Noie: After another lethargic loss, could this be the end for Mike Brey at Notre Dame?
It came tumbling from the upper rows of Purcell Pavilion, from a section of students fed up during the closing seconds of another Atlantic Coast Conference game that again went sideways for Notre Dame.
On Wednesday, a select few fans (497) were allowed to watch an Irish basketball home game for the first time this season. It felt different and good and energizing to have them back in the building. Their usual chants —“DEE-FENSE! “Let’s Go Irish!” — made it seem like everything was back to normal.
Until the end, when a chant that likely wasn’t on the cheer card commenced. With a fourth straight lackluster effort of a loss about 20 seconds and counting away — 80-69 to North Carolina State — the section of students did something that it never before has done. It turned on the head coach. It turned on Mike Brey.
Thus, the weighted words from Section 115.
Had students not been allowed in Wednesday, Brey and the Irish (9-14 overall; 6-11 ACC) would’ve walked off the floor to only the hum of the generic crowd noise piped through the arena speakers.
Had this been a normal home game in a normal world with close to the 9,149 capacity in the blue seats, that chant would’ve been drowned out by the band and other catcalls from the remaining crowd. Heck, had this been a normal game in a normal time, the students would’ve long ago left, likely when the Irish deficit hit 19 in the second half.
Instead, they stayed and their chant was a whole lot loud and a whole lot uncomfortable. Anyone who insists they didn’t hear it or couldn’t tell what the students were saying wasn’t there. Or listening. The fans heard it. The players heard it. The media heard it. Brey heard it.
“That was well-warranted by our students,” Brey said with his usual candor. “That was a poor performance. They should have been on me.”
What happens beyond this season, which cannot end soon enough, likely won’t be for Brey to decide. Finish the next two weeks, and then what? Another year?
Or time to live the good life? Parachute to Florida first, and then to a television gig?
“I’m committed here,” Brey said. “Certainly, committed to this group, how it finishes for us this year.”
But what about next year? What about the remaining years on his contract, which runs through 2024-25? Last spring, when the pandemic was just beginning, the 61-year-old Brey insisted he had every intention of finishing out his current deal, and maybe coaching beyond that. Here or elsewhere.
He still sounds like he wants to do that.
“We do have a good group coming back,” Brey said. “We have a real good big guy (Yale graduate transfer Paul Atkinson) coming. I’ve thought about that a lot as we have dug through a little bit of everything.”
Asking the winningest head coach in program history (446 victories) about the hows and whys of this one would ring hollow. Notre Dame didn’t play with any passion or poise or fight or want-to almost from the start. Again.
Needing all that and more, the Irish scored the game’s first basket, which snapped a streak of playing with a deficit for the last 88:21 of game time. But the lone Irish lead lasted all of 19 seconds.
Once North Carolina State ran off nine unanswered, this one was effectively over. All, that is, except the shouting from the student body, maybe the one group that’s long been behind Brey since he’s been here.
Through the good times, through the mock turtlenecks, through the tough losses. He’s been to their dorms to talk hoops. He’s bought them rounds of chicken wings at his weekly radio show.
He could always count on them, or most of them, to have his back. Not Wednesday, though. They turned the Irish coach of the past 21 years, who sounded a whole lot like someone afterward who wasn’t sure if there’d be a Year 22.
“I’m also realistic about the big picture of things, too,” Brey said. “You want to continue to be effective here. You know, I don’t need to be told if I’m not being effective.
“I’m a pretty good judge of that.”
This didn’t have to happen this way. It never should have. At this point in the careers of a junior class that was coveted and trumpeted as a Top 15 recruiting group when it signed, they should be headed back to the NCAA tournament.
They should be headed for all-league honors. But they’re not, for myriad reasons. They haven’t developed, maybe haven’t been developed, and haven’t delivered in the ways the old guys in this program have long delivered.
Maybe it’s on them. Maybe it’s on the head coach, who watched so many guys (Bonzie Colson, Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant, heck, you can probably pick a dozen or two more) mature and take ownership of their teams and run with it. Brey figured this group would. They haven’t.
They just don’t seem to know how, and Brey doesn’t seem to know how to reach them. He’s tried everything and nothing has worked.
He couldn’t do it when they went 3-15 in the league as freshmen. He couldn’t do it last year when they were 10-10. Brey thought he had something earlier in the year when Notre Dame shrugged off an 0-5 start and won six of eight. That seems like light years ago.
Notre Dame has lost four straight since getting oh-so-close to the .500 mark. What had the making of an interesting March now has the signs of a really bad one.
“We really haven’t had much the last two games, fighting,” Brey said. “You can’t use pandemics and all that as an excuse. It’s a little bit of the pride of digging in and competing.”
Play as lackluster as the Irish played Wednesday, and it reaches a point of no return. No more practices are going to fix it. No lineup change is going to fix it. No sudden shift in attitude is going to help.
The Irish own the look of a team just waiting/wanting/wishing for everything to end. So does the head coach. There’s no more fight in anyone.
And it will end, likely at the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., site of arguably Brey’s finest hour where Notre Dame won the 2015 conference tournament championship by beating Duke and North Carolina on consecutive nights.
Brey walked out of the Greensboro Coliseum that night a champion. He may walk out of that building next week wondering if he still has a job.
First, there’s one more regular-season game remaining — Saturday at home against No. 11 Florida State. It will be a difficult test, one the Irish likely are in no position to pass. How about winning one for the head coach in what might be his last game in Purcell Pavilion?
“That’s not even being considered in our locker room,” said guard Cormac Ryan. “We’re playing for each other. We all know that we have each other’s backs.”
There was no indication on if they have the coach’s back, though.
Wednesday was a tough night for anyone who’s been around this program since Brey walked in the back door of the old Joyce Center that July day in 2000. It’s painful to see it end this way, if indeed it does. He took this program to unimagined heights that maybe five coaches in the country could’ve hit. But even he might admit to the obvious.
Everything ends. It might be time for this to as well.
• NORTH CAROLINA STATE 80, NOTRE DAME 69
At Purcell Pavilion
NC STATE (12-9): Bates 3-4 0-0 6, Funderburk 3-9 2-2 8, Hellems 6-12 0-1 13, Hayes 7-11 3-4 20, Seabron 8-12 0-1 17, Beverly 3-7 0-0 8, Moore 3-6 0-2 8. Totals 33-61 5-10 80.
NOTRE DAME (9-14): Durham 5-10 0-0 10, Laszewski 3-7 0-0 8, Hubb 5-15 1-2 14, Ryan 3-11 2-2 9, Wertz 5-12 0-0 12, Goodwin 3-10 1-1 8, Djogo 2-5 0-1 5, Zona 1-2 1-2 3, Sanders 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-72 5-8 69.
Halftime_NC State 40-32. 3-Point Goals_NC State 9-23 (Hayes 3-6, Moore 2-3, Beverly 2-5, Seabron 1-2, Hellems 1-6, Funderburk 0-1), Notre Dame 10-29 (Hubb 3-9, Laszewski 2-3, Wertz 2-5, Djogo 1-3, Ryan 1-4, Goodwin 1-5). Rebounds_NC State 36 (Seabron 13), Notre Dame 38 (Laszewski, Ryan 9). Assists_NC State 15 (Hayes, Beverly, Moore 3), Notre Dame 14 (Ryan, Goodwin 4). Total Fouls_NC State 13, Notre Dame 16.