Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Breaking Down Mike Brey

Over the past month the Irish’s somewhat promising season has come undone thanks to crushing defeats at the hands of Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. John’s, and Louisville. The latest trio of losses has led the masses to grab their pitchforks and call for the head of head coach Mike Brey. Other people argue that it is unfair to hold the program to a higher standard than it’s currently attained because it is unrealistic to think any coach could do any better with the hand Brey has been dealt.

Over the course of ten years Mike Brey has done a lot for the Notre Dame Basketball Program while dealing with some pretty tough restrictions (academics) and sub-standard facilities. Is it time for a change? There’s been a lot of literature out there recently about why Brey is the right fit or at least why he shouldn’t be let go (here’s an article by Lou Somogyi from BGI, one from Mike Coffey from ND Nation, and an entire state of the program from Kevin O’Neill) so I’ll try to present the educated counterpoint.

Brey has an impressive overall record and a rock solid record in the toughest conference in America, but eventually there comes a point when numbers don’t tell the entire story and you can see with your own eyes that a ceiling has been reached. Need an example from another sport? Call up some Philadelphia Eagles fans and get their take on the yearly Donovan McNabb-Andy Reid experience. Brey’s dismissal would have less to do with his body of work and more to do with his basic philosophies and the trends and attitudes that have been entrenched within the program over the course of his tenure.

We can start with the fact that inadequate attention is given to the simple fundamentals of basketball. I vividly remember Brey talking about the loss of Rob Kurz and what it meant to the team during the ’08-’09 campaign. He said, “Rob did all the little things like screening and we really miss that.” Now Rob Kurz was a great and underrated contributor who was greatly missed last year, but you’re telling me that when he left our ability to set screens left as well? Luke Harangody is 6-7, 250lbs. Tell me why he couldn’t square up, lay his body into someone, and spring one of the bombers we had last year for an open three?

Setting screens has nothing to do with talent; it has to do with focus and attention to detail. I realize that the players on the court shoulder some of the blame for not executing, but Brey has a responsibility to call out and hold players who can’t perform simple tasks like setting an effective pick accountable. Watching Zeller and Harangody set lazy, half-hearted screens last year as Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers—guys who made open threes far more often than they missed them—tried to get free last year in half-court sets with limited success made me want to jam my head through a wall.

Attention to detail is an attitude that starts from the top and trickles down and it’s something Mike Brey simply lacks. It manifests itself on the boards as well. Countless times over the past couple years we have allowed offensive rebounds at the most inopportune time. Almost every week of the season it seems an Irish player appears on the wrong side of highlight reel putback dunk. Many times it’s not because we’re outmatched athletically, we just completely fail to turn and box a man out. Just a few weeks ago Rutgers essentially locked up a victory by tipping out a missed free throw in the last two minutes that sucked all the air out of the Irish balloon. That’s the definition of lacking focus.

Another more glaring shortcoming of Brey-coached teams is defense. There is absolutely no excuse for how terrible our defense is year in and year out. No, we do not have the elite athletes of other teams in the conference and we can’t expect to have a smothering Pitino-like press in the Big East. Does that mean there’s any defensible reason to be ranked toward the bottom of the entire NCAA in defensive efficiency every season? Absolutely not.

Brey has gone on record stating that he’s willing to sacrifice defense to maintain rhythm and flow on the offensive side of the ball. This is a guy who learned under the greatest high school coach ever (Morgan Wooten) and one of the greatest college coaches ever (Mike Krzyzewski). Both are icons in the sport that must cringe every time they hear their old assistant utter his philosophy. It blows my mind that in spite of learning at the foot of these legends and seeing how they operate and approach the game, Brey still takes on an indifferent and borderline dismissive attitude about defense.

One excuse that’s trotted out on behalf of shortcomings on the defensive end is the lack of athletes to employ an effective man-to-man all game long. Defense is not as much about having athletes as it is about effort and attitude. Those that tell you otherwise are wrong. Period. He’s right, we can’t lock down the upper level teams by playing man-to-man all day but that’s no reason to wave a white flag. Why not seek to neutralize the disadvantage we face through alternatives?

The Naval Academy doesn’t line up in traditional sets in football and hope to beat the Notre Dames of the world. They implement a disciplined offense designed to confuse their more talented opponents, shorten the game, and level the playing field as much as possible. Do they win all the time? Absolutely not (please use restraint on your Charlie Weis cracks), but sometimes they find a way (you may now unload on Charlie). The talent gap between Navy football and ND football is far greater than ND basketball and the rest of the Big East.

What about committing to a 2-3 Matchup Zone? It’s something that nobody—to my knowledge—in the Big East currently employs at least on a consistent basis. It could be a wrinkle to disguise our weaknesses and confuse offenses. Temple almost exclusively used the Matchup under John Chaney and had a great deal of success with it throughout the 90’s. Is it a slam dunk to work? No. Could it be worse than the current state of our defense? No. The unwillingness to address the problem over the course of his ten years is unacceptable. The ceiling for teams that can’t buckle down and make stops at crucial points in the game is very low—it doesn’t matter how vaunted their offense is.

Speaking of that explosive offense, let’s dissect that a bit. Much to Brey’s credit his teams are normally chock full of offensive firepower. When things are clicking it is a thing of beauty to watch and the Irish are capable of scoring in bunches that few teams can match. However, inevitably there are times in games where things don’t run like clockwork. Brey’s offensive philosophy is free-flowing, but when it stalls we never seem to have anything to fall back on. This becomes particularly evident down the stretch when games grind to a slower, half-court affair.

At the end of games instead of drawing up a play it seems Brey puts the clipboard down and says “go out there and create.” Most of the time it leads to the Irish coming out in a 1-4 set where the point guard (whether it be Tory Jackson or Chris Thomas or Chris Quinn) tries to take his man off the dribble. The last time I remember this working was when Chris Thomas hit a shot to beat St. John’s at the buzzer during the ’04-’05 season. We’re not built for a slow, half-court game but a coach has to realize that in each contest there will come a point where an offensive set is necessary. Part of being a great coach in any sport on any level is the ability to make adjustments. Even on the offensive side of the ball—where Brey’s teams clearly excel—the necessary adaptability to be anything more than a fringe team is lacking.

There are also a wide variety of personnel decisions he makes on a yearly basis that are just maddening. Almost every year he decides to go with only a six or seven deep rotation. This allegedly helps the offense maintain its flow but usually at the expense of running out of gas down the stretch of the season. Take this year for example. I don’t think anyone can provide a legitimate reason that Joey Brooks, Jack Cooley, and Carleton Scott couldn’t have played a bigger role earlier in the season. At the same time no one can convince me that Jonathan Peoples should have been anything more than the tenth man on this year’s squad.

Brey almost seems to slow-play guys so that they can emerge unexpectedly as juniors instead of giving them 8 to 12 hard, intense minutes a game early in their careers to give the starters a blow while giving them valuable experience. We’ve already established we don’t have the caliber of athlete that Syracuse and UConn have so why wouldn’t we counteract that by maximizing the talent we actually do have on the roster? Carleton Scott is the best athlete on the team and instantly upgrades our defense the moment he steps on the court. Was his attitude that bad in the first two months of the season that he couldn’t have gone out and contributed the way he has been the past couple games? Why couldn’t Jack Cooley have been put in for a few minutes per game to bang around inside? He’s actually an upgrade over Harangody on the defensive end. No one is calling for these guys to play 25-30 minutes a game; it just seems to be a waste when they rot on the bench as we slip farther and farther toward the wrong side of the bubble.

To me the most damning evidence against Brey is not what we have seen on the court, it’s what we’ve heard from his mouth. Last December when his team was ranked in the top 15 he stated that he would be content with a 9-9 league record. From this Chicago Tribune article he stated, "Where do I sign on Dec. 26? I don't want to sell us short, but I've been through the cycle of the league nine years now. You thrive when you can, then when rotate up into that (difficult schedule), can you survive?"

When I read that I realized Mike Brey probably had run his course at Notre Dame. Odds are high that we’ll never surpass this plateau under the current regime—middle of the road Big East team that lives on the bubble every season—because the guy leading the ship isn’t striving to push the program to new heights. He’s content with this state of affairs and armed with a Bob Davie-like laundry list of excuses to defend his teams’ shortcomings.

Last year—when he had his best team in his ten years at Notre Dame, a preseason top ten outfit—it was the schedule that was to blame. Then he went on record stating that the heightened expectations were unrealistic in the first place. Was our team a bit overrated in the preseason when we found ourselves in the top ten last year? Yes, it was. But we had the best player in the Big East, a veteran squad, and a high octane offense that completed a 14-4 regular season the previous year. It’s crazy to think we shouldn’t have been a top 25 team and it’s even more incredulous to suggest that we should have been even flirting with being on the bubble. Brey set the bar so low that the Irish tripped over it and that is nothing short of unacceptable.

The reality is that for better or worse Mike Brey will not be fired after this season. He’s only two years removed from being dubbed Big East Coach of the Year and replacing him would unleash a media firestorm. In all honesty, I believe that next year this team is poised to have a season much like ’06-’07 when expectations were low and they emerged as a surprise top 25 team by the end of the season. People are going to overestimate how much the loss of Harangody will set ND back, I absolutely love the core of Abromaitis-Hansbrough-Martin-Nash-Scott-Brooks, and we’re going to fall into an easier schedule rotation than the last two years. Another successful year and another NCAA berth will silence the critics for a little longer, but it’s more than likely that they’ll reappear in a few seasons as we fall into the same pattern we’ve developed over the last decade.

If the hammer does eventually fall a huge question arises: who will Notre Dame turn toward? That’s far and away the toughest piece of this puzzle. Common sense says you don’t cut loose a good coach unless you have someone lined up that you think is better. Notre Dame is not a job that would attract any top level coach—those that throw out names like Gary Williams and Tom Izzo aren’t even remotely in touch with reality. More than likely we would end up having to roll the dice with a somewhat unproven commodity and hope it pans out.

There isn’t anyone out there that jumps out right now, but I’d keep a close eye on Billy Taylor over the next three years should Brey’s teams continue to fall short. He’s a former ND basketball player that took Lehigh to the NCAA tournament—which is like taking the Kansas City Royals to the World Series—and is currently turning around a Ball State program that was in the toilet thanks to Ronny Thompson.

I like Mike Brey a lot. I had the opportunity to meet him a few times in my time at ND and the guy is just so likeable and such a class act that you just want him to succeed in the worst way. I want him to be here another ten years, to take Notre Dame to the next level—which to me is the level of Villanova on Tier 1.5 in the Big East. It’s just disheartening how obvious it is that he doesn’t have ambitions of taking this program higher.

If you need further proof read this article from yesterday written by Teddy Greenstein. Brey defends himself by pointing to the failures the program endured before he arrived over ten years ago. Looking into the somewhat distant past instead of taking on any sort of accountability for recent shortcomings tells me he’s happy with where Notre Dame Basketball is today and doesn’t understand why others wouldn’t be as well.

Mike Brey helped resuscitate a dormant program and made it relevant on a national scene for the first time in a long time. He deserves plenty of credit for doing so. But this is not a situation where Brey has become a victim of his own success—it’s a matter of him becoming too comfortable with the status quo and not striving hard enough to take the next step...or worse yet, shying away from that next step.

He wants to experience success, but it's an equal priority to try to keep his team under the radar. You can't have it both ways. In order to take the leap you have to embrace the pressure and expectations that come with it, not run away from them. I'm not convinced he has the necessary attitude and approach to take on that transformation.

If his ultimate goal when he arrived was to make the Irish relevant he’s achieved his objective. If he has no greater aspirations then it’s time to find someone who will aim to take the program higher.


  1. Very well done and dead on.

  2. Last year was not Brey's best team at ND. That would have been the team from the year before. And that wasn't a huge shock to anyone who was paying attention going into the season; we were always relying on a wing and a prayer to replace Kurz, and that went about as poorly as might have been expected.

  3. Amen and bravo. You nailed it. Love the "slow-play" description of Brey's roster foibles.

    I've argued the same point...and he's done it consistently throughout his tenure. It's maddening.

    I think you can add to your list of grievances with Brey's scheduling philosophy. His non-conference slate is a joke that has more often hindered our NCAA chances.

    Defending yourself for being a consistent NCAA bubble team is misguided logic. What "bubble" team ever made a convincing run in the tournament? Shouldn't the goal of every coach be to win a championship? It's sad to see a coach accept mediocrity.

  4. I remember he came to talk at our dorm one time my freshman year and he said that you can never expect to win on the road in the Big East, even against teams like Rutgers, Depaul, and South Florida. It's so frustrating to hear him make excuses for losing and never holding himself or his players accountable.

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