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Five Days of Notre Dame Takes: The End Is Nigh for Mike Brey in South Bend

Things are broken and there’s no easy fix

NCAA Basketball: Boston U at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Defense has never been especially cinematic compared to offense. But this Notre Dame men’s basketball team has found a way to be completely unwatchable on the defensive side of the court. And things aren’t much better on the other side, where the Irish (7-4, 0-1 ACC) live and die by the three-pointer.

The funny thing is that I could have written that intro paragraph at some point during each of the last five seasons of Notre Dame men’s basketball and it wouldn’t lose any validity. However, what distinguishes this season from the rest—and really the only entertaining thing about it so far—is the increasingly bitter rivalry between South Bend Tribune reporter Tom Noie and the sparse Irish student section.

But as for what’s happening on the court, it’s just more of the same. And any follower of Notre Dame would be foolish to think that it will change until Mike Brey abdicates his seat as head coach.

This year, the Irish are 308th in the country in field goal percentage defense (46.01%), 307th in free throw attempts per game (14.5), 342nd in rebounds per game (31) and 346th on the offensive glass (6.36). They are 351st in the country in turnovers forced per game (8.27), besting only San Jose State. Sure, Notre Dame allows opponents to shoot just 33.2% from beyond the arc, but that doesn’t matter when the other team can get to the basket at will.

To sum it all up, the Irish are soft. They have been for years and, at this point, the struggles are systemic. The ineptitude in being physical and stopping opponents is conditioned by a 23rd-year head coach who has never been inclined to cultivate defense, either through development or roster-building.

That’s how Notre Dame lost to Syracuse. Marcus Hammond—who finished the game with ONE personal foul—allowed an easy layup rather than hacking a freshman to make him earn a pair of game-winning points at the free throw line.

It’s also worth mentioning that Notre Dame’s head coach has never been inclined to motivate his players to give better effort by threatening to play the guys on the bench. Par for the course, Notre Dame is 351st in the nation this season in bench points per game (8.36). Butler is the only team in America that relies on its bench less and, coincidentally enough, the Bulldogs (8-4, 0-1 Big East) are also the only team in the country that fouls less than the Irish (11.9 vs. 12.2 fouls per game).

Originally, I was going to write about how the only hope for Notre Dame this season was to “Moneyball” the frontcourt and recreate Paul Atkinson in the aggregate of Ven-Allen Lubin, Dom Campbell and Matt Zona. But let’s be real: we all know Mike Brey. He won’t go eight (let alone nine) deep on his bench, even though Zona and Campbell would each be good for five fouls per game.

We know Brey’s philosophy and we know it isn’t going to change. If there’s anything I’ve learned from following Kentucky Basketball for the entire John Calipari era, it’s that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Brey should be fired. And I have to admit that I, like everyone else, love Brey for the character that he is. However, as a reporter for The Observer, I wrote about how he was driving this program into the ground and I used this quote from Brian Hamilton’s January 2021 story on The Athletic:

“I’d argue Notre Dame is in a decent position to take a long look at the program and craft a plan that honors what Brey has done for the school while also addressing a reality that threatens taking this thing past the point of no return competitively… Men’s basketball health isn’t guaranteed at Notre Dame. Better to forthrightly discuss the best path forward before the program’s pulse is too faint to detect.”

That rings just as true now as it did then. But the writing seems to be on the wall this season because it will be the last for the remnants of Brey’s 2018 recruiting class (Nate Laszewski, Dane Goodwin and Robby Carmody). And as fitting as it would be for the winningest coach in school history to go out with one last hoorah in the Big Dance, it’s tough to see a storybook ending to this one.

But who knows? Counting Brey out hasn’t been the best strategy historically. And just in case he wants to take my advice, here’s “Moneyball”: