Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Revisiting "Breaking Down Mike Brey"

A year ago last week I posted a column titled “Breaking Down Mike Brey.” The Irish were fresh off a trio of heartbreaking losses at the hands of Seton Hall, St. John’s, and Louisville and seemed to be spiraling to another NIT berth. The point of the article was to articulate frustrations with the program and suggest that perhaps the time had come to go in a new direction.

How did Brey and his boys respond over the past year? They unveiled the Burn Offense and promptly reeled off a six-game win streak to go from miles outside the bubble to a #6 seed in last year’s tournament. They’ve been riding that wave of momentum to the tune of a 20-5 record this season, meaning they’ve won 27 of their last 34—including 7 out of 10 against ranked opponents.

Brey has outcoached the likes of Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Bo Ryan, and Jamie Dixon (actually, to say he outcoached Dixon is an understatement—he’s made Jamie his whipping boy three times in ten months). Here we are on the doorstep of March Madness and Brey finds his squad planted firmly in the top ten in both polls.

Accompanying this abrupt turnaround is a slew of questions. Has Mike Brey changed his philosophy since that piece was written? Was the article just flat-out wrong? Did something click with Coach Brey and the result is this new, improved Notre Dame basketball program ready to make “the leap” to the next level? Or is the recent success just a fluke and the Irish will inevitably slip back to flirting with the bubble throughout the season?

I think a good way to try to figure that out would be to dissect last year’s article piece by piece. Last year’s article will be in bold, this year’s reactions will be in normal font and within parentheses. Grab your scalpels and buckle up.

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.

(My pitchfork was so sharp, forged with anger over those losses to the trio of NYC metro teams.)

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.

(All were well-articulated arguments, I just think there were too many excuses offered that concentrated on macro issues. Most of Brey’s flaws are fixable because they’re on a micro scale—using the macro arguments like lack of facilities to excuse not caring about defense makes no sense. It’s very Bob Davie-ish.


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.

(I think the Reid-Brey parallel is very apt. Eagles fans are reluctantly nodding as they inadvertently wince.)

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?

(We’re still not very good at springing out shooters off of screens. There have been times when Atkins is running the point and Ben is playing off the ball where we have serious issues getting Ben the rock in a scoring position. We rely a lot on penetrating and kicking to create jump shot opportunities as opposed to running our shooters off picks which means Ben needs to have the ball in his hands at the start of every meaningful possession.)

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.

(Jack Cooley sets a mean screen. How? He stands still and doesn’t roll to the hoop or circle cut to the wing—damnit Zeller—before he’s done setting the pick. To be fair, two of our three best shooters—Carleton Scott and Tim Abromaitis—are spot shooters and not in the McAlarney-Falls-Carroll mold that was comfortable quickly firing a shot after rubbing off a screen. And no one is in the mold of kicking a defender and somehow drawing a four-point play like Falls.)

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.

(This is an area where this team has gotten a lot better. Notre Dame is actually outrebounding opponents by 4.8 boards per game and as of a week ago was one of the top five teams in the Big East in rebounding margin.)

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.

(This is far and away the best defensive squad in Brey’s tenure. They’ve allowed 80 points just one time this season and won that game in double overtime. The Irish gave up 80 points an average of 7+ times per year from 2005-2010.)

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.

(Has Brey changed his tune and realized that playing solid defense is possible and necessary? I’m not ready to completely buy that yet because I think it’s the relentless attitude and demeanor of Ben Hansbrough that has rubbed off on the entire team.

Ben doesn’t have an off-switch. Whether he’s on offense or defense he’s going full-throttle and he’s almost single-handedly raised every player on a veteran team to a higher level of effort on the defensive side of the ball.

While the improved defense may not be a direct result of Brey changing his philosophy, my hope for the future (post-Hansbrough) is that Ben has made Brey realize playing solid defense is absolutely possible despite the fact ND is usually outmanned athletically. It’s all about effort and will.)

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?

(Little did we know the best alternative defense would be an alternative offense.)

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.

(Brey’s development and implementation of “The Burn Offense” has been absolutely masterful and forced me to reassess the program's ceiling under his leadership.The Burn levels the playing field by shortening the game and plays to our strengths.

Brey’s teams are routinely one of the most efficient offensive units in the country in terms of points per possession. By limiting the opponent’s opportunities and possessions it’s giving us an edge against teams that have clear athletic and talent advantages. Watching a clearly superior Pitt team get completely frazzled and flustered by The Burn not once, not twice, but THREE times has been a thing of beauty. At the same time, the slower pace also allows the luxury of putting forth more effort and energy on defense, something that’s completely necessary if a team wants to take “the next step” toward being elite.)

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.

(The matchup zone isn’t even necessary, though I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing it implemented in stretches and eventually just replacing the normal 2-3 zone. I’ve always been a big Matchup guy and of the opinion that the traditional 2-3 is a lazy defense unless Jim Boeheim is coaching it.)

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.

(Our problems this year have been based on the fact that we haven’t made shots, not necessarily that the half-court offense has come to a screeching halt. Hansbrough has done a great job making the offense go especially when they’ve used The Burn and getting a shot off in a time-crunched half-court set is a necessity.)

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.

(The Burn has completely dispelled the notion that we’re unable to play a slow, half-court game. This is a very smart team that moves the ball very well in any situation.)

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.

(Not a whole lot to complain about this year in terms of personnel. Sure, people cry that there isn’t enough depth but the reality is that there aren’t more than eight people on this team that could make any sort of contribution this season. I don’t see anyone rotting on the bench that should be playing minutes like Carleton Scott and Jack Cooley last season. Jerian Grant probably could’ve made a small impact but he’s redshirting so that’s a moot point.

Brey always says depth is overrated and he’s not necessarily wrong—John Wooden’s rotation was only seven deep and that worked out ok—but I also think you have to maximize all the talent on your roster each especially in such a tough conference. That doesn’t apply to this season though.)

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.

(This has always driven me nuts but once again, this doesn’t apply to this season. Judging by recent comments about how players need to buy into sitting for a few seasons I doubt it’ll change. This isn’t something that will cripple or doom Brey if he doesn’t alter his philosophy so I try not to get too hung up on it.)

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?"

(You want to talk about a 180? How about the fact that he’s publicly stating that the team is gunning for the Big East regular season title and a spot in the Chicago pod in the NCAA’s? I just about fell out of my chair when I read this article by Andy Katz; I was absolutely thrilled.

Could it be that he feels everything has lined up and it’s time for Notre Dame to take the leap? Is the fact that ND has a savvy, veteran team in a year where every major contender has major flaws enough to make him think something special could be on the horizon?

I have no idea, but I love the change in attitude. In my eyes his unwillingness to take on the challenge of taking “the next step” was far and away his most glaring flaw. This season has a completely different tune than the ’08-’09 campaign where it seemed like his main objective was to limit expectations. Ty Nash said after the UConn victory that they “expect to win every game.” They carry themselves like that proclamation isn’t empty and that’s truly a breath of fresh air.)

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.

(Brey seems to be pushing. Let’s see if it drives the program to new heights.

Also, Bob Davie would call a timeout here to offer a rebuttal but he used all three of them in the first three paragraphs so he has none remaining.)

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.

(2008-2009 was a colossal disappointment and inexcusable, but the last twelve months have successfully shifted me back to the Brey Camp albeit somewhat cautious/hesistantly.)

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.

(All predictions for 2010-2011 were pretty spot-on. Here’s hoping the reappearance of the old pattern prediction is wrong.)

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.

(Not worth talking about. Swarbrick is squarely in his corner.)

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.

(Billy’s doing a nice job turning around Ball State but the job opening at ND won’t be available for a long time.)

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.

(Still like Brey. Still want him to succeed. I desperately want this year to be the first building block to becoming a better program but I’m certainly not ready to declare, “he’s figured it out and ND basketball is on the verge of breaking into the top tier of the Big East.”)

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.

(Brey says what he really thinks too much some times if that makes sense. Sometimes silence is golden. He was really defensive in that Greenstein article because at that point he was feeling some legitimate heat probably for the first time in his career in South Bend.)

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.

(A big part of me thinks Swarbrick’s support has made Brey feel much more at ease about heightening expectations. At least I hope that’s the case.)

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.

(Don’t worry, we’re almost done…Don't you feel like you should get a t-shirt or something for successfully reading this entire column?)

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.

(Irish fans will know a lot more about whether Brey has truly changed when Hansbrough graduates this spring. Will there be a continued commitment to defense? Will the team maintain the swagger and confidence they seem to absorb from Ben? Will Swarbrick’s support and supreme vote of confidence make Brey comfortable enough to make a conscious decision to aim higher?

Brey’s personality and style is perfect for Notre Dame. If the tweaks he’s implemented this season stick and recruiting continues on the upward trend it appears to be on then perhaps the program is taking a step forward after spending the last seven season in neutral.)

Of course, we’ll worry about whether changes stick next season. In the present we’re witnessing an Irish squad with the highest ceiling since Digger roamed the sidelines.

Here’s your opportunity to move the program forward and win over a huge chunk of the Irish Nation, Mike. A run to the Sweet 16—or beyond—will do that.

Make it happen. We’re pulling for you.


  1. Fantastic post, great analysis.

    While I think I'm much higher on Brey than you appear on an emotional scale, I find it hard to argue with any of the specifics you use to support your conclusions. You've let a little of the air out of my high-on-ND-basketball emotional balloon, but I'll be plenty inflated again tonight against Providence.

    The biggest takeaway from this, for me, and something I hadn't thought about before, is whether Ben is making Brey look great or vice-versa. It's probably somewhere in the middle, and I hope they can both keep what they've got after Ben graduates this year.

  2. I'll be inflated too my man. I try to be as objective as possible when analyzing things, but come tip-off I'm neck deep in green Kool-Aid.

  3. I couldn't agree more with your thoughts, both then and now. I am indeed fearful that the defensive intensity may leave with Ben.

    Brey is the epitome of a player's coach. His comments over the years seem to imply an ingrained belief that the players are who they are and must determine the identity of a team by playing the way they're most comfortable. "Chris Thomas wants to do whatever the hell he feels like doing on any given possession -- have a ball kid. Harangody wants to use the '10 season as a long try-out for the NBA instead of doing what's best for the team -- go for it. Zeller wants to pretend he's a 6'4" perimeter player -- who am I to tell him otherwise?"

    He's always talking about rhythm, chemistry, confidence and it's almost like he would worry making guys play harder defense than they'd like to would screw with their chi or something. He's basically a hippie with a receding hairline and a mock turtleneck.

    I hope all that doesn't sound too negative cuz Brey's done a hell of a job with some of his teams and deserves a ton of credit for the success he's had. His post-CT teams play truly selfish and frequently beautiful basketball. I really like the guy as well and I do think he's growing.

    He's just a little dense and slow on the uptake. I was pleasantly shocked by the proactive implementation of the burn to compensate for the loss of Harangody. But then the burn burns them by enabling an inferior opponent that thrives in a half-court game to defeat them in the first round of the tournament. It was clear to everybody by half-time that they could've run the floor and scored 85 on that team, but Brey didn't figure it out 'til he had a night to sleep off the loss. "Ohh, you mean we can play differently against different opponents? Total mind-freak."

    So now he takes this epiphany into this season and it's been great. Like you, I'm hoping that watching his team hustle on defense and on the boards all season long will result in a similar hit-him-in-the-face type of realization. We'll see.

    Even if the success so far this season proves to be a fluke, I am of the opinion that we at least wait until they've built a practice facility to replace The Pit before we talk about his seat getting hot. Not that it's an excuse to mismanage currently present talent, but because it would widen the list of capable replacement candidates. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. And I don't really think it will, but I'm ready to rule it out just yet.

    When do I get my t-shirt?

  4. nice post. i enjoyed looking back on your thoughts of a year ago and seeing how they correlate to this year (or don't).

    I agree that only time will tell when it comes to identifying the true source of the changes this year. Intellectually I really want it be simply that Brey has learned on the job ten years into it and we will see better d being played next year. However a part of me feels that, having played with someone very similar in intensity and style to him in high school, Hansborough has a hell of a lot to do with the increased success. Then again, maybe Hansborough has had an impact on not just his teammates, but also his head coach.

  5. one more thing, i wear an XL.

  6. * truly selfless basketball
    ** not ready to rule it out just yet

  7. Big props to you guys for finishing the entire article and great comments as well. I really enjoyed the feedback, it's all spot on.

    Let's hope that Ben's impact has long-term effects on Brey and the program in general. In the meantime, let's go take care of The Hall tomorrow shall we?