I think it's safe to say that ND is now officially in the Big Dance. Looking forward to it. Great win last night. Just completely dominated the game and took Seton Hall out of what they wanted to do. How refreshing that we are the team causing other teams to wilt down the stretch instead of the opposite??
I'm amazed at what has transpired in the last 2.5 weeks. I threw in the towel on this team (admit it, you did too) after the St. Johns home loss that dropped us to 17-9 and 6-7 in league play with games looming against Louisville, Pitt, Gtown, UConn, and Marquette. I figured we would limp to the finish without Harangody and finish up around 7-11 with a first round NIT loss. I was prepared for a long offseason with lots of "Will we make the NIT next year?" talk heading into 2010-11.
And I'll even say that I was really wavering on the Mike Brey era and whether it might be time to start peeking around the corner at a future with a different coach. I consider myself to be a Mike Brey apologist and still have an active petition to name the JACC after the man, but the losses were getting to me. We were an offense-oriented team that played matador defense, had no inside presence, and wilted down the stretch. It's a formula to be competitive and quirky but not to win basketball games and certainly not a method to win championships.
Even though I have never questioned that Brey is a good basketball coach who gets more out of his roster than just about anyone in the Big East (look no further than what he has done with all these 2 and 3 star recruits in terms of player development), the bigger issues of program management and recruiting were really starting to turn me away from him in the last year or so. I wrote this post after last season, and it was the first time where I really started to question whether Mike Brey was holding this program back from taking it to the next level.
Incredibly, this season has turned out to be a great success story after playing like an NIT team for 2/3 of the season. Credit to Mike Brey. He has done perhaps the best coaching job of his career, and he actually has us playing our best basketball late in the year instead of limping to the finish line like we have done in the past. This team has become the complete opposite of a typical Brey team. Instead of playing the uptempo "loose" style that we've seen through the years, now we value every possession, we are patient, we work the shot clock, we wear the other team down, most importantly, we guard you and take away all the cheap scores. We've become like a Big Ten team all of the sudden (feel free to insert your "this will be great when we're playing in the Big Ten in five years" jokes right here). Just throw a sweater vest on Mike Brey the way we've been playing. It's like Tressel Ball on the hardcourt. Run the clock, play good defense, and finish strong down the stretch.
In many ways, this is probably how we always should have played with the type of personnel that ND typically brings in. We usually are a good ballhandling and passing team, and we have smart players who could easily adapt to a disciplined style of ball like you see at a place like Wisconsin. Half-court oriented, wear the other team down, good decisions, and eat up the clock until the other team wilts. You could see how frustrating it was for Seton Hall to play against us. They hated it.
It's also a great formula for winning in the postseason when you don't have elite talent. There are always going to be 4-5 teams that can just out-talent you like UNC or Kentucky or Kansas, but most of these teams are winning in the NCAAs by playing disciplined, halfcourt ball and getting stops on defense.
I'm glad to see that Brey has suddenly embraced this approach. Is this how we'll play going forward?? Brey seems to think that recruits want to play in a more ACC-style uptempo offense, but it's not like we've ever recruited that well playing that style for the last 10 years. I think recruits are more concerned with one thing: WINNING. If we win games, we'll get players. This style seems to be working for us. Maybe we will take on some sort of hybrid uptempo/halfcourt offense, but we should definitely be continuing some of the principles of this "burn" offense into next year.
What an interesting career Brey has had at ND. He's gone through a lot of peaks and valleys, and it seems like he has learned some things during his struggles. He had a stretch 4-5 years ago where we had some dysfunctional recruiting that sent us to the NIT for three straight years, and now he's fought through a tough 18 month stretch where the lack of big men and a defensive backbone has killed us. Hopefully he comes out of this as a better coach with a new vision for this program. Brey has us set up very well in the next couple years with Abro and Scott and Cooley and Nash and Martin, and I'm excited about the recruits he has coming in next year. We have a nice 2-3 year window going forward where we can legitimately talk about multiple NCAA bids and competing for a Big East championship.
At this point, I'll say that any debate about Brey's future should be put on indefinite hold. He's done a marvelous job with this team, and we have some very promising young pieces. Brey is a good basketball coach, and he apparently had a much better handle on the young guys on the roster (Carl Scott especially) than we thought. I had a stretch in the wilderness where I started to question the Mock, but those days are over for me. I won't be doing that anytime soon. The man is here to stay, and I couldn't be happier about it.
As for the rest of the Big East tournament, I think ND has the ability to hang tough with anyone at this point. I really can't say enough about how much the addition of Carl Scott has meant to this team. He's a gamechanger on the interior defensively. Just the threat of him blocking a shot has changed everything, and he and Nash are Windex men on the glass. It has completely changed the look of our team. We've now gone five straight games giving up under 65 points with three games holding our opponent in the 50s. When was the last time we've done that??
With our guard play and the new horses down low, we can be a factor in March. I expect to be anywhere from a 7 to a 10 seed depending on how the rest of the Big East Tournament goes. Would it surprise anyone if this team made a Sweet 16 run?? If we drew Duke in the 2nd round, would anyone be intimidated by that game?? The matchups don't look that daunting. Throw Scott on Singler, throw Tory on Nolan Smith, Nash on Zoubek, and Hansbrough on Scheyer. I can live with all those matchups. And that's before you get to "The Microwave" Luke Harangody coming off the bench with some instant offense. As good as Duke is, we could give them major problems with our style of play.
Can't wait for the Big Dance to begin! Great to have ND back in the NCAA Tournament. Finish strong in New York, and then get ready to win a pod next weekend.