2021-22. Notre Dame owed Howard a return game — out of loyalty to Blakeney and Atkins — but Brey didn’t want to play at Howard until the coronavirus pandemic passed. Playing there this season originally made little sense if Howard couldn’t maximize the first-ever appearance at Burr Gymnasium by an ACC school. Brey wanted fans to pack Burr’s 2,700-seat stands. He wanted there to be a buzz in the building. And about town. He wanted his players to experience what it meant for a Power Five team to play in Burr for the first time since Oregon State in 2010.

Much of that can’t happen in a pandemic, so Brey made Blakeney a deal — come out again to Notre Dame in December (as one of the Irish “buy” games) and the Irish would get to Washington when all returned to normal, or something close to it, in December 2021.

Done deal. Then, undone deal after Brey watched what happened around the country after the death of George Floyd. The more he watched, the more he thought that they had to do something this season. Brey called Blakeney and the two decided they had to play on MLK Day.

Two days after that game, a presidential inauguration will be held blocks from Burr.

If ESPN were smart, it would put the Howard-Notre Dame game on one of its networks with an early start (a noon tip sounds right) to maximize exposure. If the ACC were smart (not always the case when it comes to scheduling the Irish) it would send Notre Dame to Virginia the previous weekend. A noon tip that Saturday in Charlottesville again sounds good. The Irish then could bus the 117 miles up to Washington afterward and spend a couple days in a city that might be on the verge of something Brey vowed to never again do with his schedule.


Notre Dame coach Mike Brey will stray from his philosophy of not playing a non-league game in the middle of a conference season for the first time since 2009 when his squad visits Howard University on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in mid-January.