The Notre Dame men’s basketball team was in 20-point hole in the first half of Saturday’s game at Villanova. Though far from the sharp group that had rattled off seven consecutive Big East Conference games, head coach Mike Brey’s team showed no signs of surrender. There were no sagging chins, no fingers pointed and no face-melting tirades near the bench from Brey.
It’s simply not Brey’s style, nor has it been in his 12 years guiding the Fighting Irish. He’s matured from his early days in the profession, he says, and typically the players he and the University attract are cerebral and coachable.
The operative word for Brey this season has been “loose.” After all, the Irish, picked ninth in the conference preseason poll, have nothing to lose. At 19-8 overall and 11-3 in league play, the new theme for the 23-rd ranked Irish, as Brey put it, is “fun.”
“I don’t know if I’ve had more fun with a group,” he said Monday. “That’s saying a lot after last year, because last year’s group was men and a little bit different feel because of how old they were. The students [this year] that they were, and that they let us teach back in November and December when we weren’t very good, was really a key.”
That’s why Brey, who said he had a motivational speech cued for weeks that he hadn’t needed to use, didn’t scorch the locker room at halftime in Philadelphia.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t one [that was] overly emotional,” he said. “It was just kind of confronting them on ... kind of looking around at the first half — it was kind of the first time I’ve seen us glide a little bit since we got this started. Quite frankly I expected it sooner. They reacted really well. By the end of it I was talking about a methodical comeback — four-minute segments.
“When we get it to five minutes in game situations, that’s when we’ve been great. It was kind of the tone you were ready to talk about; it just hadn’t really presented itself until the first half the other night.”
Notre Dame hammered away and ended up with a 74-70 victory in overtime for program-record-tying eighth consecutive league victory. And in a timeout in the extra period, it was obvious just how much Brey trusts the young pupils that have matured in a short amount of time, when he used to relay on veteran voices in senior-dominated lineups.
Atkins took over. Brey listened.
“I think that was the plan when we empowered him making him a captain right around Christmas,” Brey said. “We just felt with [Tim Abromaitis] down we kind of needed to bring this along as fast as possible. I think it was going to come naturally anyways, but I felt let’s make the endorsement now.
“Our huddles are group discussions many times. You know that scene in a movie where the teacher says, ‘Talk amongst yourselves.’ There’s a little bit of that. I really value their feedback. It gives me a little bit of a vibe listening sometimes to where we’re at and what we’re doing and what they talked about out on the court. Certainly I think Scott Martin is almost like an assistant coach at this point in his career. But Eric really has a great feel for our system, the guys he plays with; he’s really bright.”
It keeps Brey’s veins from popping out and his face from turning purple. It makes his job fun.
“I’m sure when I was a younger coach I was a little more excited and a little more anxious, but I think overall my demeanor has been to be poised on the sideline, even though inside you may be doing back flips,” Brey said. “When you’re guys look over, they don’t see a maniac. They see a calming influence.
“I’m going to be loose the rest of my career because I can be. I’m being loose the rest of the way. If I can’t be loose here I’ll go be loose somewhere else at this point in my career. I think it’s important for them to look over and see some poise and some calm and some control. I think you pick your spots when you show some energy. There’s no question that Eric Atkins’ calm and poise, and Scott Martin’s poise has gotten contagious with some other guys on the team.”