Rakes Report #209: And fifteen minutes later we had our first taste of whiskey, there was uncles giving lectures on ancient Irish history
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~optional musical accompaniment~
Hey folks, I was going to take a look at the finalized 2023 football schedule and talk roster changes at the top here but this went very long so we’ll have to wait until a little later in the winter. If you want some football talk, Pete Sampson was kind enough to hop on the pod and chat about where things stand post-transfer portal closing, which you can listen to here. On the hoops side, The Athletic’s Sabreena Merchant and our friend Sam Werner came on to talk about the women’s team’s successes and the men’s team’s struggles, respectively, and you can listen to that here.
Thanks for reading. Be well.
A growing inevitability was confirmed last week when Mike Brey announced he would be retiring at the end of this season. Despite coming into this year with a lot of returning veteran talent, a couple of intriguing freshmen and legitimate expectations, this season never got into any sort of groove, one joyful aberration against Sparty notwithstanding. The head coach increasingly looked like a man without answers who had lost the capacity to accurately judge what was needed to win consistently after doing just that for so long, a program that had reached some lofty highs not only unable to build on those but failing to come close to maintaining them. It was time.
Brey enjoyed scores of supporters among the program’s alumni as well as in the media, which could have made this process tricky. However, it seems like them getting to stand up for him two years ago when his job was in a precarious spot combined with how literally indefensible this season has been made it easy to turn this into the seamless celebration of a career. As Brey said himself at the press conference, how do you justify missing the tournament five of the last six years? I wasn’t sure how this would go as the losses mounted but this seems like the best course of action for all parties: Brey can be feted over the final weeks of the season without questions about his future circling, the team can potentially galvanize and steal a few wins along the way with the weight of uncertainty lifted and the athletic department can dig into their search. Whether this was truly Brey’s decision alone or Jack Swarbrick helping him choose, I don’t think it could have gone better considering the circumstances.
I wish it didn’t have to conclude this way on such a down note, but endings are always hard, even with the best of intentions. For over two decades Brey was on the sideline in blue and gold, and while there were sundry frustrations and failures and foul-ups along the way, there was so much beautiful basketball, so many great performances, so many players who reached a special place meshing together in this man’s system, so many moments where he did the impossible and actually made Notre Dame a little bit likable. This was never going to be a basketball school but there were times where if the light and the threes hit in just the right way you could fool yourself into thinking it was a possibility.
Brey took over prior to the 2001 season, stepping into an Irish program that hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1990. He found immediate success building off Matt Doherty’s lone year with three straight bids to start his tenure, advancing to the second round twice before breaking through into the Sweet Sixteen. There were expectations that the combination of Chris Thomas and Torin Francis was going to take the Irish even further, but they fell well short, with three straight NIT bids. There was still fun mixed in, including handing a 20-0 Boston College team their first defeat of the 2005 season, packed into the student section well before tip chanting “Twenty…and one” nonstop. Not “fun” in the traditional sense but we’d also be remiss not to note that the 2006 team was one of the most cursed squads I’ve ever seen, at one point losing five straight games by a grand total of 11 points.
Things got back on track for the 2007 season, with the best sign of what was to come occurring just before Christmas break, when they dropped 99 on No. 4 Alabama in a raucous blackout game. (They weren’t wearing them that night but the black uniforms were some of adidas’ best work.) The main man Russell Carter, Kyle McAlarney (who would hit nine threes in one game against Syracuse in 2008), Luke Harangody, Colin Falls, Rob Kurz, Tory Jackson – what a crew, ending in heartbreak with a missed three against Georgetown at the Garden and a rotten draw with Winthrop in the first round.
This was a stretch of time where the Irish were consistently doing three things a) Falling just short of advancing past Friday nights at the Garden to make the Big East final b) Making the NCAA Tournament c) Not making it to the second weekend of the bracket. 2011 was painful because that team had been so dominant in the regular season behind Ben Hansbrough’s excellence and had nearly earned a No. 1 seed*, but couldn’t break through in the postseason. The next year another opportunity presented itself when the Irish were playing Xavier after No. 2 seed Duke got knocked out by Lehigh and an easier Sweet Sixteen opportunity presented itself. Notre Dame led by 10 in the second half, but lost after a free throw lane violation. (Although, that Lehigh team was led by C.J. McCollum, so a victory was far from guaranteed.) Thankfully, the 2012 team did give us the victory over No. 1 Syracuse, a whale of a game.
* Favorite moments from the 2011 season include dropping 20 threes on a ranked Villanova team, winning at No. 2 Pitt, being the last team to beat Kemba in college (in Storrs, no less) and dissecting a ranked Cincinnati team so badly in the Big East quarters the Bearcats truly should not have shown up. It was a wonderful team, combining Hansbrough’s fire with a living wall of arms and shooting provided by Ty Nash, Carleton Scott, Tim Abromaitis, Scott Martin and young Jack Cooley.
The end of the 2014 season was the next time Brey could have been shown the door. The midseason suspension of Jerian Grant had blown things to hell, the team failing to make any sort of dent in their first year in the ACC. Vibes were atrocious after the prior season when the Irish made the tournament but got thrashed in the first round by Iowa State. (That team was the last opponent to defeat the national champ Louisville Cardinals, knocking them off in the epic five-overtime clash after some Jerian heroics at the end of regulation.) But he got one more chance – and thank God for that.
I could write 10,000 words about the 2015 squad and probably will someday. It’s almost certainly my favorite sports team ever, the pinnacle of gorgeous offensive basketball paired with juuuuust enough defense when you needed it. Jerian was the mad scientist point guard and rightful ACC Player of the Year. Pat Connaughton, his partner and co-captain, an undersized four who could have gone to play baseball but instead filled in every imaginable gap on both ends of the floor. (This remains one of the wisest things I’ve ever written.) Demetrius Jackson, the hometown kid, five-star athlete and devastating both at the rim and from behind the arc. Steve Vasturia, unassuming babyfaced assassin. Zach Auguste, roll-man extraordinaire and defensive anchor. Then off the bench you had freshman Bonzie Colson, an octopus someone had recently taught how to play basketball, with a dash of V.J. Beachem’s shooting and Austin Torres’ physicality. A perfect assembly of basketball talent spread pick-and-rolling teams to their doom (and one of the KenPom rating system’s best offenses ever).
The whole season was a blast but the run through Greensboro, beating Duke and Carolina on back-to-back nights, is the stuff dreams are made of, yet there was still more to go. Northeastern provided a dental exam of an opener that hinted at the failures of first rounds past, far closer than it needed to be and a reminder that nothing was guaranteed and this team could be taken from us at any time. I was at the Butler game in round two, standing, vibrating, trying to will them past Roosevelt Jones, just to finally get back to the Sweet Sixteen, please, one more game. There was the Connaughton block, enough juice in overtime and then the news that Brey’s mother had passed away before the game. We toasted him that night in the hotel bar, finally over the hump again, knowing what awaited in Cleveland.
Wichita State was a massacre, a Shockers team that had been to the Final Four the year before getting hit with a buzzsaw. I remember reading their message board the next morning as they tried to process the details, blurry from the blood loss. From the AP write-up of the game: “The Irish shot 75 percent (18-of-24) over the final 20 minutes, overwhelming the seventh-seeded Shockers with a barrage of 3-pointers, expert cuts to the basket and enough fancy passing to fill an AND1 mixtape.”
The Kentucky game – well, we don’t really have to talk about the Kentucky game, where an undefeated Wildcats squad that featured Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker needed to scrap and claw and do everything it could to beat the Irish on an off shooting night for the good guys. If I could flip any Notre Dame result from my time as a fan, it’s this one or the Alabama BCS game. Yes, winning in Miami would mean a guaranteed national title, but winning against Big Blue would have meant we got to watch this team at least one more time and boy would I trade a lot for that.
(To underline how incredibly tough and resourceful this team was, in the Elite Eight, the pair of Connaughton and Auguste outrebounded the trio of Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, who all went in the top 12 of that June’s draft. Badass shit.)
Next year’s team wasn’t quite at that level with the captains in the NBA, but they still knocked off Duke twice (once in Durham, once in overtime to again make the semis of the ACC Tournament) and went on an incredible run to the Elite Eight as a No. 6 seed. It began with a late-tip and early deficit in a Barclays Center filled with Michigan fans, both schools knowing that the pod favorite, West Virginia, had been eliminated by No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin and a potential trip to the Sweet Sixteen was right there. The Irish rallied, only to be met with a Lumberjacks team (goddamn Thomas Walkup, that guy could go) that was stingy and steely and required a miracle putback from Rex Pflueger to vanquish. They caught another break in the next round, as Wisconsin had knocked out the No. 2 seed, and then Demetrius pulled off two last-minute pilfers to seal the Sweet Sixteen victory before things ended against the Tar Heels in the regional final.
(The 2016 tournament emphasizes why these last few years have been so disappointing: Even if your team doesn’t seem like it has a long run in it, single-elimination brackets are so unfair and unhinged that if you catch a break or two who knows where you might end up. But you must be in the bracket for that to happen, and the Irish weren’t particularly close in some of those years.)
2017 was The Year of Bonzie, and he nearly captured another ACC Tournament championship if not for a foot injury and the fact for his many, many talents Vasturia had some issues checking Jayson Tatum. That foot injury lingered into the tournament, and combined with some quality shooting from West Virginia in the second round sent the Irish home. The next season started promisingly with the debut of Maui Mike and a surfboard trophy, but injuries to Colson and Matt Farrell and some hard luck left them as the first team out of the field despite a rousing effort to comeback from 21 against the Hokies in the ACC Tournament that featured maybe my favorite Bonzie shot.
From that point forward, there aren’t a lot of positives to write about. There were swings and misses in recruiting, poor roster construction, even worse fortune in some close games, stunted development curves and teams that weren’t even competitive. What makes it even more frustrating and confusing is after years of practicing in a literal basement, Brey finally got the facility update we’d been begging for. That plus the success of 2015-2017 made it seem like this program was going to another level, but it wasn’t to be.
At the conclusion of the 2021 season the administration would have been justified in letting Brey go, but I’m glad they gave him one more year, which resulted in a 15-5 ACC record, the stone-cold classic against Rutgers in the play-in game that miraculously ended minutes into St. Patrick’s Day and then the wire-to-wire housing of Alabama to get to the Round of 32. Another Sweet Sixteen was within the grasp, but they fell heartbreakingly short one final time. Despite much of that roster returning and serious preseason expectations, losing the two best defensive players in Blake Wesley and Paul Atkinson and the primary creator in Prentiss Hubb proved too much. And here we are.
If you were around Notre Dame’s campus for any period of time during his tenure, there’s a good chance you have a Brey story, whether it was him randomly showing up at a dining hall, responding to an out-of-the-blue email request or popping into a dorm lounge. One night we were setting up for Late-Night Olympics in the JACC and the team had just returned from a tough loss in Louisville. “Good game, Coach,” we said as he passed by on a subterranean concourse. Frustrated, he forced a smile and said, “Shit…yeah…thanks.” Brey’s soft touch with both the media and students earned him a great deal of goodwill, which certainly helped in the valleys of his career. For the weird fringe of Irish fans who loathed Brey, being well-liked was perceived as some sort of unearned cheat code that needed to be written out of the game. I’m fine with bonus points being awarded for representing the university well in the public eye, particularly when the football program during a majority of his time was led by two prickly northeasterners who were viewed quite differently by the general public.
Brey was ahead of the game in a lot of ways, stressing pace and space and a focus on outside shooting that would see the sport evolve to him. (I love this 2015 piece from our friend Joe Schueller comparing two of my favorite players to ever lace them up, Jerian and James Harden, and how they were absolute terrors to guard in the pick and roll.) Brey also played around with positionless basketball, the 2011 team often concurrently deploying four dudes 6’8” or taller and making it hum because they combined that size with a great deal of skill. He adapted along the way: Putting The Burn into place after Harangody went down, surviving the losses of K-Mac and Abro, rallying teams that seemed firmly on the bubble to comfortable bids. So much of the time there was a real beauty to the game he coached.
I think Brey’s downfall came from myriad other issues beyond “The game caught up with him,” but damn if he wasn’t on the forefront of a lot. “They shoot too many threes” was a popular refrain for much of his tenure but it’s proven to be the “Run the damn ball” of banal basketball complaints, an antiquated approach that’s been mostly drummed out of the game and will likely continue to be in the coming years. It’s wild to look at how things have shifted at the highest level over Brey’s time in South Bend: The 2005 Phoenix Suns are one of the most important teams in the modern evolution of the game, the “Seven Seconds or Less” crew led by Steve Nash (in his first MVP season) and Mike D’Antoni. That season they averaged 25 three-point attempts per game, the most in the NBA and one of only five teams to attempt more than 20. (Two teams averaged fewer than ten!) This season three teams are firing up more than 40 threes per game, with the least prolific team from behind the arc, the Bulls, still averaging 29.
How will we remember Brey? Unless there are reports of some internal strife over the selection of his replacement that taint things, these next two months will be a nice retirement tour filled with tributes. As the years pass, the disappointing end will fade and we’ll be left with the highlight reels from the good times: The Elite Eights, the run in Greensboro, five overtimes against Louisville, the Big East wars, stealing wins from the Blue Devils, Maui Mike, all the entertaining games and wonderful players over the two-plus decades. There will still be occasions when I will see someone hit a dramatic game-tying shot, be reminded of Carleton Scott’s efforts at Marquette and fire it up on YouTube with a smile. On nights when I want to feel a particular type of sports ache, I’ll throw on Vasturia hitting a trailing three. Because brother, when we were good, we were the best they had.
We’ll see where Notre Dame men’s basketball goes from here. Much like with Brian Kelly, we’re not going to truly know how to judge Brey until we see how his successors* do. From 2007 to 2017, the Irish made the NCAA Tournament nine times in 11 tries. There were some immediate first round disappointments mixed in there but again this was a program that went a decade without making the Big Dance at a university that has at times shown a half-hearted interest in hoops. (For a fun challenge, try to buy merchandise to support a top ten women’s team.) The replacement could have a rough start depending on what happens with the transfer portal and a roster in transition but eventually they’ll settle into a job that has a remodeled arena, a new practice facility and hopefully a developing NIL operation that allows it to be competitive.
* I don’t really follow college basketball outside of Notre Dame and have zero opinion on the hire. While I’d prefer someone offense-first just for aesthetic purposes, I understand there might be an inclination to zag with someone who leans defense. If that is the case, I promise not to pout too much.
It's sad it had to end this way, but it’s going to be fun to Remember Some Guys and Remember Some Games in these coming weeks. Brey never reached the heights of Muffet, but he was a prominent figure in the sport for a long, long time and represented the university well, even if he could have extended the rotation or the defense a little bit at times. I hope Brey knows how many people appreciate the work he did, and I hope the next guy can get the Irish back to consistently being a feature in March.
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