How did it go so wrong for Mike Brey and Notre Dame men's basketball this season?
SOUTH BEND — What happened?
How did a Notre Dame men’s basketball season that held so much potential, so many postseason possibilities, such strong hope for something special fall apart so spectacularly?
There will be no winning an Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship for the first time in school history. There likely will be no return trip to the NCAA tournament after last year’s magical March, and certainly no trip to the Final Four for the first time since 1978. All were goals outlined not from those on the outside but the Irish themselves before this season started.
That’s how good they thought they could be. How good they believed they could be. Last March, Notre Dame won a school record 15 ACC games and nearly missed the NCAA Tournament. The Irish believed there would be no near-miss this season.
More:After 23 seasons, head coach Mike Brey will step down at Notre Dame at season's end
Instead, barring a late-season turnaround, another March won’t matter.
On Thursday, Notre Dame and head coach Mike Brey announced a mutual separation agreement. At the end of the season, whenever that arrives, Brey will move on after 23 years on the sideline. His contract ran through the 2024-25 season.
Here are five reasons why Notre Dame’s season has gone so sideways, and why the program is in search of a head coach for the first time since the summer of 2000.
5. A sneaky disastrous preseason surfaced
Passing through Purcell Pavilion for a preseason practice, one long-time NBA scout shared an information sheet that he asks assistant coaches from every college team he visits to fill out. On it was a question asking said Irish staff a series of random questions, including a spot to identify the team’s best player.
Next to it was scribbled the name of Marcus Hammond, the super senior guard/transfer from Niagara who played his final college season in South Bend. He was supposed to be that good.
Heading into the regular season, freshman power forward Ven-Allen Lubin was on target to do something too few freshmen have done during Brey’s tenure — start the first game of the regular season. Since Torin Francis first did it as a true freshman in 2002, it had been done exactly one other time (2018 Robby Carmody). Lubin was on track to be the second to do it since Francis. He was supposed to be that good.
Hammond and Lubin then each suffered injuries/setbacks that drastically altered the course of the early season. Hammond suffered a right knee injury (no surgery required) that put him on the shelf for the exhibition game and the season’s first seven. Lubin, in the same open practice attended by the NBA scout, was knocked in the face, which forced him to miss the secret scrimmage against DePaul. He’d take another blow to the head – his nose - that required him to wear a face mask the first half dozen games.
Two guys that were counted on to be main guys/starters instead came off the bench. Hammond really has yet to regain the form that he flashed in fall. Same with Lubin. What would have this season been had neither gone down? Probably a whole lot different.
A season that needed stability instead started as shaky as it could ever start. It never recovered.
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4. Once a crisis of confidence hit, it was over
The arc of this season forever changed the afternoon of Dec. 11. Former Independent colleague and Big East rival Marquette was in town. Former Irish standout John Shumate was being inducted into the program’s Ring of Honor at halftime. It was a game where the Golden Eagles effectively took the heart and soul of the Irish, both of which haven’t really returned.
Marquette was the tougher, more determined, more focused team that afternoon, which ended with a 15-point Notre Dame loss. It was the most lopsided non-league home loss of Brey’s 23-year tenure and the first time the Irish have lost a Ring of Honor game.
The Irish lost more than that. Marquette’s physicality pushed Notre Dame all around the floor. It truly seemed men against boys. It was a style that the Irish once played in the Big East. Now, as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, they’re more of a finesse/free-flowing team.
Notre Dame couldn’t handle that style, and couldn’t handle the consequences. Ever since that afternoon, the Irish have been a team with a confidence crisis. What little swagger they had before that Marquette game all but evaporated. It was if the group’s collective spirit was forever sapped. And snapped.
3. The short rotation/recruiting misses were too much
Nobody expected Brey to stretch his rotation to eight, nine, 10 guys this season. That’s fine. He’s never been one to play many, and this year was going to be no exception. Just as long as the old guys in the rotation played like old guys, there’d be no reason to worry or wonder why Nos. 8 and 9 and 10 weren’t getting enough run.
Until the old guys didn’t play like old guys. Until the losing started and the inability to score on one end and defend on the other surfaced. It’s fine to play seven guys, as long as those seven played at high enough a level that the efficiency and energy doesn’t suffer. When those seven didn’t deliver, Brey had nowhere to turn.
Who was going to step in? Dom Campbell? Tony Sanders? Matt Zona? None of them are ACC-ready, but that’s not their fault. That falls on Brey and his staff for putting them in those positions. They’re not rotation guys. Not now. Maybe not ever. Brey’s lack of a bench and lack of recruiting (too few guys, too many open spots) finally caught up to him to the point where he had no choice but to stay with the seven. It sunk the season.
2. Mike Brey stayed too loyal to his old guys
Speaking of those seven, there should’ve been a sooner shuffling of the starting lineup than before the Jan. 7 game at North Carolina, when Hammond stepped in at point guard for Trey Wertz. If not after the one-point loss at Florida State in a game that Notre Dame should’ve won, then after the next game (loss) against Miami (Fla.) where Notre Dame kind of just gave up. If not then, surely after losing at Boston College in early January to drop to 0-4 in the ACC.
But change was slow to surface. Brey stayed with Wertz when freshman J.J. Starling might’ve kick-started this team to a different scoring gear. Wertz is a good player, but he’s not elite. When Notre Dame can’t regularly reach 70 points, that falls on the point guard. It’s his job to get those guys into the proper offensive sets and make sure the everything flows.
It rarely did. That Brey refused to make a move, if only to change it up for a game or two, meant this season was destined for disaster. He put too much faith and trust in the old guys. They had to deliver, because, in this program, the old guys usually always deliver. When they didn’t, there was nowhere else turn.
1. The magic carpet ride just ended
Everything eventually ends, sometimes with parties and parades, sometimes with disappointment and regret. Brey was Brey for as long as the job allowed. He was loose (even though he was a wreck on the inside). He gave a lot of leeway to his players and in return, expected complete accountability. For the most part, he got it, but when he didn’t (this season), there was little he could do to recapture the magic of last season.
He really should’ve left last year. On top. After the school record for ACC wins. After two NCAA tournament wins. It all was fun again. And then, it wasn’t. It kept getting tougher and tougher to see Brey staying beyond this year.
Brey just ran out of ways to motivate, and it wore on him. It wore him down. It didn’t push him out as much as convince him that it was time for a new voice.. There were no more moves to make. The message got stale. So did the job. It happens.
Toward the end, this program was at its best when it was under minimal expectations. The bigger the plans, the harder the fall (this season). Eventually, the self-proclaimed loosest coach in America ran out of ways to keep his guys loose and get his guys to win. It’s not his fault. It happens.
Brey promised when he arrived in July of 2000 to give this program 10 good years. Maybe 15. He went nearly 10 years beyond that timetable. He won a lot. He lost. There were good times. There were tough times. In the end, it’s time for something — and someone — new.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
All-time Notre Dame men’s basketball winningest coaches
- Mike Brey | 2001-present | 481-269*
- Digger Phelps | 1972-91 | 393-197
- George Keogan | 1924-43 | 327-97
- John Jordan | 1952-64 | 199-131
- Johnny Dee | 1965-71 | 116-80
- John MacLeod | 1992-99 | 106-124 * Still active