When Notre Dame upset top-ranked Syracuse earlier this month, coach Mike Brey admits he still wasn't certain the Irish had enough firepower to overcome the season-ending injury star Tim Abromaitis suffered in late November.
Only after Notre Dame followed that performance up by winning at then-surging Seton Hall was Brey truly impressed.
"I told our guys before that game, 'A normal team would lose on Wednesday and everyone would give you a free pass,'" Brey said. "I said, 'If you're starting to show signs of maybe being special, that's one you get. Because you're not supposed to get that one.' I was really proud of them afterward. They really delivered there."
Notre Dame continued to make its coach proud on Sunday, winning 50-48 at Connecticut to improve to 6-3 in the Big East. That's quite an accomplishment for a team left for dead entering conference play after suffering non-league losses to Georgia, Maryland and Indiana among others.
Thanks to a stingy defense, a slow-paced but efficient offense and the development of first-time starters Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant and Jack Cooley, Notre Dame has emerged as the Big East's most pleasant surprise and a legitmate NCAA tournament hopeful. I spoke with Brey on Monday about how he explains his team's improvement, what role Abromaitis has played in the surge and whether he thinks this is his best coaching job.
JE: Considering how the team struggled after Abromaitis got hurt, are even you a little surprised to be 6-3 in the Big East?
MB: If you would have told me we'd eventually be 6-3 in the league in the locker room after the Gonzaga game (a 73-53 loss), I'd have fallen off the stool into the shower, believe me. I really got on the guys that day about their mental and physical toughness and told them, 'If Ben Hansbrough was in this locker room, he'd strangle all of you.' But it's what's so neat about our sport. It's a long season and teams have a chance to get better.
JE: When did you start to see signs of improvement from this group?
MB: For us, once we got to exam week in mid-December, we had obviously digested we don't have Abro. We also had a lot of other guys miss games for sickness, illness, or they were nicked up, but by then we finally had a nucleus that could practice together, play together and get reps. Even though we didn't play great against Indiana in the game coming off exams, we looked more like we'd been together a little bit. I think it's a great example of a group getting to play together and younger guys getting repititons, you get better. And then when you can get a few wins against Pittsburgh and Louisville, we started feeling like we had a shot.
JE: Your recent surge reminds me a bit of how well your team played two years ago after it lost Luke Harangody to injury. Do you see similarities there too?
MB: This current group could really relate to that since many of them were on the team. So I used that one right away two days after Abromaitis. I told them, 'We are so far off the radar because we've had our butts kicked and we don't have Abro. We are done in everybody's mind.' I said, 'That's a great climate to develop in because we have nothing to lose.' I want them to continue to play that way even though we've put some things in the bank right now.
JE: You guys have won by slowing down the tempo, scoring at the end of the shot clock and relying on your defense. Would you have done that no matter what this season, or did your plans change when Abromaitis went down?
MB: We were going to play quicker. We did last year, obviously, except at Pittsburgh when we used the "burn" the whole game. Last year's team could score and we just attacked all the time. We felt the same way with Abro, but like when 'Gody went down, which is when we first started using "burning" as our offensive philosophy, we thought for us to survive, we really have to control the tempo, not have as many possessions and become a good half-court team. What's really helped us is like two years ago when we had Ben (Hansbrough) and Tory Jackson who could come off a ball screen and make a play at the end of the shot clock, we have (Eric) Atkins and (Jerian) Grant who can do the same thing.
JE: Did having a pair of guards who can create off the dribble like that make you more confident you could succeed slowing down the tempo?
MB: Yes. We haven't had a pair of guards like this in the history of our program. The speed and quickness and ability to defend and get their hands on the ball. I was so excited when we got them. I didn't know we'd be turning the keys of the car over to them this soon. With Abro down, we turned it over to them at times before Christmas, but I did feel like two years ago we had two guys who could make plays at the end of the clock. So I felt confident we could run that clock down and we've gotten very confident in making plays with single digits on the clock. Our guys really believe in it and they've gotten very good at it.
JE: It seems like the development of Eric Atkins and Jack Cooley has been a huge key to your success this season. Did you expect them to improve like this?
MB: I really expected them to step forward because they came off the bench on a great team last year. They were a big part of 27 wins. I think Eric has found how to score and run the team. He's really got a feel for the balance of that. That was a work in progress in November and December. Jack was a role guy off the bench and did a great job the last two years, but I thought we could get more out of him starting. He's very underrated because he doesn't look smooth when he moves. His feet and hands around the basket are excellent and I don't think there's another player in the country who can put a chest on another physical post player the way he does. He has gotten very confident. At times he can't believe what he's doing, and I want him never to come down to earth.
JE: Has Tim been able to take a leadership role with this team even while he's not playing?
MB: Very much a leadership role. He has been big brother to a lot of young guys. He knows how to talk to a Pat Connaughton and a Alex Dragicevich who are playing his position. He knows when to grab Eric Atkins. There's things I don't even know he's done. And I check in with him every day in practice. He comes in from his rehab while the guys are getting loose and warming up, and I'll sit down with him and get a state of the union. We had a tough practice the other day and I came up to him and said, 'Anybody quit?' He was like, 'Nope, coach, they're all good.' So I said, 'OK, keep me posted.' So he's been great. I know it's tough on him, but he never shows any woe-is-me. He's just enjoying the run as best he can.
JE: Where is Tim in his process of deciding whether to apply for a sixth year at Notre Dame next season?
MB: I think in the next couple weeks, we need to talk about that. We put the paperwork in for Scott Martin to apply for a sixth year back in November, and that's running its course. We hope to have an answer before the end of the season. Tim's is a separate case. What I told him was, 'You need to get through your surgery, get into your rehab and let the smoke clear a little bit.' If he wants to come back, we certainly want to put in the paperwork for that and see how that goes. But I think it has to be his decision. He's been here five years and he has two degrees. Maybe we put him in law school.
JE: I know every coach has a different philosophy on this. Do you allow yourself to try to figure out how many wins you'll need to feel secure about making the NCAA tournament?
MB: I do. I've been in this league long enough that I try to figure out what would 9-9 do if it's the right 9-9? Right now, we've got a lot of right ones in that left column. I think 9-9 would certainly have us in the discussion, especially if you look at the strength of our repeat opponents. We have Connecticut twice, West Virginia twice and Rutgers twice. But my feeling is if we win 10 league games, I think we're a very strong candidate.
JE: It's probably hard to self-evaluate, but do you think this is one of your better coaching jobs since coming to Notre Dame?
MB: I'm having a lot of fun. One of the things I mentioned to our team when we came back from Louisville was we have the assistant coaches in the country. I really believe the rhythm that our staff has been in the last two seasons, I am so pleased with. We really have great teachers and this is a team that needs teaching. We said that especially when Abro went down. It's what I like to do, it's how I've been trained. So I'm enjoying the journey. I'm not fighting for my job. I'm just enjoying the challenge and journey with this group, and that probably helps me be a more confident teacher.
JE: Better be careful, or your going to lose an assistant coach talking like that.
MB: All three of them are ready to be head coaches, and I wouldn't be shocked if I lose one or two to a head coaching job this spring. I'm already thinking, 'How do I replace them?'