Senior momentum

Dan Wetzel

Day 2: Notre Dame | Traveling Violations

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – As a cold November rain fell outside his warm, comfortable office window, Mike Brey, the steam lifting off his morning coffee, looked up at three framed pictures of his senior class – Chris Thomas, Jordan Cornette and Greg Bosl – on the wall.

"That wall is pretty awesome," Brey said. "Knock on wood I'll be able to keep [hanging pictures]."

College basketball is in a state of flux as a result of its top players heading to the NBA the first chance they get, as well as the increasing number of top prospects who never arrive.

The idea of recruiting a talented player who will exhaust his four years of eligibility is quaint.

But Brey's Irish program is not just surviving in the current climate, but thriving. He has three seniors this year and may have four next year. In a couple weeks he will sign a bona fide top 20 recruiting class full of prep players who it can reasonably be said will stay their entire career here in Northwest Indiana.

Notre Dame has become a year-in, year-out Big East contender and continues to gain momentum as legitimate national program. Senior leadership is the catalyst. Where everyone else is bleeding talent, the Irish have a bunch of guys who actually stick around.

Part of the reason is, they aren't lottery material to begin with. Also, they are smart enough to understand this.

"For the most part we are going to recruit four-year guys," said Brey, who is 85-44 with three NCAA tournament appearances in his four seasons here. "We all have our own challenges, but the mission of our school helps with the kind of character we attract."

The prototype here is Thomas, the excellent point guard. A McDonald's All-American out of Indianapolis, he tested the NBA waters after his sophomore season but wisely chose to return to school. Then, after an injury-plagued junior season, he returned again, not with a chip on his shoulder but an eye on leading the program to new heights.

"[The seniors] have said 'We'd like to play on Saturday Night [the title game of the Big East Tournament]," Brey says. "They want to make a regional final. People say, 'How can you let them say that?'

"And I say, 'Hey, they are seniors. And I am going to make them back it up. Let them set the bar high and let's go after it.'"

Brey's coaching peers can only dream of talking about senior leadership, returning talent and self-motivated players. Instead, everyone is fretting about finding maturity, filling holes and getting recruits to actually show up as freshman.

That was almost an issue for Brey. He recruited Carmel, Ind. big man Josh McRoberts relentlessly before losing out to Duke. But barring injury, McRoberts will likely to go directly to the NBA, making him an empty signing for the Blue Devils.

Instead of dealing with that, Notre Dame last spring locked up four verbal commitments from the Class of 2005. The four – Luke Zeller of Indiana, Kyle McAlarney of New York, Ryan Ayers of Pennsylvania and Zach Hillesland of Ohio – all are very good, but not too good.

They were quickly dubbed the "Fab Four."

"I said fine, but let's focus on the 'four,' as in four-year guys," said Brey.

The downside to being coach of Notre Dame always has been the limited recruiting pool. There are only so many student-athletes who have the grades and the personality to thrive at the conservative, competitive Catholic school.

"People ask me, 'Did you see the kid at Hutchinson Junior College?" Brey says. "No. There is nothing wrong with him, but we can't recruit there. That's not our mission."

While that puts Notre Dame behind the eight ball versus better talent, the Irish are now in the coveted position of actually having their best players be upperclassmen.

"Notre Dame is a great fit for me," said Brey, who just signed a contract extension through 2011. "The kids [who are] interested in us, the mission of the place, it is all great. What you hope is this is a place you can wind your career down at."

Brey is about to field his best team at Notre Dame. His program has never been healthier. A steady rotation of future senior classes is set to take over the wall.

These are the good old days.

"We've got good momentum," he smiled.

Let the cold rain fall outside. Things are warm and comfortable right here.