SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – Notre Dame coach Mike Brey believes luck just might be on the side of the Irish.
Through his first 14 seasons at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish had plenty of wins under Brey. Success in March was often elusive, though, and critics blamed Brey. Notre Dame never won a postseason conference title and had made it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament just once in nine tries.
That included four first-round losses to lower-seeded teams, falling to No. 11 seeds Winthrop and Old Dominion and No. 10s Xavier and Iowa State.
That all changed last year when the Irish won the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament and advanced in the NCAA Tournament to a regional final for the first time since 1979.
Then the Irish (23-11) beat Michigan and Stephen F. Austin in the first two rounds this season and will face Wisconsin (22-12) on Friday for a shot at a second straight regional final.
So what’s the difference?
“I’m kind of a believer that that thing is a little bit of a crap shoot and the law of averages can come around and help you,” Brey said Tuesday.
But the veteran coach also believes he may have had better players the past two seasons, pointing out that last year’s leaders Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton are playing in the NBA and point guard Demetrius Jackson has been projected as a possible first-round pick.
“There’s no question our talent level had been a little bit higher,” he said.
Brey also believes last season’s success has convinced this year’s squad they can do it again, pointing to back-to-back come-from-behind victories.
“There’s a nucleus of guys here who think they are supposed to do it in this tournament. That’s nothing you can coach. It has to be gotten there by experience,” he said.
But those around Brey say building players’ confidence has always been his strength.
“I think Mike has always done a great job of whoever he recruits he get them to believe in what he’s trying to do at both ends of the floor,” former Irish coach Digger Phelps said. “I always say a team is a reflection of a coach’s personality. To see what they’re doing now is a reflection of him.”
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Brey is able to keep the proper perspective because he’s an educator at heart.
“He never adds to the pressure. There’s enough pressure created by the situations,” Swarbrick said.
Brey said he’s not always as calm as he appears, but he works at it.
“There are days I’m churning inside, but I never want them to feel that. In tournament situations I want them going for it, like they’ve got nothing to lose. I do not want them playing safe. Which means if we throw it away a couple of times because we’re attacking, I don’t jump on anybody. I want us playing downhill,” he said.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t ever get on his players. Down 12 at halftime against Michigan, he ripped into the team telling the players if they didn’t get going they would be blown out by 31 like they were against North Carolina in the ACC tournament.
“He lit into us pretty good. We needed it,” forward V.J. Beachem said. “For us to respond the way that we did shows he really knows his team and knows what we need and when we need it.”
Brey believes the belief the Irish can do well in March is engrained in players.
“It’s a culture now,” he said.