Brey Day: Notre Dame’s coach makes first Elite Eight after a vintage performance against Wichita State

Head coach Mike Brey of Notre Dame will go on to the Elite Eight after the Fighting Irish beat Wichita State 81-70.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

By Matt Zemek

Did you know that Mike Brey has been coaching at Notre Dame since Y2K?

Yes, since the year 2000, the Coach K protege has led the Fighting Irish from the bench. That’s a long time for any coach, and it’s a long time to go without an Elite Eight appearance.

Forget Elite Eights for a moment, though — Notre Dame will finally get to play a regional final under Mike Brey on Saturday in Cleveland. A bigger part of the pre-game backdrop to Thursday’s Midwest Regional semifinal against Wichita State was that Notre Dame was making just its second Sweet 16 appearance under Brey and its first since 2003. In that West Regional semifinal 12 years ago in Anaheim, Notre Dame was easily swatted away by Arizona. That loss mirrored a lot of Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament exits during the Brey era: A team with more imposing athleticism found a rhythm and ushered the Irish off the stage.

Look through the whole of the NCAA tournament during Brey’s tenure. Brey struggled to find answers against talented opponents — that’s part of it. However, the Irish also went up against teams who had the capability to boss them around and did so. As a 2 seed in 2011, Notre Dame was absolutely demolished by 10th-seeded Florida State in the round of 32. In 2008, Notre Dame — as a 5 seed — lost a 5-versus-4 second-rounder by 20 to Washington State. As a 7 seed in 2013, Notre Dame lost by 18 to another 10 seed, Iowa State, in the round of 64. Notre Dame didn’t just lose; it often lost big. The Irish would achieve richly in the regular season but encounter nightmarish match-ups in March — it’s a dynamic akin to what Georgetown has also faced in this tournament over time.

Let’s add this note about Notre Dame in a larger historical context: Famed head coach Digger Phelps made his only Final Four in South Bend in 1978. He made the Elite Eight in 1979.

Notre Dame — regardless of coach — had not made the Elite Eight since then. It wasn’t just Brey, and it wasn’t just an issue of coaching. Lots of factors came together (beginning with Danny Ainge coast-to-coast in Atlanta’s Omni in the 1981 Sweet 16) which kept Notre Dame from the Elite Eight.

Thursday against Wichita State, the Irish displayed the very balance Wichita State brought to the table on Sunday in the Shockers’ win over Kansas. With lightning-quick ball movement, Notre Dame made Wichita State’s normally sound defense look lost and confused for much of the evening — not just in the half-court, but in transition as well, even (occasionally) after makes. For once in the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame was the team dishing out a clinical and imposing performance, instead of being on the receiving end.

This might not be a surprise to anyone who saw Notre Dame cut through Duke and North Carolina in the ACC tournament, but before you say something to the effect of, “Well, everyone should have been able to see this masterpiece against Wichita State a mile away,” do realize that Notre Dame barely scraped by both Northeastern and Butler in the first two rounds. Butler had a chance to beat the Irish at the very end of regulation. If the Bulldogs had scored, the narrative would have been very familiar for the Fighting Irish in March. Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton was able to block a shot out of bounds in much the same way that Syracuse’s Hakim Warrick preserved Jim Boeheim’s only national title against Kansas in 2003.

Speaking of that Syracuse title in 2003, it certainly changed the way Boeheim is remembered as a coach (casting off-court issues to the side).

Making the Elite Eight at Notre Dame, and moreover, doing so in such an authoritative manner, will certainly change the way Mike Brey is viewed.

Notre Dame turned the page on Thursday night against Wichita State. It also turned the corner relative to the Elite Eight.

We’ll see what the Irish can do on Saturday, in their attempt to recall “The Spirit of ’78,” the last time they made the Final Four.

 

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