One (more) and done? This might be it for Notre Dame, which has to win or go home for good

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune
Mar 14, 2015; Greensboro, NC, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish players and including head coach Mike Brey (with net) celebrate after the game. The Fighting Irish defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels 90-82 in the championship game of the ACC Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Fitting that a certain head coach’s road likely ends here. 

Long considered the granddaddy of college postseasons, the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament has worked through an identity crisis of sorts of late. The tournament has moved down the interstate to Charlotte. For some reason, it’s also ventured to New York and called Barclays Center home for a week when it always, always, always will play a distant second to the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. 

The ACC tournament also has called home Atlanta (no) and Tampa (why?) and Washington (yes!) but always returns to its Greensboro roots. 

Sluggish Irish limp across Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season finish line

It’s fitting then that the last ACC tournament as head coach of Notre Dame for Mike Brey is this week at Greensboro Coliseum. A bus ride or two down Gate City Boulevard. Maybe a sneak-off trip to Stamey’s Barbecue across the street. Some sweet tea. A good cigar. It's the site of his greatest accomplishment over the 23 seasons as Irish head coach. 

Eight years ago this week in only its second season in the league, Notre Dame won the ACC tournament for the first and only time in program history. It dispatched Miami (Fla.) in the late Thursday quarterfinal. It took down dominant Duke in the second Friday night semifinal. It unleashed a scoring run for the ages (24-2, thank you) to roar back and beat North Carolina on Championship Saturday Night

Ol’ Roy still probably doesn’t know the sledgehammer that smacked him upside his head that night. 

Over there, on that far sideline, is where Brey embraced guard Jerian Grant after the Irish did what nobody thought they could ever do. Over at that basket is where Brey climbed the ladder in his suit and lucky green dress shirt and cut down the net, which he twirled once, twice, three times with his left hand in celebration. 

It’s where that annoying confetti fell across reporters’ laptops along press row as the Irish danced about and hugged one another and tugged on commemorative hats and T-shirts. There are many moments and many memories for Brey during his run at Notre Dame. None are better or more poignant than that March night in 2015. 

“The ultimate memory is that championship and that time in Greensboro,” Brey said. “I’ve thought about that, no question. To be back in that hotel (Sheraton Greensboro at Four Seasons) and back in that routine, that will be cool, to be there.” 

It wasn’t about beating the league bluebloods on consecutive nights to take Notre Dame to a place that it never had gone. It was about maxing out an opportunity with a once-in-a-lifetime group in a once-in-a-lifetime moment for Brey and the Irish. It was there. They seized it. All of it. 

Growing up in suburban Washington, Brey always made the ACC tournament appointment viewing. He knew what the tournament meant to basketball fans up and down the Eastern coastline. He knew all the teams. He knew all the players. He never pictured himself to be one of those coaches, until he was an ACC coach. Those three days in Greensboro mean a lot to him because of what he accomplished, and how he accomplished it. 

Do these Irish have even a little more magic?

Walking through the Sheraton lobby that week, you’d see Brey’s parents, Paul and Betty, heading to and from their son’s games. Less than a week to the day of that title game later, Betty Brey died of a heart attack, hours before her son would coach Notre Dame back to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 12 seasons. 

She didn’t get to see her son drive Notre Dame to the Elite Eight for the first of two trips in his career, but she saw Greensboro. Same for Brey’s father, who never attended another Irish game before he died nine months later. 

It meant everything to Brey that his parents witnessed what Notre Dame did here in 2015. That’s why this week, in this city, in that arena, means a little more to the 63-year-old Brey, who will coach his final game. Barring a run that nobody believes the Irish have in them, the end will come rather quickly. Expectedly. Finally. 

As the No. 14 seed, Notre Dame (11-20; 3-17 ACC) opens first-round play Tuesday against No. 11 Virginia Tech (18-13; 8-12), a team that has had the Irish number of late. Brey counseled his players and his staff and maybe even tried to convince himself to pack for an extended stay this week, but that might be more wishful thinking. This tournament, like almost every other tournament every other year, is said to be wide open. Anyone’s to win. Maybe one of the top four teams to receive a double bye. Maybe Duke, which is playing as well as anyone. Maybe somebody nobody sees coming. 

But not Notre Dame. To pull it off, the Irish would have to win five games in five days. No team has ever won five ACC tournament games in five days. This Irish outfit would be the least likely to do it since the Irish haven’t won five straight since opening the season. Their next win away from home would be their first. They’re 0-11 there. They’re not going to find some quick fix to get to 5-11. 

This team doesn’t have two straight wins in it, let alone three more. 

Still, you’ve got to admire these guys for their moxie at 3-17 in the league. Last week back in South Bend, guard Cormac Ryan insisted that if he were any of the other 14 league teams, he certainly wouldn’t want to see Notre Dame on the other side of the bracket. The Irish are that dangerous. 

Why not Notre Dame? 

Why now show something they haven’t shown all season? Why would the care factor be any more heightened this week than the previous three months? No, sometime soon — maybe Wednesday but probably Tuesday — Brey will stand in front of his bench or sit amongst his staff and watch the final seconds tick off the Coliseum clock. He may gaze into the arena’s upper deck and see his Irish coaching tenure flash before his eyes. All those games. All those players. All those moments on the practice floor and on the bus, in the locker room and the meeting room. 

The horn will sound, the handshakes will be offered to the other team, and then it will be time to go. Time to leave this all behind after two-plus decades. Time to step away and step into the next phase of life. 

Maybe he coaches another team to a conference tournament championship one day. Maybe he never coaches. Regardless of where the game takes him after this week, Mike Brey will have Greensboro 2015 when Notre Dame stood as ACC kings. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.