Oct. 12, 2015
By John Heisler
Exactly how long is celebration of a precious and prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball championship allowed to last?
Relative neophytes to that challenge, University of Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey and his Irish have sought to carefully confront it since those glorious March evenings when they knocked off Miami, Duke and North Carolina on successive nights in Greensboro, North Carolina.
As ACC commissioner John Swofford tells it, Brey along with Irish vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick and at least one other senior Notre Dame athletics administrator at separate times approached Swofford to tell him they had never enjoyed/savored/appreciated (pick a favorite verb) any athletic experience more than the 2015 Irish title.
So, the question became: How long is the “hangover” permitted to linger?
Brey began by planning a surprise presentation of ACC Championship rings to his team.
“Both Jerian (Grant) and Pat (Connaughton) were back on campus for the Texas football weekend. We had a recruiting dinner Friday night at Ruth’s Chris Steak House and I thought maybe we would do something special there,” says Brey.
“So the guys had no idea about this. We showed a highlight video to give us a little recruiting punch, and at the end I got up and said, ‘We haven’t ordered you any actual food for dessert, but I actually have some of my own dessert to present.’
“We had six of the waitresses come out with silver platters and each of the platters had three rings–and so that’s how we delivered the ACC rings.”
Question number two: When’s the appropriate time to raise the ACC Championship banner at Purcell Pavilion?
“My thought was let’s do it the night of the first game (Nov. 13) against St. Francis (Pa.) and then move on,” says Brey.
“We really started this process back in the summer. I talked about creating a new identity and about being poor again. Psychologically, I found I was better off by saying to people, ‘Yeh, we lost two great ones, but we’ve got a good nucleus coming back.’ That’s helped me when you’ve got all these people congratulating you. It helped me turn the page and go.
“I think our guys have really got in a mindset that they want to show they can be great without Grant and Connaughton. That’s what’s neat about different teams. As much as they loved Pat and Jerian, they are already a little tired of hearing, ‘Well, what are they going to be like without those guys?’
“They’ve got a great challenge, and once we drop the banner it’s official. We set the theme of moving forward with our players and staff back in the July workouts. We’re hungry again-even in our first three practices we went back to some of our basic stuff that we did as we were building last year. Coming off 6-12 last year or 14-4 this year–we’re doing the same three defensive drills. We’re right back where we were in terms of building it again. We’ve got to act like we’re poor again-that’s kind of been a theme.”
As much as Brey is supremely proud of all that Grant and Connaughton accomplished, both individually and with their Irish teammates, he knows he has a new job to occupy his time. He also knows there are plenty of people to worry about cheering for Grant in New York and Connaughton in Portland.
“My assistant coaches give me updates because I have no idea. They tell me Connaughton did this and Grant played this many minutes. But I can’t worry about them right now,” he says. “I want all my focus on my relationship with Demetrius (Jackson) and Zach (Auguste)–I need to have tunnel vision with these guys.
“I want to build with Zach and Steve (Vasturia) and Demetrius. Can Martin (Geben) and Matt Farrell be guys to help us more? I’m not going to shortchange the current guys, and I would be if I check in on those other guys (Grant and Connaughton) all the time.”
What Brey also knows all too well is that Grant and Connaughton offered far more than points and rebounds and assists. It’s no accident that there’s a photo of those two in Swarbrick’s office that’s designed to stand for faith-the notion that a team has to have faith in each other in order to succeed. The Irish men had that in spades last March during their ACC and lengthy NCAA run.
“The leadership part is my biggest concern moving forward,” he says. “We’ve tried to groom Demetrius and Zach and Vasturia and even (Austin) Burgett as a senior. To kind of split that up and do it by committee-that may be the way to go.”
And, with that, Brey is on to early assessments of his 2015-16 Notre Dame squad:
“After three days defensively we’re different and we’re better. When you trade Connaughton and Grant for (Bonzie) Colson and (V.J.) Beachem you’ve got a lot of wingspan there that’s been added. We get deflections, we rebound, we play above the rim a little bit more. I think we can be better defensively.
“Offensively we’re still finding our niche. We were explosive last year, and we certainly have guys here who know how to play on offense. It’s been neat to see Demetrius with the ball at the end of the clock and making a decision instead of Jerian. It’s his time to do that. What we do for him in a playmaking situation is different than what we did for Jerian.”
Brey also understands Irish fans are anxious and curious to see players like Colson and Beachem, who both played noteworthy part-time roles a year ago, on the floor this season for maybe 30 or 32 minutes a night.
“When Bonzie was as efficient as he was at 18 or 19 minutes last year, you think, now with maybe 30 minutes, my gosh . . . We’re still trying to figure out how to play with him as the second big guy because he doesn’t stretch the floor the same way Pat did.
“Beachem is a junior and we need to get him confident again. We’ve had so many juniors where when you ask them to be main guys they deliver. We’ve had a good track record of that.
“And our three freshmen (6-9 forward Elijah Burns, 6-6 guard Rex Pflueger, 6-8 forward Matt Ryan) are so competitive and intense. They don’t back down, they are physical and go after people. We’ve got 12 guys that can play, so I’ve got things to manage. It’s a good problem to have.”
Brey, maybe more than anyone else at Notre Dame, appreciates the ACC aspect of last year’s achievements–given his Baltimore/Washington, D.C., background and years as an assistant coach at Duke. There could have been no better way to prove his program belonged.
He also likes the idea his current players don’t want to be viewed as one-hit wonders.
“The bar is really high now and our guys know that,” says Brey. “Their focus and attention to detail has been amazing–I’m not coaching that part of it.
“They want it really bad–sometimes I have to loosen them up a little bit. They are not resting on their laurels. They are thinking, ‘Hey we’ve gotta do this again.’
“It’s a great dynamic to have based on those guys feeling it and tasting it. They want to find a way to deliver on that again.”
ACC Championship rings? Check that one off.
ACC Championship banner? On the way.
Another ACC championship run in 2015-16?
It’s officially “game on” for Brey and his Irish.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.
Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He’s also the editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:
— Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:
http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/092315aag.html— Sunday Brunch: Irish Film Credits Roll On and On:
http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/101115aad.html— Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:
http://www.und.com/sports/w-volley/spec-rel/090415aaa.html— Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation: