Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball has always been, and likely always will be, second fiddle to the football program. There’s no arguing that, and I think it’s safe to say that that hierarchy extends not just to the resources and leeway that football gets more of when compared to hoops, but also to how fans follow and feel about both programs.
ND is looking for a new head basketball coach right now, but you’ll find more online discussion and reporting and speculation and message-board-meltdown-ing about the recent offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, and special teams coordinator job openings than you’ll find about whom Jack Swarbrick may have already started back-channeling with as the NCAA men’s hoops season ventures into March Madness.
It’s a really tough job in a sport that’s difficult to navigate for even some of the traditional, blue-blood power programs with unlimited resources and fewer academic restrictions, let alone Notre Dame, where that is decidedly not the case. In a sport where kids only need to stay for a year before being allowed to pursue professional aspirations, it’s really hard to convince top-flight talent to spend that one year attending a school like ND in South Bend, Indiana when they could go with a number of other options that come with being the kings of campus in a better geographical location at a program with the resources and talent to compete for a national championship way more regularly.
So, to find success in a job like that, someone really needs to be a special coach and approach running that program differently. Lots of talent development, lots of identifying diamonds in the rough in recruiting, and plenty of unique/innovative strategies and systems are necessary. That’s a tough combination of things to do well and to sustain for a long time.
So, even though his long, fantastic tenure as ND basketball coach ended with a whimper here in this 2022-2023 season that saw the Irish go 11-21 overall, 3-17 in ACC play, and one-and-done in the ACC Tournament, what Michael Paul Brey accomplished in his 23 seasons at the helm has been absolutely awesome, and there’s a pretty solid argument he’s the greatest ND men’s basketball coach in at least the modern era. It’s him or Digger, and there’s an argument for Brey for sure.
As someone who grew up in Indianapolis and has always loved the sport of basketball most of all, I’ve personally felt more attached to the Notre Dame basketball program than the football program in my almost 32 years of life. If you know me and my obsession with the Irish football program, that speaks volumes as to how much this hoops team has meant to me over the years.
So, considering Mike Brey is really the only ND men’s basketball coach I have any real memory of watching, his retirement from the program is really going to be an end to the only Irish hoops program I’ve really ever known. As hopeful and happy as I am that this program is going to get a well overdue refresh, a part of me is dying with Mikey B stepping down after his loss on Tuesday to Virginia Tech.
I think it’s only right and just, then, that instead of sitting here decrying Brey’s final 4-5 seasons as super disappointing and aimlessly speculating on which coaching candidates may be tasked with a complete rebuild of a basketball program at a football school, let’s take a moment to just bask in the awesome memories of one of the most likable coaches and best representatives of our favorite university that any of us have ever seen.
There were some fantastic teams and players, exhilarating games, unexpectedly successful seasons, and just beautiful moments since Brey took the job back in 2000, and I’m going to wax poetic about them for the next few thousand words — along with plenty of fun videos to relive those memories — so that we can all say goodbye properly to an absolute legend of a man.
I’m not going to rank the moments and I certainly won’t be able to cover everything (and details may be vague/fuzzy for the beginning of his tenure, because I was like 9-15 years old, you guys), so I encourage you all to sound off in the comments about your favorite memories from Mike Brey’s time as head coach — let’s just have a nice time reminiscing and wait until tomorrow to worry about the future.
Holding Onto Chris Thomas and Season #1’s Surprising Success
After the end of the John MacLeod era at Notre Dame, the Irish hired a bright, up-and-coming assistant from Kansas by the name of Matt Doherty. Doherty was known as a fantastic recruiter for the Jayhawks, and immediately made an impact on the trail, reeling in Indianapolis point guard Chris Thomas, who was a McDonald’s All-American and about as 5-star of a signee as the Irish have landed in the last 30+ years.
During Thomas’s high school junior season, Doherty led the Irish to a 22-15 record and an NIT runner-up finish in his first year. Not great, but definitely a good sign after the doldrums of the MacLeod era, and considering the recruiting lift he had already driven, there was a buzz about the program for the first time in a while.
Such a buzz, in fact, that Doherty’s alma mater, UNC, came calling when Bill Guthridge stepped down from the head coaching job and Roy Williams — the Kansas coach, Doherty’s former boss, and UNC’s top choice to replace Guthridge — decided to remain at Kansas. Doherty accepted the job, leading to the Irish hiring Brey away from Delaware, and thus Brey now had the task of convincing a point guard with offers from Duke, Michigan State, Stanford, Indiana, and many others (including now potentially UNC with Doherty heading there) to stick with the Irish.
Brey’s charm and ability to build trusting, close relationships with his players was put on display for the first time, as he managed to convince both Thomas and another committed player, Jordan Cornette (would eventually become the all-time blocked shots leader in ND history) to stick with the Irish.
Thomas and his potentially program-changing talent wouldn’t be arriving until the summer of 2001, though, and so Brey first had the task of taking over an NIT team that didn’t lack for talent (reigning Big East Player of the Year and All-American Troy Murphy, uber-talented transfer big man Ryan Humphrey, future NBA guard Matt Carroll) and trying to drive them forward to being a tourney team.
He did way more than that, leading that first group not only to its first NCAA Tournament berth and first tourney victory in over a decade, but also winning the Big East West Division title outright in the regular season with a 20-10 (11-5 Big East) record. Murphy won Big East Player of the Year again (sharing the honor with Troy Bell of Boston College), and joined Chris Mullin, Patrick Ewing, and Richard Hamilton as the only two-time winners of the award.
Chris Thomas’s Debut in 2001
The hype around Chris Thomas was indeed huge leading up to his freshman season, considering his status as a McDonald’s All-American, having won Indiana Mr. Basketball and 2 state titles in such a basketball-crazed state, etc. This was simply a type of athlete and player the Irish hadn’t been able to get in the decade-plus since the Digger era, and with Murphy leaving for the NBA after his junior year, Irish fans were putting a lot of hope in Thomas being able to come in and immediately be a star alongside Humphrey and Carroll on the 2001-2002 team.
His first game was against New Hampshire, no doubt an early-season tune-up game to shake the rust off for a power-5 team coming off an NCAA Tourney appearance, but no matter the opponent, you never truly know how good a true freshman will look in their first contest against college competition.
Thomas didn’t just look good in his debut for the Irish, though. He looked MAGNIFICENT. The true frosh point guard scored 24 points, dished out 11 assists, and pilfered New Hampshire for 11 steals, recording the only triple-double in Notre Dame men’s basketball HISTORY in his very first game.
Thomas would go on to have a fantastic career that could have been even more incredible if not hampered by injuries in his upperclassman seasons, as he finished his 4 years at ND as the program’s all-time leader in assists with 833 (T-25th in NCAA history), 4th in the program’s history in points with 2,195, 11th in scoring average at 18.0 points per game, 2nd in 3-pointers made with 302, 1st in steals with 244, and 11th in 3-point percentage. He’s one of 3 players to ever record 2,000 points and 800 assists in NCAA history.
2001-2002 Season: Another NCAA Tourney Appearance and a Near-Takedown of Duke
Brey’s second season brought another nice record of 22-11 overall (10-6 Big East), good for 2nd place in the Big East West and an 8-seed in the Big Dance. The Irish easily dispatched 9-seed Charlotte in the first round, and then were treated to a second round matchup with the 1-seed Duke Blue Devils in Mike Brey’s first face-off against his former employer.
That Duke team featured 6 guys who’d go on to play in the NBA, including Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Dahntay Jones, Chris Duhon, and Daniel Ewing. I couldn’t find any highlight videos from that game, but if you wanna get a feel for this fun ND team (Thomas, Humphrey, Carroll, Tom Timmermans, etc.) and how close they came to taking down one of the favorites to win the title, flipping through the below full-game broadcast is a fun blast from the past.
2002-2003 Season: A Shift from Nice Little Upstart to Legitimate Program
The Irish were now coming off two-straight Round of 32 appearances in the NCAA Tournament, had built out a pretty fun and talented squad, and had one of the best guard tandems in the entire country heading into the 2002-2003 season with senior Matt Carroll and sophomore stud Chris Thomas in the backcourt. Ryan Humphrey moved on to the NBA after the prior season, but Mike Brey had gone out and landed easily the best big man prospect of his ND career in incoming freshman Torin Francis, a 6’11” big man from the Boston area who was a McDonald’s All-American and one of the biggest surprises for ND recruiting wins in the last 30 years. Add in transfer wing Dan Miller from Maryland, the continued development of role players Torrian Jones, Jordan Cornette, and Tom Timmermans, and Francis’s fellow talented freshman Chris Quinn, and the team looked ready to compete a bit more with the big boys.
And that’s exactly what they did, putting that on display in a 7-day stretch in early December. The Irish hosted #13 Marquette, a Tom Crean squad led by some guy named Dwyane Wade, to kick off the week, and Notre Dame slaughtered the Golden Eagles by 21, putting up 92 points in the process.
Five days later, Brey and his boys traveled to the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., topping #9, defending-national-champion Maryland by 12.
The very next day, they took on #2 Texas, a team that would end up making the Final Four that season and was led by All-American guard T.J. Ford. Again, the Irish put on a dazzling offensive display, beating the Longhorns 98-92 in an absolute shootout. The Irish made a STATEMENT that week.
Later in the year, the Irish began to establish for all their Big East foes how difficult it would become to beat Mike Brey at Purcell Pavilion. They went 14-2 at home that season, with a couple super-fun and dramatic victories over Georgetown (93-92 in double-overtime) and over #4 Pittsburgh (66-64 on a last-second basket by Torin Francis after a CLUTCH and selfless find by Thomas).
ND would go on to make the NCAA Tourney as a 5-seed, narrowly avoid that dreaded 12-5 upset in the first round with a 70-69 win over UW-Milwaukee, and then upset 4-seed Illinois 65-60 to make the program’s first Sweet 16 since 1987. They ran into a buzzsaw in #1 seed Arizona to end the season, but it was an awesome year that showed Brey could assemble a talented team and develop them into a squad who could hang with anybody.
The 2006-2007 Season: The Introductions of Harangody/Jackson and Maneuvering the McAlarney Suspension
With Thomas suffering some injuries over the his last two seasons and Francis never really developing into the star he was expected to be as a blue-chip recruit and solid freshman, the Irish struggled over the next few years, going to three straight NITs. All of a sudden, all that momentum Brey had built up had seemingly melted away, and it looked like maybe he might not be the right guy to keep this program successful long-term.
But heading into the 2006-2007 season, Brey managed to land a couple solid-but-not-blue-chip recruits in forward Luke Harangody and guard Tory Jackson. Recruiting sites were only just getting going back then, but both would have ranked as low 4-stars or high 3-stars. They seemed like promising 4-year guys, but not necessarily instant-impact dudes like Chris Thomas, Torin Francis, etc. Harangody was an undersized round-mound-of-rebound looking kid and Jackson was a raw but athletic point guard expected to spell starter Kyle McAlarney when he needed a breather, but who wouldn’t add much more than some tough defense and ball handling as a true freshman.
Harangody pretty quickly established himself as a contributor, showing an awesome ability to bang around down low with that freight train body of his, while also showing surprising dexterity, touch, and scoring ability for such a big guy. Combined with Russell Carter and Colin Falls leading the way in scoring on the perimeter, Rob Kurz emerging as a stalwart inside, and McAlarney coming along well in his sophomore season, and the team thrived in the early going, beating #23 Maryland on the road and then toppling #4 Alabama in an AWESOME upset at Purcell in early December that had Harangody flashing what would eventually earn him All-American and Big East Player of the Year honors later in his career.
TOUGH news came later that month, though, with McAlarney being arrested for having marijuana in his car. Notre Dame took a swift, no-nonsense action and suspended McAlarney for both the spring and summer semesters of classes, ending his basketball season and forcing him to consider whether he’d want to return to a school who treated him so harshly for such a minor infraction, or whether he should instead transfer elsewhere to be a sharpshooting veteran point guard for the next couple years — schools like Xavier and Virginia reportedly were among the many schools who offered him a scholarship after the suspension.
Similar to how he convinced Thomas and Cornette to stick with their commitments at the beginning of his tenure, Brey once again showed why his players over the years have essentially universally loved him. He traveled out to New York to see Kyle and his family, focusing mostly on just supporting McAlarney, but also bringing McAlarney’s jersey as a reminder of why he went to ND in the first place and what he meant to Brey and the team.
Meanwhile, the Irish had a season still very much going on, and now desperately needed a steady hand in the backcourt to fill McAlarney’s shoes. Jackson was never meant to be a guy who played that much, that early, but he was an absolute warrior and had a fantastic freshman season, averaging 28 minutes, 7.8 points, 4.3 assists, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game while helping Carter, Falls, Kurz, and Harangody lead the Irish to their first NCAA Tournament bid in a few years.
They had an unfortunate performance in being upset by Winthrop in the first round, but the fact they overcame losing such a key piece in McAlarney to finish 24-8 on the season spoke volumes about the senior leadership and the tough, talented freshmen on that squad.
Kyle McAlarney Raining Threes Once He Returned to the Program
We’ve mostly covered all the key Kyle McAlarney stuff, but I just wanted to use this section to drop videos of the games he just WENT OFF from deep — one of the best, fastest, and prettiest catch-and-release shots the Irish program has ever seen.
The Purcell Pavilion Winning Streak
From February 25, 2006 until January 24, 2009, Mike Brey’s squad defended the Irish home court with an iron fist. ND won 45 straight games at home, which was the longest home winning streak in the country during that time and came up just one game short of setting the Big East record for consecutive league wins at home.
During that stretch at home, the Irish beat 5 ranked teams, including 2 top-10 squads. It helped propel the Irish to NCAA Tourney bids in both 2007 and 2008, and took a 3rd-ranked UConn team featuring 7-foot-2 center Hasheem Thabeet to finally snap the streak.
For all of the Brey era, the Irish were VERY good at home — he was 315-76 at Purcell during his 23 seasons running the program. But this was the golden era of that home-court dominance. Teams were AFRAID to come into South Bend and take on the Irish, and even after the streak snapped (and before it in the Digger years), ND was a location where top teams came to lose.
2010-2011: The Second-Best Team of the Brey Era
Fast-forward a few years, and Harangody, Jackson, Kurz, etc. have all moved on from the program. Ya boy Pat Rick is a lowly sophomore in Stanford Hall, and the Irish are coming off a 23-12 previous season that saw them bow out of the NCAA Tourney with a whimper against Old Dominion.
With a vacuum left by Harangody’s and Jackson’s graduation the prior spring, it was unclear who all would be stepping up to lead this team. Tim Abromaitis had a surprising emergence in the 2009-2010 season, Mississippi State transfer Ben Hansbrough would certainly be a starter after an solid first season in South Bend, and Purdue transfer Scott Martin was hopefully going to be a nice addition, but could any of them really be “the guy” out there, and would there be enough help otherwise to make this team work?
To the tune of a 27-7 season and a 14-4 Big East record, this group answered that question with a resounding “YES.”
Hansbrough was magnificent as the alpha-dog and vocal leader of the team, averaging 18, 4, and 4 while shooting 44% from long range. Abromaitis was right behind him, averaging 15 points per game while shooting 43% from deep, and then Carleton Scott, Scott Martin, and Tyrone Nash formed a triumvirate of versatile veteran forwards who could shoot, handle the ball, rebound, defend the rim, and help add to what became one of the best offenses of the Brey era. Add in true freshman Eric Atkins as a very capable backup point guard and sophomore Jack Cooley starting to show some flashes, and this team was pushing up against 1-seed territory as they entered halftime of their Big East Tournament semifinal matchup against Louisville.
Unfortunately, the squad fell apart in the second half, earned a 2-seed in the Big Dance, and after dispatching 15-seed Akron in Round 1, they were upset by 10-seed Florida State, whose size and length helped shut down the Irish on the offensive end.
But before that disappointing finish at the United Center, Irish fans were treated to some really fun moments:
- Beating #9 Georgetown in December
- Sweeping eventual national champion UConn (the Kemba team)
- Unleashing “The Burn” on the road at #2 Pittsburgh, where Ben Hansbrough kicked off his Big East Player of the Year campaign
- An unbelievably fun game against Louisville that, unsurprisingly, went to overtime, and in which the Irish completely dominated the extra period:
- An absolute EVISCERATION of Villanova on Senior Night, with Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis combining to shoot 16-for-23 from long range and senior walk-on Tom Kopko getting an electric bucket in transition in the final minute:
- Speaking of eviscerations, the Irish beating #25 Cincinnati in the Big East Tournament by THIRTY-EIGHT POINTS is something that I feel like has been forgotten to time, but ND absolutely put on a clinic against a solid opponent
This team was fun as hell, with Hansbrough being a guy you could always count on to get a bucket, Abromaitis having maybe the most beautiful shooting stroke Notre Dame has seen this century, Carleton Scott emerging from the ether to be a 3-point-shooting, rim-protecting beast, Tyrone Nash playing positionless basketball before it was cool, etc. It was just about everything that made the Brey era so fun.
2011-2012: The Win Streak That Turned the Season Around
This team was an absolute TRIP. They lost Hansbrough and Scott and Nash to graduation, and then Abromaitis went down with a torn ACL. By no means did they have a right to put together any sort of respectable season, and in mid-January that opinion didn’t seem to matter, as they sat at 11-8 overall and 3-3 in the Big East after a double-digit loss to RUTGERS.
Then, something seemed to click. A redshirt freshman guard named Jerian Grant started to make plays all over the place and hit countless irrational confidence shots at the end of games. Sophomore Eric Atkins began truly commanding the team from the point guard spot. Junior Jack Cooley started to become the double-double machine we’d all enjoy the following season. Scott Martin continued to be a steadying, do-a-little-bit-of-everything presence. Sophomore guard Alex Dragicevich started to display some serious sharp-shooting tendencies. And some true freshman named Pat Connaughton made it impossible for Mike Brey to not play him as much as humanly possible, he was THAT athletic and tough and quite good at shooting and rebounding.
All of the above really began the game following that Rutgers loss, when #1 Syracuse came to town and Notre Dame’s program tradition of upsetting #1 teams reemerged for one glorious Saturday afternoon. The Irish controlled the game the whole way, with tons of awesome moments throughout.
Side note: this was one of my favorite days as a student at ND — my friends and I attended this game (obviously rushing the floor afterward) and then went to a concert at Legends that night for a small band we all loved from one of their songs we randomly found on YouTube.
There were probably 30 people at that concert, and we were all mere feet from Walk the Moon as they jammed out and we were blissfully unaware of how much bigger they’d get over the coming years.
Anyway, that upset of Syracuse sparked something in the Irish, and they rattled off a 9-game winning streak that included a sweep of West Virginia, a road win over #24 UConn, a blowout of #15 Marquette at Purcell, and an overtime win at Villanova that featured the Irish coming back from down 20 to eventually win by 4 in the extra period.
They’d lose a close one in the first round of the NCAA Tourney against Xavier thanks to a controversial lane violation call on a late-game free throw, but the fact that squad even made the tournament is a testament to Mike Brey’s ability to push the right buttons and to develop guys into a team that could put it together and make a run despite not having all the talent they’d had in past seasons.
2013: 45 Seconds of Jerian Grant + The 5-OT Thriller
My senior year at ND was a solid basketball season that involved a tourney team who managed to get their doors blown off by Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but there was one game during the season that deserves a specific call-out for how fun and awesome and perfect it was — the last game that eventual national champion Louisville lost before they made their run to the title.
The then-25th-ranked Irish were chosen as hosts for College Gameday on February 9, 2013, as #11 Louisville came to town boasting a team of very good college players like Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, Chane Behanan, Gorgui Dieng, Luke Hancock, Wayne Blackshear, and Montrezl Harrell. From the Gameday TV segments onward, it was clear it was going to be a special day for the Irish faithful.
The game was a competitive one throughout, but with star senior forward Jack Cooley fouling out with a good amount of time left, Louisville was able to build what looked to be an insurmountable 8-point lead with just 50 seconds to go.
Then, Jerian Grant truly gave us the first glimpse into how great he would eventually be in a Notre Dame uniform...
He put the team on his back, and then some. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy. And yet another ND/Louisville game was going to overtime.
From there, it just got crazy. Grant fouled out in OT #1. Tom Knight fouled out, too. Guys were being peeled off the bench to contribute, including a true freshman Zach Auguste doing plenty of good things and flashing fantastic athleticism, and Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman scoring 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting exclusively in the overtime periods, using an inspired post-up game to provide nearly half of the Irish’s scoring after regulation.
True freshman Cam Biedscheid knocked down a huge three to keep the game tied in OT #2. Sherman managed a tip-in to tie it with 9 seconds left in OT #4. And then finally, in OT #5, the Irish managed to put the Cardinals away for good and win 104-101.
Atkins played all 60 minutes. Connaughton played 56, and Biedscheid played 50. It was truly a marathon, and it was so enjoyable to see Rick Pitino look more and more distressed and stressed as the game wore on, while Brey and his bench continued to get more and more hyped-up after each period ended in a tie, relishing in how loose they were and how much fun they were having.
The season may not have been too much of anything special to remember, but this game alone was one I’ll be telling my grandkids about someday.
2013-2014: Navigating the Jerian Grant Suspension + Beating Duke in ND’s ACC Debut
I don’t want to spend a ton of time on 2013-2014 because it was an awful season and I want to get on to reliving 2014-2015 (as we all do), but two things I just want to mention here:
- Similar to the McAlarney situation, Jerian Grant’s academic suspension at the end of the fall semester was yet another moment that Mike Brey showed how amazing he was as a coach who cared deeply about his players and who’d earned their trust. He once again managed to convince Jerian to stick with ND, work his way back, and rejoin the program, and obviously that would pay a few decent dividends during Grant’s final go-around as a 5th-year senior the following year.
- This was the first season for ND in the ACC, and considering it was easily the premiere college hoops conference at the time, it was a tough initial season for the Irish as they broke in some younger guys (Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia), dealt with the loss of Grant, etc. But the first ACC game for ND was, of course, Brey’s old squad the Duke Blue Devils. Duke was led by NBA Draft Lottery shoo-in Jabari Parker, and came to Purcell ranked #7 in the country. Pat Connaughton and the Irish had something to say about that, introducing themselves to the conference in fine and fun fashion:
It’s a good thing we got that win to cherish from that season, because Notre Dame managed to go 15-17 overall (6-12 ACC) and had Jackson — the crown jewel 5-star local recruit of the 2013 recruiting class — struggle mightily to adjust to the college level, worrying folks that he may end up transferring out.
Luckily, Brey again used his fantastic mentoring abilities to coach Jackson through that (even holding him out of a couple games midway through the season) and help him grow into the player we’d see in the next two seasons.
2014-2015: My Favorite Basketball Team Ever
I need to be careful, because if I don’t corral myself a bit here, I may write as much about this season as I do about every other moment in this article combined. But I also don’t think any of you would hold that against me, because the 2014-2015 ND men’s hoops season was unequivocally the greatest season of the Mike Brey era, and you could argue that team was on the same level or better than most/all of Digger’s best teams (I’m biased toward the time period when I was alive here, but still...).
Coming off that horrible first ACC season in 2013-2014, I don’t think anyone really expected the Irish to be as good as they were. We knew Jerian Grant was coming back — although up to that point he had only been a good, not elite player — and we knew the young guys would be a year older, but it seemed, at best, this group may be a mid-level tourney team, similar to most other Brey teams of the last decade-plus. We’d heard some rumblings about the team’s little European tour during the summer where they supposedly really started to jell. But that was against random opponents in foreign countries, not top-flight college teams they would see in the ACC and elsewhere.
And honestly, the first ~7 games didn’t tell us too much. The Irish were blowing out really bad opponents (Binghamton, Navy, Coppin State, Grambling, Chicago State, UMass), which is always nice to see, but also expected (although nowadays I no longer take that for granted).
But they also lost a November home game to a Providence team that didn’t seem that special, and with #19 Michigan State coming to town for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in early December, I think we all expected ND to fall to a national power and then coast until ACC play, when they’d beat some teams but also lose to the Dukes and UNCs and Louisvilles of the schedule.
Instead, the Irish refused to be intimidated by a Spartans squad hot off an Elite Eight run and featuring really talented guys like Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice, Bryn Forbes, Branden Dawson, etc. They went toe-to-toe with Tom Izzo’s program and won a nail-biter in overtime, signaling that this Irish team could play a little bit and was NOT the doormat we all saw the season prior. Grant’s presence may have had something to do with that, considering his 27 points and 6 assists...
After a couple yawners against bad teams, ND opened up ACC play against a middling Florida State squad by absolutely dismantling them, showing they would at least be able to handle the mediocre teams in the conference this season.
Then, they arrived at the Crossroads Classic, that annual game against either Purdue or Indiana that seemed to always involve the Irish blowing it in the end against the state of Indiana’s more popular college hoops programs.
Not only did the Irish systematically destroy the Boilermakers to the tune of a 94-63 beatdown in Indianapolis, but that game also gave us arguably the most electrifying dunk maybe ever for the ND program, when little Demetrius Jackson showed how far he’d come since his struggle of a freshman season by posterizing Purdue center Isaac Haas, who just so happened to be 7’2”.
The Irish coasted into the new year with a couple more blowout victories over cupcakes, but then immediately experienced a bit of a stumble against Georgia Tech, whom they needed 2 overtimes to beat at Purcell.
Despite how good they looked offensively, the ACC gauntlet could still easily trip them up, and so that was quite an eye-opener. Of course, so was Jerian Grant’s ridiculously high-leaping dunk in the second half of that game, where it felt like his head went above the top of the backboard as he climbed an invisible ladder to posterize a helpless Yellow Jacket defender.
After the struggles of that game against such a mediocre opponent, it felt like the Irish really needed to beat a good team in a tough environment to prove to both themselves and the world that they were truly going to be a contender in the ACC. They entered a road matchup at the North Carolina Tar Heels with a 14-1 record (2-0 ACC), but had never beaten the Heels in Chapel Hill before.
#18 North Carolina’s roster was comprised of what would become the nucleus for multiple Final Four teams and one title team, with Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, J.P. Tokoto, Isaiah Hicks, Joel Berry, and Theo Pinson all in the rotation — if the Irish could just not get embarrassed, that would be a decent result on the road.
ND was, as we now know for sure, made of sterner stuff, and they walked into Chapel Hill and once again went toe-to-toe with a blue blood, winning a dramatic one on the road to secure their first (and still only) win at North Carolina. Zach Auguste had himself a really nice game, including making the game-winner with about a minute to go. The Irish also showed they could play some lockdown defense to close out a game, which was nerve-wracking but exciting to see.
After a competitive loss to #3 Virginia at Purcell, the Irish looked to rebound against the Yellow Jackets again, this time on the road. Unfortunately, starting big man Zach Auguste was ruled out for “an academic matter.” Auguste was really the only big man on the Irish team getting consistent and significant minutes, and so Mike Brey had to start playing a little-known freshman by the name of Bonzie Colson to help give the team some rebounding and girth inside.
Colson obviously wasn’t yet the All-American player he would become over the next couple seasons, but he stepped in cold and played 22 minutes where he scored 10 points on 3-for-4 shooting, hit all 4 of his free throw attempts, and grabbed 4 rebounds while also tossing his body around and picking up 4 fouls in Auguste’s absence. I don’t think I would describe this game as Bonzie’s coming-out-party, but it’s fun to look back on that moment as the first time we all really got to glimpse Colson’s specialness and toughness and amazingly lovable cockiness.
Auguste would soon return to the team, and the Irish now had a really solid rotation of Grant, Jackson, Vasturia, Connaughton, Auguste, Beachem, Colson, and Torres that was athletic, could pass super well and score in bunches, and defend and rebound juuuust enough to ensure they kept winning games.
Oh, and the team was pretty good at dunking, too.
I’ve already embedded DJ’s and Jerian’s big dunks from that season, but it’s just incredible how much this team’s ball movement and cutting ability led to so many freaking dunks — especially for Zach Auguste, who could essentially run a pick-and-roll that led to a wide open slam at-will.
They took down Miami and Virginia Tech, and then put on a really fun second half performance in a massive comeback of a win in overtime at NC State.
Then, it was time for the Irish to take things up a notch and try to land themselves a resume-defining victory. The MSU and UNC wins were really nice, but the Irish missed a chance to beat a top-5 team when they fell to Virginia earlier in the month. Now, the #4 Duke Blue Devils were coming to town with the Irish having climbed to #8, and they were not only the favorites to win the ACC, but also one of the favorites to win it all, thanks to their ridiculous freshman class of 5-stars that included Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones.
What followed was just an absolutely perfect January Wednesday night of college basketball. The Irish clearly belonged on the floor with all that NBA talent, and in the final minutes, Jerian Grant made multiple fantastic plays and White Steve buried the biggest shot of his career to that point, putting the nail in the coffin on a huge 77-73 win over Coach K (ND’s second in a row over the Blue Devils, might I add).
I could talk about this game for hours. Jerian’s first half three from the shamrock. Bonzie doing his best to slow down the unstoppable offensive force in the paint that was Okafor. Jerian nearly losing the ball but then hitting that circus shot to give ND the lead. Jerian having the presence of mind to find White Steve alone in the corner. White Steve having the icewater in his veins to just smoothly and calmly drain that shot to clinch it.
It was beautiful, and it was, I think, the first time most of us reeeeeally started to believe that this Mike Brey team was different than the others.
The rest of the regular season, though, wasn’t without some stumbles. The Irish fell on the road at Pitt. They lost by 30 in Durham in a rematch with Duke. They somehow couldn’t beat Syracuse at home. Still, though, by the time they got to the end of the regular season, they were 26-5, had gone 14-4 in the ACC, and earned the #3 seed.
In their first game of that conference tourney, they took on the 6th-seeded Miami Hurricanes, and roared out to a massive lead that they nearly completely squandered in the second half. Still, they managed to escape with a 7-point win and set up a rematch with those good ole Duke Blue Devils.
Heading into this game, the Irish once again seemed like a long shot to pull off the upset. Yes, ND had beaten Duke back in January, but it was a narrow win at home, and when the two teams played at Cameron Indoor, the Irish were run off the floor. Add in that the ACC Tourney was being played in Greensboro, NC — i.e. the backyard for Duke and UNC — and it felt like Duke was destined to help continue Mike Brey’s tradition of never making a conference title game.
Again, this squad showed why they were different, dominating Duke for the majority of the game thanks to awesome performances by Bonzie Colson and Demetrius Jackson and holding Duke to just 45% from the field and 18% from long range.
Duke made it interesting near the end, but Pat Connaughton and co. moved quickly to squash the Blue Devils’ hope and to secure the Irish’s first appearance in a conference tourney championship game.
So then, on March 14th — Saturday of St. Patrick’s Day weekend in most major cities that celebrate — the Irish walked into a title game against the 5th-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels, who had upset the #1 seed Virginia Cavaliers the day previously. We’re talking about a game being played an hour from the Tar Heels’ home, and thus with a crowd that heavily skewed UNC blue, we were set to watch a matchup between one team who’d won 25 ACC Tournament titles entering this game and another team who’d been in the league for precisely two seasons and had never, ever won a conference tournament title in the history of the program.
The game seemed, at least for a while, to be playing out exactly as a pessimistic ND fan would expect. The Irish looked pretty strong in the first half and actually held a 5-point lead at the intermission, which likely just filled a lot of us with dread that there was a Tar Heel run coming. Sure enough, North Carolina used the first 10-12 minutes of the second half to seize the lead and then extend that lead to as much as 8 or 9 points multiple times, and with 9:21 to play, UNC led 64-56. Things seemed bleak.
Then, of course, we all know what happened next.
Over the next 6 minutes and 35 seconds, Brey’s Boys went on a 24-2 run that utterly and comprehensively broke the will and spirit of the UNC team. It’s legitimately one of the most beautiful stretches of basketball I’ve ever watched, and I still vividly remember where I was when I was watching it — on the dance floor at the Hangge-Uppe in Chicago, barely with it, refusing to dance with my friends because the game was going so perfectly all of a sudden.
DJ knocked down a three. Then White Steve got a layup. Then we saw my favorite basketball play of all-time, with White Steve helping keep a loose ball alive with a tip, and then the Irish perimeter swinging the ball all the way around — like something out of a basketball porn video John Wooden would write the script for — to a waiting White Steve, who proceeded to bury the shot from the corner with that baby-faced assassin energy he had. I believe on the broadcast Jay Bilas says “talk about making the extra pass,” and it’s seriously so true — it was a clinic in terms of unselfish, crisp, well-timed ball movement to find an open shot.
Connaughton knocked down that transition three to give the Irish the lead soon after, Auguste somehow got a steal and dribbled the length of the floor for a dunk, and then some free throws, a couple layups, another Connaughton three, and a Connaughton dunk on a perfect Jerian pass made it 80-66 with less than 3 minutes to go. The Irish had just won themselves an ACC Championship in only their second season in the conference, y’all.
That 29-5 record and ACC Title were good enough to earn the Irish a 3-seed in the NCAA Tourney, but unfortunately they were also good enough to place them in the same bracket as #1 overall seed Kentucky, who’d just finished an undefeated regular season and had aspirations of being the first team to finish the year as undefeated champions since Indiana did it in 1976.
They needn’t worry about that team yet, though. First, they needed to get through 14-seed Northeastern, which proved to be way tougher than it should have been, and which caused a lot of us to suddenly dread another too-early exit in the Big Dance, similar to 2011. The Irish did, in winning that game narrowly, give us this super-fun highlight of Demetrius Jackson being amazing at dribbling and passing and Auguste continuing to be elite at stuffing the ball through the rim...so that was nice
After that too-close-for-comfort win, ND moved on to face America’s March Madness darlings, the 6th-seeded Butler Bulldogs. Butler had, of course, made back-to-back NCAA title game appearances in 2010 and 2011 under Brad Stevens, and despite Stevens having moved on to the NBA, the Bulldogs were still a tough, fundamental opponent prone to beating teams considered more talented than them.
What followed was a fantastic, back-and-forth game that had all kinds of drama, punctuated by Pat Connaughton’s beautiful, clutch, risky, perfect block of Kellen Dunham’s three-point attempt in the final seconds of regulation.
That secured the extra time, wherein White Steve and Jerian and the rest of the crew would finally put Butler away and win 67-64.
With the win, Notre Dame advanced to the second weekend of the tournament for just the second time since the 1980s, and the first time since that Chris Thomas team beat Illinois to make it to the Sweet 16. They also got some luck to swing their way, as the 7th-seeded Wichita State Shockers upset the 2nd-seeded Kansas Jayhawks, making Gregg Marshall’s talented-but-less-talented-than-Kansas squad their first opponent in Cleveland.
ND got out to a hot start, let Wichita back into it, but then put the clamps on the Shockers and turned up their offensive game, with Demetrius Jackson giving an especially awesome performance in a great point guard matchup between him and Fred VanVleet.
He had an especially awesome pass on an alley-oop to Zach Auguste that I think deserves a second look:
I was in-person with my Kentucky-fan buddy Hux for the two Sweet 16 games in Cleveland, and we had a great time watching the Irish close that game out and earn a date in the Elite Eight with the winner of Kentucky and 4th-seeded West Virginia.
We all assumed Kentucky would win that game, but WVU was known for being a good defensive team and gritty program under Bob Huggins, and so it was intriguing to stay and watch that matchup to see how long they could hang with a 36-0 team that had Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein, Tyler Ulis, Trey Lyles, and Andrew and Aaron Harrison.
Kentucky beat the Mountaineers 78-39 that evening, doubling up West Virginia in such embarrassing fashion that the talk about Kentucky being the greatest college basketball team of all-time reached unforeseen levels. Not many people truly believed ND — or anyone else for that matter — would be able to beat these guys.
I personally spent the day before the Elite Eight game just enjoying my time at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with Hux (we saw Len Elmore walking around there as well, so that was fun), praying that the Irish wouldn’t get absolutely trounced the following evening. The idea of ND standing a real chance to win the game, in all honesty, was only a faint whisper in the back of my mind. I couldn’t bring myself to truly believe it was possible, no matter how much I wanted it to be.
The game on March 28th was likely the best basketball game I’ve ever attended. The Irish didn’t play scared or lie down and accept a beating like West Virginia had two nights prior. Instead, they took it to the Wildcats every way they could.
Zach Auguste played like an absolute man all night (20 points on 10-of-13 shooting, 9 boards) while going up against multiple lottery-pick big men, using his quickness and leaping ability to get himself several awesome dunks to electrify the Irish crowd in attendance.
ND played solid defense, rebounded well despite their size disadvantage, and used their passing ability and ability to finish at the rim (and to clean up missed shots by teammates) to actually grab a 2-point lead just before halftime. Unfortunately, Trey Lyles managed a tip-in buzzer-beater to tie it as we went into the break, but at that point, it no longer felt like a game where ND was just hoping to not be embarrassed.
Instead, across the country, everyone was tuning into the game to see if this fun Irish team could keep it up and take down the best college basketball team ever assembled.
The Irish, unlike many ND teams of the past, refused to wilt in the second half, despite the pressure and the sheer size, strength, and skill of their opponent. Connaughton put everyone on notice somewhat early in the second half with this drive and dunk, which sent Ashley Judd into a wonderful fit of shame:
With just about 6 minutes to go, the Irish still held a slim lead, and baby-faced assassin White Steve decided he was feeling good enough about that to step into a gutsy three-pointer in transition, draining it and sending the Irish bench and faithful into a frenzy as John Calipari was forced to call a timeout.
As the game got into the final minutes, though, ND not having a lot of big man depth was beginning to wear them down. Zach Auguste had to make sure he didn’t foul out, which meant Towns had a chance to really go to work in the paint. He was a future #1 overall pick for a reason, and was absolutely brilliant in hitting big shot after big shot to draw Kentucky back to within striking distance. He finished 10-for-13 from the field with 25 points.
Then, with just over 3 minutes remaining, Aaron Harrison connected on a deep three to give Kentucky their first lead since the 15:06 mark. Harrison had already gained a reputation for hitting huge threes in the prior season with multiple massive shots in the NCAA Tourney. So, when he hit that, it was certainly deflating and made it feel like Kentucky may have finally taken the victory back into their hands.
Jerian Grant, though, wasn’t quite done. The 1st team All-American guard had the ball with the shot clock winding down and ND trailing by 2, and after getting caught up in mid-air and throwing a desperate pass to Connaughton, he called for the ball to be tossed back to him, pretty damn far from the basket and with next-to-no time on the shot clock.
Grant, like he’d done in numerous past games in his career, decided it was time for another huge three late in the game — he buried the deep three as the shot clock expired, putting ND back up by 2 with just over 2 minutes to go.
The rest is painful to talk about and to watch, so I won’t say much and will simply link to the full highlights if you want to see the ending again. Essentially, Towns did Towns things, Andrew Harrison made a great play to draw a foul and get two free throws, and then Jerian Grant managed a minor miracle to even get a shot attempt off with 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein running the length of the floor with him and impressively contesting his final heave from the corner.
Despite how painful the result of that game was — no other sporting event, even in football, has ever left me feeling like that, not 2005 USC or 2013 Alabama or 2014 Florida State or 2017 Miami or 2018 Clemson or anything else — I will forever cherish the memory of getting to be there, live, to watch that wonderful team assembled and developed and coached up by Mike Brey going toe-to-toe with the most talented college hoops team ever (yeah, I know they lost in their next game to Wisconsin, but that Kentucky team still had the best collection of college talent, in my opinion, of any team I’ve ever seen).
I’ll finish this section by just dropping in a few videos about Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, the two captains of that team who were absolutely incredible leaders, players, and dudes. They epitomized everything great about the Mike Brey era of ND basketball, and it was so absolutely magnificent watching them play and give us so many great memories during their time in South Bend.
2015-2016: Demetrius Jackson Takes the Reins + March Magic
Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant were two of the best leaders Mike Brey’s program had ever seen, and so their departure after that magical 2015 run was certainly a massive blow to the team’s chances to do any similar damage the following year. However, it didn’t necessarily mean they were dead, either. Brey’s squad returned 3 starters in Jackson, Auguste, and Vasturia, and would have a sophomore Bonzie Colson and a junior V.J. Beachem ready to start contributing more as well.
But what the team really needed was someone to step into that leadership role and be the guy who held others accountable, kept guys’ heads up and minds focused during trying times, and just set the tone for the team throughout the long season. That kind of leader isn’t necessarily always the most talented player on the team, but it always helps when it is, and Jackson — though maybe not as natural of a leader as someone like Connaughton or Grant — had quietly learned a lot from those guys the last couple seasons. This was his team now.
The year wasn’t without its obstacles. They lost to Monmouth in November, and seemed to fall to every decent opponent they faced up through mid-January. Still, at 12-5, they were certainly still a team who could start building a resume with the gauntlet of games ahead of them in conference play. That began with a trip to Cameron Indoor to take on the #9 Duke Blue Devils, who trotted out a squad that featured future NBA players Brandon Ingram, Luke Kennard, and Grayson Allen. Notre Dame had never won AT Duke before, with that incredible 2014-2015 ND team getting run off the floor in their road trip to Durham the previous season.
None of that intimidated Jackson and the Irish, though. DJ scored 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting. Vasturia had 22 thanks to 4-for-6 sniping from long-range. And, of course, this was Bonzie Colson’s coming-out party on a national stage, as the sophomore forward put up 31 and 11 and even uncharacteristically (at the time) shot and buried a couple threes, which had to scare the bejeezus out of opposing coaches everywhere.
True frosh Rex Pflueger played a nice game off the bench and hit a massive shot clock buzzer beater three in the second half, and that three-headed monster of Colson, Jackson, and Vasturia out-dueled the Blue Devils down the stretch to win a super high-scoring affair on the road.
A few games later, the Irish hosted #2 North Carolina at Purcell, and once again the upset alarm was raised for a top-5 team coming to ND. Sure enough, the Irish did just that. Despite being down by as much as 15 late in the first half, Brey’s squad saw all 5 starters score in double-figures with Zach Auguste coming alive with a 15-and-10 double-double, Bonzie adding a 19-and-10 double-double of his own, and Jackson hitting a number of tough shots on his way to 19 points.
The Irish would go on to also beat #13 Louisville and then top Duke again in the ACC Tourney in OT (using another double-digit comeback and a monster 19-point, 22-rebound performance from Zach Auguste to do so), setting themselves up as a 6-seed for the NCAA Tourney.
That tourney would provide another magical, and much more improbable, March Madness run for Brey and the boys, with the Irish mounting a comeback to beat Michigan in Round 1 (with a surprise start by some little dude named Matt Farrell who we were all surprised at the time played pretty darn well), getting a Pflueger tip-in with 1 second left to avoid letting Stephen F. Austin become the Cinderella story of the season, and then Demetrius Jackson completely taking over the final 30 seconds against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 to somehow, some way, drive ND back to the Elite Eight for the second time in as many seasons.
The Irish ran into a buzzsaw in the Elite Eight, as the same UNC team who obliterated them in the ACC Tournament a couple weeks prior was their 1-seed opponent. The Irish fought valiantly thanks to Jackson’s herculean 26-point effort, but the Tar Heels were just too much as the eventual National Runners-Up, beating ND by 14.
Still, though, it was a helluva run and season for a team no one thought had it in them to duplicate the postseason results of one of the best ND hoops team ever in the previous year.
2016-2017: BONZIE M.F. COLSON and Matty Farrell Lead a Surprisingly Good Squad After Losing More Legends
The 2016-2017 season gets forgotten a bit thanks to the two excellent seasons that preceded it and the ROUGH stretch that followed it, but looking back at that year, it was a super fun year for a number of reasons. The team had lost Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste from that second Elite Eight team, and although Bonzie, Beachem, and White Steve were all returning, it felt like the Irish would become just an okay team again (and that was only if some other guys stepped up and became contributors).
Early in the year, we all learned who one of those guys who would step up would be. Matt Farrell — the junior guard who really hadn’t played much until he randomly got inserted as a starter during the second Elite Eight run but was still very much a complementary piece — started to stand out as a really nice player in the Legends Classic.
The Irish didn’t play anyone great in that tournament, but Farrell looked great in games against Colorado and Northwestern, scoring 20 and dishing out 6 assists against the Buffaloes and then dropping in another 18 points to go with 6 more assists against Northwestern. He even hit the game-winner with 15 seconds left, and won MVP of the tournament.
Anchored by Colson emerging as a potential ACC Player of the Year and consistent scoring turned in by Farrell, Beachem, and Vasturia, the Irish surged out to a 16-2 start to their season, including a 5-0 beginning to their ACC slate. Their two losses came on neutral floors against #1 Villanova and #15 Purdue, and they put together a nice win over a top-10 Louisville team in early January.
They would hit a few snags, losing 5 of their next 6 and threatening to fall outside of bubble discussions, but a big home win over #14 Florida State helped propel them back onto the safe side of that conversation. Then, they once again cranked it up a notch in the ACC Tournament, beating Tony Bennett’s #21 Virginia team in the quarterfinals for the first time in the Brey era...
...and then dispatching the #16 Seminoles in the semifinals, making it their second trip to the ACC Championship Game in 3 seasons (not to mention 3 straight seasons making the semifinals).
The Irish were playing well in the title game against Duke, as well, holding a 56-48 lead with about 11 minutes to play. But then Bonzie got hurt (but still came back in and soldiered on), Duke rallied, and the Blue Devils eked out a 75-69 victory that probably would have been ND’s second ACC title in 3 years if not for Bonzie going down. He had 29 points and 9 rebounds in the loss.
Bonzie’s injury was a factor in ND’s near-loss to Princeton in the first round of the NCAA Tourney and in their second round loss to West Virginia, although he played in both and was ND’s leading scorer, including going for 27 and 8 against the Mountaineers on a day when no one else on the Irish really came to play.
Still, it was overall a fun season, established Matt Farrell as a stud, and allowed Bonzie to take the reins from Demetrius Jackson as this being HIS team and allowing him to turn into an All-American who unfortunately never got his ACC Player of the Year season, coming in 2nd in 2016-2017 and then missing most of 2017-2018 with a broken foot. What could have been!
2017-2018: Maui Mike
This season is really remembered for what it wasn’t, considering the major injuries to Colson, Farrell, and freshman D.J. Harvey that derailed what could have been another fun season.
But before all that transpired, let’s be ever-thankful that the whole team was able to be healthy enough to put on a damn SHOW in Maui, including a thrilling come-from-behind win over Wichita State in the title game, where Farrell and Martinas “The Bird Whisperer” Geben of all people were the ultimate heroes.
That game, of course, gave us possibly the best Mike Brey moment of his tenure — his shirtless celebration with the squad, giving us all the “Maui Mike” persona we never knew we desperately needed:
This man is a national treasure, y’all.
2021-2022: One Final Fun Ride
We all know how the following few years went for Mike Brey and the Irish basketball program. He landed his best recruiting class ever, on paper. But then they were forced into action as true frosh and never really became what they were expected to become, while also not filling all the needs the team really had — i.e. big men.
But the 2021-2022 season, although not his best ever, represented one final return to being awesome for Brey, as he managed to land a great grad transfer in Yale big man Paul Atkinson Jr. while also signing a local recruit who turned out to be an NBA 1st Round talent, adding those two to a team of veterans who managed to work together well enough to go 24-11 overall and finish 15-5 in ACC play, which was good enough for 2nd place in the conference.
The Irish started horribly, going 3-4 through 7 games and completely failing to show up in the Maui Invitational they’d earned an invitation to by winning it in 2017, but then Blake Wesley’s first big moment gave the team not only a signature win for their tourney resume, but also the confidence and momentum to start to figure out how to turn things around.
The ACC was a bit down in 2021-2022, and the Irish’s turnaround wasn’t immediate or overly impressive, but by the new year ND was playing good basketball and beating everyone they SHOULD beat, largely taking care of business down the stretch. Still, they entered ACC Tournament as a potential bubble team, and losing to Virginia Tech in their first game there didn’t help. Luckily, the Hokies made a run to win the ACC Title, and the rest of the chips falling juuuuust right led to the Irish managing to grab a play-in spot as an 11-seed.
Of course, that play-in game vs. Rutgers in Dayton — which went to 2 overtimes and ended after midnight, meaning it ended on St. Patrick’s Day — was an all-timer, and heroics from Wesley and Atkinson led to the Irish earning the right to play 6-seed Alabama in the 1st round.
That first win was the big one — Brey got the team back to the tourney, and they won a game against a peer. Beating anyone seeded above them, at that point, was just gravy.
And yet Brey got his team ready to go on a less-than-2-day turnaround time and the Irish dispatched the Crimson Tide with relative ease, thanks especially to Cormac Ryan exploding and other guys like Prentiss Hubb and Wesley turning in key plays at key moments to ice it.
Almost more impressively, Brey then nearly managed to pull another upset 2 days later, as the Irish went step-for-step with the 3rd-seeded Texas Tech Red Raiders and had multiple opportunities to seize control in the final moments, but ultimately couldn’t pull it out.
With that said, it was super fun to see the Irish not only playing in the Big Dance again, but also winning games there and looking like they belonged with the big boys. It would be the final time that would happen in the Brey era.
2022-2023: Blowing Out MSU + Winning His Home Finale
We don’t need to talk at-length about this past season, as it was an atrociously ugly one. A team that had a huge veteran nucleus of grad students (Nate Laszewsi, Dane Goodwin, Cormac Ryan Trey Wertz, and Niagara grad-transfer Marcus Hammond) plus a couple ready-to-contribute true freshmen (McDonald’s All-American J.J. Starling and 4-star forward Ven-Allen Lubin) should have been an NCAA Tournament team, without question. Some were even thinking it could be a Sweet 16 team.
Instead, they went 11-20 overall and 3-17 in the ACC, constantly blowing winnable games down the stretch and forcing Brey to announce he would be stepping down at the end of the year, as he simply couldn’t push the right buttons to get this group to do any better.
But amidst all that disappointment, there were still a couple nice moments.
The first was in late November, when there was still hope this could be a tournament team. The Irish were set to host a ranked Michigan State Spartans squad as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and on a late November evening the Irish absolutely destroyed Tom Izzo’s squad, with Ryan putting forth a performance similar to his Alabama game in the previous spring’s NCAA Tournament to help lead the Irish to a 70-52 victory.
In retrospect, that was a pretty damn embarrassing loss for Sparty, but damnit if it wasn’t super fun to see ND just run a top program off their home floor like it was the good ole days again.
The second nice moment was just about a week ago, when, in Mike Brey’s final home game and on Senior Night, the Irish managed to upset then-ACC-leading Pittsburgh to send their coach off into the sunset with one final Purcell victory.
It wasn’t always pretty and they struggled to close, but they got the job done and gave us a nice memory as 30+ former Brey players attended the game to pay their respects to their retiring coach, mentor, and friend. And if you step back and look at all of that, it all kind of represents Brey’s program a perfectly, doesn’t it? That’s a nice final encapsulation of his ND career, all in one game.
Alright folks, I’ve written over 11,000 words about the Mike Brey era at this point, so it’s probably time for me to wrap this up. I just love Mike Brey so much, and wanted to be sure we all sent him off with a proper goodbye, remembering all the best times he provided us instead of just the rough final few seasons as we watched his time at ND come to an end.
He was just such a fantastic representative of our beloved university in every respect — he ran a clean program, seemed like a super nice and approachable guy, and it is OBVIOUS that he truly cared for the dozens of student athletes who came through his program, and they truly cared (and still care) for him as well.
I mean, just look at things like former player weddings and how close it seems like all these guys still are to each other, or how Jordan Cornette talked about his former coach and mentor on the broadcast of his final game this week, or how many former players showed up for Brey in his final home game...
Simply put, Michael Paul Brey was a wonderful head honcho for the Irish basketball program, and he navigated some pretty major limitations and restrictions to find a level of success that only one other Irish coach had achieved in anything close to being considered the modern era. He was fun, laid back, loose, and knew damn well how to coach and mentor kids to not only develop them into awesome basketball teams, but also fantastic young men. He’s going to be missed, and the answer to the question “When is he going into the Ring of Honor?” better be an immediate “as soon as humanly possible, i.e. next season.”
Oh, and he spent his evening after his final home game celebrating with fans at The Backer, the greatest bar in the entire known universe???
A man of his word. Mike Brey (and Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick) at The Linebacker for a postgame party. Legendary. pic.twitter.com/1BBRmXHc7X— Tyler Horka (@tbhorka) March 2, 2023
Yeah, Maui Brey is the absolute GOAT when it comes to coaches you wanna root for, and I’m excited to see what he does next, whether it be coaching somewhere else, or broadcasting, or who knows what. He’s earned a helluva post-ND life, whatever that means for him.