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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Saturday / June 23.
  • Notre Dame’s Mike Brey Thrives in March Tournament Setting

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    NEW YORK—Quick, name the only coach in America to lead his team to the Elite 8 in each of the last two seasons.

    Bill Self? Jay Wright? John Calipari?

    None of the above. Keep trying.

    Here’s another hint: This mystery coach has won as many postseason games over the last two-plus years as Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, and Leonard Hamilton…combined.

    If you guessed Notre Dame’s Mike Brey—and you most certainly did not—you’re correct.

    Brey is in his 17th season at Notre Dame. After this year, 12 of those will have resulted in NCAA Tournament appearances. He is a three-time former BIG EAST Coach of the Year.

    After Thursday’s ACC Tournament quarterfinal win over Virginia, which advanced the Fighting Irish to Friday’s semifinal clash against Florida State, Brey improved to 11-3 in win-or-go-home postseason games since the end of the 2015 regular season.

    That includes a 2-0 mark against Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) plus victories against Roy Williams (UNC), Gregg Marshall (Wichita State), Chris Holtmann (Butler), Greg Gard (Wisconsin), and now Tony Bennett.

    Yet despite that gaudy resume, Brey remains criminally underrated, somehow turning up undetectable on the nation’s radar of top coaches.

    Brey’s general lack of renown is inexplicable. The exact reasons behind his recent dominance this time of year—should he really have to make a Final Four for us to start calling him Mr. March?—are difficult to put a finger on, too.

    “I don’t know, but I love playing for him,” said junior guard Matt Farrell, who scored 14 points and dished out 4 assists in Thursday’s comfortable 13-point triumph.

    Farrell then added, “He’s a helluva guy. He’s really got that calm demeanor and it helps with us. If he’s calm, we’re calm, and we got guys that are really poised and he’s never really worried. And he treats us like adults, and I think that goes a long way on and off the court.”

    Brey keeps it light and relaxed at all times, imbuing his players with a sense of ease and freedom. He admitted as much at the podium, when the coach called on senior V.J. Beachem to pinpoint a viable deviation from the day’s pregame festivities.

    “Yeah, they were [really loose vs. Virginia],” said Brey, responding to a media inquiry. “Did I do anything different today?”

    “You played five-on-five at the team we went to work out at,” the sharpshooter responded.

    “I jumped in a pickup game at the health club before shootaround,” Brey admitted. “My guys were cheering me on. I shot a dang air ball. Then they walked down to the other court and started stretching. Luckily, I didn’t pull anything like I did last year in postseason.”

    Imagine that. Hours before attempting to snap Notre Dame’s ten-game losing streak to Virginia by moving on to the semifinals for the sixth straight year in which the Fighting Irish have received a conference tournament double-bye, Brey was feeding interior passes to a YMCA All-Star.

    “He’s having fun out there, and that’s just the way he coaches,” said senior Steve Vasturia, who dropped 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists against UVA. “He lets us play our games, he lets us play loose. He puts us in the right positions, he gives us a great game plan, and we go out there and try to execute it to the best of our ability.”

    Brey has also garnered a reputation for developing his own guys and getting the most out of them prior to their expiration date. Vasturia serves as a prime example. The 6-foot-6 wing arrived to South Bend four years ago as a slow-footed, one-dimensional threat who attempted more than two-thirds of his shots from beyond the arc. The Medford (NJ) native has evolved into a 13.5 points-per-game scorer that effectively mixes it up. His Assist Rate has increased every season, and he even received a single vote as ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

    Farrell fits that bill, too. The Point Pleasant Beach (NJ) product totaled 86 points and 52 assists thru his first two years on campus. This season alone, he’s collected 440 points (14.2 PPG) and 169 assists (5.5 APG). It was during Notre Dame’s tenth game of the year against Villanova that ESPN’s Jay Bilas anointed Farrell as perhaps the most improved player in the country.

    “Since I’ve been here, the one thing I think has been evident for me is that we’ve had a lot of older guys that continue to get better, and the teams get better from November to March,” Vasturia said. “We’re not a finished product until now.”

    Success stories like Vasturia and Farrell, two instrumental pieces on the current team, have allowed Brey and his staff to continue flourishing thru the personnel attrition. The Fighting Irish lost their two leading scorers from last year in Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste—and two of their top three leading scorers the campaign prior in Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton.

    No matter, as a third straight Elite 8 appearance is a very reasonable target.

    In the meantime, Notre Dame will look to extend its winning streak at the Barclays Center to seven consecutive games, which would equate to an ACC Tournament championship appearance on Saturday versus either Duke or North Carolina.

    An elimination game in March—how could you not like Brey’s chances?

    Photo: USA Today Sports

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