January 07, 2010

The Madness of Mike Brey

Apologies for the forthcoming doomsday prognosis, but I have to get this off my chest.

The basketball program under Mike Brey has been treading water for years now. Four NIT appearances in the last six seasons has been a tough pill to swallow and all signs point to a 2nd consecutive trip to the stepchild of postseason basketball.

Quick aside: Does that make the CBI Tournament and the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament siamese second cousins? Be honest, did you know there was not one, but two fledgling craptastic tournaments rewarding mediocrity? And one of them has a best-of-three finals playoff. Who knew?! Unfortunately, college basketball is piggybacking on the bloated football bowl system that hasn't met a sponsor it doesn't like. No fans (save the students of School X who win the aformentioned over-indulgent tournament) are clamoring for the all-you-can-play buffet of post-season games, as argued a year ago on these pages. Whoa, this tangent is getting away from me - back to Brey.

Brey's litany of shortcomings have been transparent over his tenure. A quick recap:

I. Little emphasis on team defense. This Achilles heel concedes too many easy buckets and is unable to force stops when needed.

II. The over reliance on long-range shooting is an offensive crutch. Matt Carroll beget Colin Falls, who beget Kyle McAlarney, who warmed the #2 guard spot for current semi-athletic caucasian gunner, Ben Hansbrough. Brey's high-scoring offense caters to this perimeter attack which has proven unreliable down the stretch and in the postseason.

III. Way too much frosting on the cupcake non-conference scheduling leads to a watered-down RPI that makes every bubble watch squeamish come March.

IV. Questionable timeout habits that bite us in the ass more than they should.

V. Poor execution with out-of-bounds plays. How many times has the under the basket inbounds play led to nothing but chucking it to the safety valve in the back court? And inbounding against the press is a constant adventure, often times because the wrong person handles the inbounds duties. I'm nit-picking, but there's an example of this every other game.

VI. Awful substitution patterns which I'll dive into in greater length below. Suffice it to say, this continues to be the most maddening quality of Brey-ball.

In his defense, Mike Brey the human being is off the charts great. My personal interactions with the man have always impressed me at how genuinely nice a person he is. He means well and cares about his players. He also makes a helluva spokesperson for home spas (Much to my chagrin, I couldn't find footage of Brey's shining moment in a home spa commercial spot. The mock gets shed in favor of a bathrobe as he delivers the memorable catch phrase "It's a dunk." I'm confident this will turn up on cyber space some day. If anyone is aware of its whereabouts, please inform).

All good guy points aside, Mike Brey holds the reins to a major basketball program in the toughest conference, which requires many more attributes than I just described. Currently, the team stands at 13-3, enjoying a pleasant 2-1 start in conference play. Don't let that record fool you. The wins over any team with a pulse include St. Louis (which hasn't been the same since Larry Hughes bolted early and H Waldman graduated), UCLA (floundering doesn't begin to describe the season unfolding in Westwood), Providence and South Florida (both bottom feeders of the BEast). With the meat of the conference slate beginning this weekend, I envision only 6 more victories, barring any major surprises. Thanks to a difficult 5-game stretch to finish the season, the probability of the Irish riding a wave of momentum into the BEast tournament is slim to none.

Which brings me to Brey's stubborn substitution patterns. The Mock's philosophy relies on his starters playing the lion's share of minutes with a small rotation of bench players sprinkled in as change of pace guys and matchup specialists. This has been Mike Brey's calling card since he came to South Bend. Wear your starters down over the course of 30+ games so their legs are gelatinous pudding when you need them most. Under-utilize your bench (especially freshmen not named Chris Thomas) early in the season against the creampuff non-conference teams you selected so you have little confidence to use them come conference time. Recruit too many "rough-around-the-edges" players that can't possibly mature without getting game time minutes, thus crippling the team with limited depth despite competing in the deepest conference in the country. Rinse, wash, repeat. It's a maddening cycle of roster mismanagement.

Some proof of Brey's reluctance to find out how his freshmen can contribute can be crystallized with these five examples:

1. Rick Cornett: 12 games played as a freshman, 5.1 minutes per game. Cornett was a raw big man with shaky offensive skills, but crashed the boards, hustled and played physical (sound like something this team could use?). I never understood why Brey never gave him a fair shake, even after he was named a senior captain. He's the type of player who Tom Izzo or Jim Calhoun would work in for meaningful energy minutes and have a few games where he'd dominate for stretches. The Chris Gatling impersonation only endeared him more to the fans.

2. Zach Hillesland: 13 games, 2.2 minutes. Everyone's favorite NYTimes blogger was a completely unknown commodity his first year. Granted Hillesland likely wasn't suited physically for BEast competition, but he turned into a versatile playmaker, played sound defense and was a matchup problem. Was he that ill-prepared to do anything of merit his freshman year? Mind you, the 2005-2006 team featured Colin Falls for 35 minutes a night. You can't convince me Zach wasn't a better option defensively while giving Falls and Russ Carter some needed rest. Alas, this was an NIT bound team with NCAA talent.

3. Robert Kurz: 14 games, 4.7 minutes. Brey gets praised for unearthing a diamond in the rough recruit and making an NBA-talent out of Kurz. My question is how many NBA-caliber players struggle to find the court their freshman year? I don't doubt that Kurz worked like mad to become the player he is today, but again, you can't convince me that somebody with his talent and innate ability didn't deserve to share minutes with Jordan Cornette, Dennis "Transfer Disaster" Latimore and Torin "The Timid" Francis. I refuse to believe it. Use the bench that you recruited. It's there for a reason. Pretty sure it wouldn't have ruined the season to try.

4. Russell Carter: 11 games, 2.1 minutes. Another case of unnecessarily burying talent. Carter hardly sniffed the court his first two seasons (both NIT teams, so using him couldn't have hurt the team's "success"). Russ would become the most dynamic player on the team his senior year, yet I can't help but wonder if we could have enjoyed two years of his explosive play.

5. Tom Timmermans: 16 games, 2.5 minutes. You're Mike Brey. You play in the Big East, the most bruising conference with loads of talented big bodies to contest with. You import a talented 6'11'' European who possesses more ball skills than most uncoordinated bigs. You play him sparingly his first two seasons, opting to run your horses into the ground, and in the process, killing your best opportunity for a memorable NCAA run. Why, why, WHY? The man has 1,033 nicknames for a reason. He's versatile, a huge fan favorite, and five fouls to burn with his high-octane Dutch flair for the game. Did I mention the man has 1,033 nicknames?

It's no secret the most successful teams feature a wealth of depth waiting to be unleashed on the court, providing a psychological and physical boost to the team. The best programs are bubbling over with backups at every position to sub when someone needs a breather or is slumping. Try convincing the man that played Chris Quinn 40.0 minutes a game (still astounding even as I write that) in 2005-2006 that perhaps the team's best interests would be better served with keeping the team's best player somewhat fresh down the stretch. As it was, the Irish lost in 2OT in the 2nd round of the NIT as Quinn played 50 minutes. Guess who missed the potential go-ahead free throw with 16 seconds?

To see where Brey's tendencies fall compared to his counterparts, I researched the average minutes played for the top 27 teams this year, as well as every Big East roster. I was curious to find how many players averaged 30+ minutes a game (the fresh factor over a season), how many players averaged 15+ minutes (the depth of a meaningful rotation) and how many players averaged 6+ minutes (translation: letting freshmen and oft-used players work up a sweat and see how they look). The numbers speak for themselves.

Top 10
Number of players playing
Teams 30+ min. 15+ min. 6+ min.
Kansas 1 7 11
Texas 0 10 11
Kentucky 2 7 10
Purdue 0 7 10
Duke 3 7 9
Villanova 0 9 11
Syracuse 1 7 10
WVU 3 6 11
UNC 1 7 12
MSU 1 7 10

Pretty good snapshot of the depth that exists on the best teams and the substitution philosophy of these coaches, all among the best in the business. I was most surprised to find that 70% use 0-1 players for big-time minutes. Interesting that only Coach K uses single digit players on a regular basis. Since Brey learned at his knee, maybe that begins to explain the Mock's stubbornness. Ready to see how Notre Dame's numbers match up? How about a quick look at the next 17 ranked teams (AP and Coaches differed on a couple teams) to drive the point home further.

Top 25 Number of players playing
Teams 30+ min. 15+ min. 6+ min.
Kansas St. 1 5 12
Georgetown 4 6 7
UConn 4 5 9
Mississippi 2 8 10
New Mexico 2 8 10
Tennessee 0 8 11
Wisconsin 2 7 9
FSU 0 8 11
Gonzaga 2 5 10
Ga. Tech 0 7 11
Temple 4 6 8
Texas Tech 2 7 10
Pittsburgh 2 9 11
Washington 2 6 11
BYU 1 6 10
Clemson 0 6 11
Butler 2 7 8

The numbers that jump out here are 82% of teams use 0-2 players more than 30 minutes a game, the average size of a meaningful rotation is 7 players and only 6 teams out of 27 use single digit contributors. Ready for ND's numbers now?

Number of players playing
Team 30+ min. 15+ min. 6+ min.
Notre Dame 3 6 7

The odds are stacked against Brey succeeding this season and beyond with this lack of depth and refusal to find minutes for freshmen. I fear Jack Cooley, Joey Brooks and Mike Broghammer are following in the footsteps of those late bloomers before them. Frankly, I don't understand the rationale. In this era of college basketball, freshmen are expected to make an impact. John Wall is the current poster child for one-and-dones, but there are bountiful freshmen playing important roles for teams that will be making trips to the Sweet 16. Why Mike Brey wants to buck the trend and sit on the talent he has is beyond me. If that's the best he can recruit, then that's a whole 'nother story.

The scary thing is, I'm afraid Brey doesn't realize what he's doing. He actually indicts himself after the UConn loss,

"He [bench player Charles Okwandu] did shock us a little bit...They can run a lot of bodies at you like that and wear you down, and then he happened to really deliver."

No sh*t! That's the beauty of a deep bench. You wear the other team down with fresh bodies and any given day you can find different ways a player can contribute. Is it that novel of a concept to make it more difficult for the opposing coach to game plan for all the guys who can impact the outcome of the game? When you use 6-7 guys, there aren't a whole lot of variations you can mix things up with.

And yet, here we are in year 10 and the formula is still in full effect with no end in sight. I'm not saying it prohibits the Irish from being successful. It just makes the mountain much steeper to climb. And what's the ultimate ceiling with this coaching philosophy? Is the Sweet 16 every blue moon the best we can expect? How many trips to the NIT is enough? How much squandered talent will remain stashed on the bench, this year and years to come? There are better ways to run a program, but it's tough to teach an old dog new tricks.


Jimmy said...

Madness indeed! Where did that win over the Mountaineers come from?? So if I keep posting disparaging comments about Coach Brey, they'll keep winning big games? Am I grossly underestimating the potential for this season? Is this a .500 or better Big East team? Lots of basketball to be played.

Quite a game from Hansbrough leading the squad in rebounds and assists. Great to see that he's much more than a shooter.

Troubling news about Carleton Scott leaving the team. A thin bench only gets thinner, though encouraging to see Joey Brooks play 9 effective minutes. Hopefully this grows into something more, though the team is in dire need of more frontcourt depth. C'mon Mike, work the other two frosh into the rotation. All hands on deck to make me eat my words.

knightni said...

I agree. If Brey was the football coach, he would have been fired years ago.