Mike Brey's efforts and end results as the head coach at Notre Dame have earned plaudits nationwide. He's a three-time Big East Coach of the Year Award winner (2007, 2010, 2011), an honor only four others (Louie Carnesecca, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, John Thompson) can claim, and each member of that quartet in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
He's won National Coach of the Year honors (2011). He's finished undefeated against the Big East in South Bend on three occasions, set the program winning streak for most consecutive home victories, and finished 1st (tied), 2nd (three times), 3rd (twice), and 4th in seven of his 12 seasons in the nation's perennially toughest conference, just twice finishing in the bottom half of the league's standings (2006 and '09).
They win close. They win blowouts. They've won 17 of 29 vs. ranked foes over the last three years by slowing it down to win ugly, by showing incredible teamwork and ball movement in aesthetically pleasing victories, and by occasionally shooting better teams out of the building.
They won with a dose of defense after several seasons in which offense reigned as the program fought its way to respectability.
Brey has won with and without stars, coached three Big East Players of the Year and 10 other All-Big East first teamers in 12 seasons. His 37-17 mark over the last three years is the second-best among all Big East teams in conference play. Only Louisville and Syracuse can claim better marks than Notre Dame's 70-36 over the last six conference seasons.
But Brey's Irish teams haven't won much when it inarguably matters most.
Problems of Perception
It was a question posed to Brey prior to the team's 67-63 loss to Xavier in its opening NCAA Tourney game last spring.
"Mike, fair or not, coaches are judged by their performances in March…."
Brey cut the question short, understandably annoyed at the inference. “Who said coaches are judged on tournaments?" he asked. "What rule book is that in? Is that your rule book? What's your record? I need to see your playing stats before you start doing that."
More understandable than Brey's annoyance, however, was the reporter's unfortunately all-too-necessary question.
Longtime Notre Dame basketball fans appreciate the program's rebirth and decade-long excellence after eight consecutive seasons of NCAA Tournament exile.
Fans well-versed in the sport and its history enjoy the journey, the process, and the progression of every regular season that leads up to Selection Sunday's annual reward for their team's efforts. They value tough road wins, home victories over the nation's best, and teams, such as Brey's 2012 overachievers, that bring unexpected joy to a season seen as lost before it began.
But in my estimation, those fans can be referred to as the "10 percent'ers."
Because 90 percent of the college basketball world doesn't remember that Notre Dame reached #5 nationally at the conclusion of the 2011 regular season.
Those same 90 percent, and most Irish fans, forgot or never knew that Notre Dame and Brey once beat #10 Marquette (led by Dwyane Wade and a team that eventually reached the Final Four), #8 Maryland (advanced to the Sweet 16 along with Notre Dame) and #2 Texas (reached the Final Four) in a six-day span…away from South Bend.
Those 90 percent forgot or never knew that Notre Dame went 16 years between Sweet 16 appearances (1987-2003), and they certainly don't care that the 2011 national champion UConn Huskies finished 9th in their own conference, lost twice to Notre Dame, and finished the regular season losing four of five and seven of their last 11 contests.
That's not Brey's concern, his charge is to put forth a team that wins and graduates every player under his tutelage. Check and check.
But its the reality of college basketball world and more relevant, the prevailing feeling among a disjointed Notre Dame basketball fan base that can rarely be bothered to fill the Purcell Pavilion to watch one of the three best home teams in college basketball slay nearly every foe that enters (100 wins, 7 defeats over the last six home seasons).
When A + B does not equal C
Brey's Irish have finished among the Big East's top four in four of the last six seasons. They've subsequently finished those six seasons losing to Winthrop (1st Round), Washington State (2nd), Penn State (NIT semi's), Old Dominion (1st), Florida State (2nd), and Xavier (1st).
Some of those opponents were likely undervalued. Some were streaking, or athletic, or strong where Notre Dame was weak. But the average number of losses by those six opponents in the seasons they effectively ended Notre Dame's hopes is a staggering 10. In other words, NCAA Tournament advancement was certainly their for the Irish taking.
Why doesn't Notre Dame follow its regular seasons, either solid (most installments), late-streaking (2010), or spectacular (2007, 2008, 2011, 2012) with wins in the NCAA Tournament?
The Irish have prevailed in just two NCAA Tournament games since a 2003 Sweet 16 appearance, and in just six total over Brey's 12 seasons. Since that '03 season and a three-year scuffle in the NIT (2004-06), Notre Dame has beaten only George Mason (2008) and Akron (2011) before suffering subsequent double-digit losses in Round 2.
Its a reality that's as incongruent as it is maddening to the Irish fan. Notre Dame has beaten the best college basketball has to offer, defeating 17 Top 10 teams in Brey's tenure. The Irish beat 2011 national champion Connecticut twice in the Huskies title season of 2011, and were the last team to beat UConn (and that Irish victory occurred in Storrs) before its amazing 10-game Big East/NCAA Tournament run to a pair of titles
Notre Dame beat Louisville on the road last year. The Cardinals advanced to the 2012 Final Four. That three-season trend continued with a win over Final Four bound West Virginia in 2010. Yet teams such as Xavier, Florida State, and Old Dominion proved impregnable as the calendar showed mid-March. This against Irish teams that defeated nine straight foes in the Big East (2012) or surged to #5 nationally prior to the NCAA's (2011), or won six straight over the likes of Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Connecticut, Marquette, Seton Hall, and Pitt again (to conclude 2010).
In Brey's 12 seasons, the Irish have defeated the nation's #1 team, the #2 team (twice), the #3 team, the #4 team (four times), and the #5 team, but never won more than two NCAA Tournament games at season's end.
Add up the myriad positives over the last 12 years and I'd be shocked if Notre Dame's next coach guides more successful Irish teams than did Brey when his time in South Bend is complete. I expect the successor's Irish will lose more games, challenge for fewer conference titles (wherever that may be) and be far less consistent over the decade the follows Brey's seasons at the University.
But one two-weekend NCAA Tournament run would offer more wins than have Notre Dame's efforts over the last nine tournaments.
Thanks to Brey, winning has become the norm again at Notre Dame, a development wholly unlikely prior to his arrival, as the Irish wallowed at the bottom of the Big East and scuffled near or below .500 in 9 of the 11 preceding seasons.
And thanks to Brey, expectations regarding the program and its place in college basketball have finally been raised.
"We're in business to win NCAA championships," said Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick. "If I didn't think Mike Brey couldn't win an NCAA championship in basketball, we wouldn't be sitting here today. I believe he can. I believe this program can."
For Brey, its officially Onward to Victory…in March.