Noie: Lineup change and road win a big, bold move for Mike Brey, Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Social media still would be smoking with message boards in full meltdown.

An avalanche of email harping on everything about the head coach — from his wardrobe choice to his grooming habits to his decision to shake up everything about his program — would be waiting Monday morning.

The vitriol would be exhausting and honestly, understandable.

When Mike Brey took the road never traveled and rattled his starting lineup in a way nobody saw coming, there was no hoping that it would work when Notre Dame visited Miami (Fla.) Sunday in an Atlantic Coast Conference game. It had to work. If it didn’t, and the Irish failed to respond in ways that earned them a 73-59 victory for their first consecutive league win streak and road win in nearly a year, there likely would be no turning back. The collateral damage would cut too deep.

Sunday would be either a starting point, or a point of no return for Notre Dame (5-8; 2-5 ACC). If the Irish don’t deliver, a 1-5 league record slides to 1-6 and likely keeps heading south. So does the season. Then the transfer portal might get really interesting come spring. As might a debate of the head coach’s fate/future.

On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of extremes, this was a 24. It was out there, even for Brey.

Not much was riding on the coach’s decision to bench the five starters, except for, well, everything. It took some serious you know what (rhymes with cones) for Brey to do what he did. Or did it?

“I thought they would react well,” he said. “I’m not surprised that they all handled it like men.”

An indication that Sunday might start sideways arrived 15 minutes before tip. A text message from Matt Freeman of Irish Sports Daily landed in the middle of an early family dinner (good timing, my man!) and ran five words long.

This is a joke, right?

Freeman was referring to a screen shot of Notre Dame’s starting lineup. It was no joke.

Not listed was top scorer Nate Laszewski, who entered the game leading the league in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. Not listed was junior guard Dane Goodwin, back in a good groove after losing his starting spot earlier in the month. Not listed were guard Trey Wertz or power forward Juwan Durham, who had delivered his first double double for points and rebounds the previous game against Boston College. And not listed was point guard Prentiss Hubb, who’d started a team-high 57 consecutive games and was coming off arguably his best game this year.

Brey indicated that Hubb took the benching the hardest.

“He was (ticked) off,” he said. “He was (ticked) off talking in our huddles, challenging our guys if they got beat and getting guys in the right position.

“There was even more of a strong personality. I hope he continues with that.”

By not seeing the starters at the start, Brey also saw something he hadn’t seen from these Irish in the second half, one that included 43 points and 65.4 percent shooting from the field, 71.4 percent from 3 and 80 percent from the foul line. It featured a huge helping of the starters back as the starters. Also a whopping 63 total bench points.

“We’ve been searching for a little bit of a vibe and a confident body language,” Brey said. “We had a little bit more of that in the second half.”

A critical call

The lineup change is the wildest, weirdest and wackiest decision in Brey’s 21-year tenure. It went beyond tossing his team out of its locker room, which he did in the 2000s after a lack of practice/game effort. It went beyond ditching the mock turtleneck for an open-collar dress shirt in 2010. It lapped the decision to go shirtless in the locker room to celebrate a Maui Invitational championship in 2017.

In terms of starter shock value, it rivals the 2016 move to go with seldom-used point guard Matt Farrell, who had earlier in the season contemplated a transfer, in a first-round NCAA tournament game against Michigan.

Farrell started, but not before push-back from the coaching staff. Doing a slow boil, Brey ended any group discussion by stating that Farrell was starting, then storming from the conference room at the team’s Marriott Marquis headquarters. Three games later with Farrell in the lineup, Notre Dame was back in the Elite Eight.

Sunday’s call was solely the head coach’s.

“There was no debate,” Brey said. “My assistants read the defense well. We’ll see who starts on Wednesday based on Tuesday’s practice and who competes the hardest.”

The decision to sit his starters left some wondering if Brey had been out in the South Beach sun too long earlier in the day. That call for change was made before the Irish charter left South Bend on Saturday afternoon. In practice, Brey didn’t like anything about the starting five’s effort. Their compete level — which has become a buzzword around Rolfs Hall in recent days — wasn’t anywhere near expected. The starters got worked over by the blue team (reserves) in drills. When practice ended, Brey had seen enough, and bit back.

“I yelled at the top of my lungs that that’s it, the blue shirts are starting (Sunday) and that’s how we’re going to play,” he said. “Shoot 10 free throws. I’ll see you on the bus.”

The three-hour flight south allowed Brey time to wrestle with the plan. Was it the right message to send? How would his players respond? Would they? Again, if this had gone the other direction, and Notre Dame allowed a winnable league road game to get away, the price might be too high.

“I second-guessed myself a lot,” Brey said. “You hope you have great enough relationships with (the starters) that they’ll respond in the right way.”

Brey kept circling back to the compete standard set after those consecutive road losses to Virginia Tech and Virginia. To hit that standard in practice for seven days with no game was a lot to ask. The starters had pretty much met it. Until Saturday.

“My feeling was, I’ve got to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Nope,’” Brey said. “That standard has to stay for our group.”

Message delivered and received. As good as Hubb was against Boston College, he was better against Miami with 19 points, nine assists and three rebounds. Laszewski went for 16 points and 10 rebounds. Durham added 16 points and five rebounds.

The starters might not have liked the head coach’s decision, but they understood that it needed to be done the way it was done. For Sunday. For this week. For the rest of the season.

“It was a strong message,” Durham said. “We had to prove ourselves to him and the rest of the coaching staff. We all had like a high hat on in practice and weren’t doing well at all.

“It put a fire under our butts.”

Hubb downplayed any notion that not starting stung.

“It is what it is,” he said. “Coach Brey told me I would play a lot. I wasn’t worried. Just because we come off the bench, it doesn’t really mean anything. We still have to go out and play.”

NOTRE DAME (5-8): Zona 0-3 0-0 0, Djogo 2-3 0-0 5, Morgan 0-1 0-0 0, Ryan 1-3 2-2 5, Sanders 0-1 0-0 0, Hubb 7-12 0-1 19, Laszewski 7-10 1-2 16, Goodwin 3-4 0-0 7, Wertz 2-5 0-0 5, Durham 6-10 4-6 16. Totals 28-52 7-11 73.

MIAMI (6-8): Cross 0-5 0-0 0, Brooks 3-5 0-0 6, McGusty 8-15 2-2 20, Olaniyi 4-10 2-2 10, Wong 6-17 3-4 16, Gak 3-6 0-0 6, Beverly 0-3 0-0 0, Herenton 0-1 1-2 1. Totals 24-62 8-10 59.

Halftime_Notre Dame 30-22. 3-Point Goals_Notre Dame 10-18 (Hubb 5-7, Goodwin 1-1, Djogo 1-2, Laszewski 1-2, Wertz 1-2, Ryan 1-3, Morgan 0-1), Miami 3-22 (McGusty 2-5, Wong 1-8, Beverly 0-1, Herenton 0-1, Olaniyi 0-3, Cross 0-4). Rebounds_Notre Dame 33 (Laszewski 10), Miami 25 (Olaniyi, Gak 5). Assists_Notre Dame 19 (Hubb 9), Miami 9 (McGusty, Wong 3). Total Fouls_Notre Dame 8, Miami 13.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey went an entirely new — and way different —direction Sunday when he opened with a different starting five in a win at Miami (Fla.).